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Already pummeled by recession, airlines now must deal with concerns about flu

Airplanes themselves are safe, experts say, but flights to Mexico have been cut. Drug cartel violence is an issue too.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 2, 2009

New York

Airlines are slashing flights and fares to Mexico as swine flu depresses demand for travel to the land of Mayans and Mariachis.

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At the same time, President Barack Obama used his weekly radio address Saturday to explain the extraordinary level of precautions the nation is taking for a flu that, thus far, appears in the United States to be no more dangerous than the annual variety.

"This is a new strain of the flu virus, and because we haven't developed an immunity to it, it has more potential to cause us harm," he said. "I would sooner take action now than hesitate and face graver consequences later."

The president said that's why he's asking schools with confirmed cases to close for as long as 14 days and for businesses to allow employees who may be exhibiting symptoms to take as many days off as needed.

"We have asked every American to take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu: Keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough; stay home from work if you're sick; and keep your children home from school if they're sick," he said.

But there was one thing the President did not do: mention Vice President Joe Biden's gaffe Thursday when he recommended against air travel.

That infuriated the airlines because it contradicted the advice of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which simply suggested Americans avoid "unnecessary travel" to Mexico. The CDC said nothing about regular air travel, which is generally regarded as safe because of sophisticated air filtration systems in modern planes.

But another reason for the airlines' outrage is their current fragile financial state. They can't afford to lose any more revenue, particularly based on unfounded fears.

"We're coming off of the highest fuel prices in history, the collapse of the financial market, and an economy that's in a recession," says David Castelveter, a spokesman for the Air Transport Association which represents the nation's major carriers. "That's why we were so outspoken about what the vice president said: He was just factually incorrect."

Airlines first started cutting capacity (which is the number of flights offered) last summer in response to the record high fuel prices and the economic recession. When fuel prices finally dropped in the fall, there was some hope that 2009 might be a profitable year for some major network carriers most of which have been losing billions of dollars annually almost nonstop since 9/11.

But then the economy just kept getting worse. And now there's the potential for a flu pandemic to knock the airlines economically yet again.