(ATTN: ADDS details and background in paras 3-4, 7-8, 15, 18, 20-22; ADDS bottom photo)
By Kim Kwang-tae
SEOUL, Feb. 24 (Yonhap) -- South Korean airlines have suspended or plan to halt flights to the country's southeastern city of Daegu, where hundreds of new coronavirus infections have been reported over the weekend.
Korean Air Lines Co., the country's biggest full-service carrier, canceled its flights to Daegu from the southern resort island of Jeju and Incheon, South Korea's main gateway, on Sunday.
The national flag carrier, which began to halt or reduce flights on international routes early this month due to a growing impact of the COVID-19 disease on its business, said the two routes will be suspended until March 28.
The move came as Daegu -- South Korea's fourth-largest city, with a population of around 2.5 million -- has emerged as a hotbed of coronavirus outbreaks in recent days.
Of the 833 people infected with the deadly respiratory illness so far here, 681 are in Daegu, about 300 kilometers southeast of Seoul, and neighboring North Gyeongsang Province.
Asiana Airlines Inc., South Korea's second-biggest airline, said it will suspend the Daegu-Jeju route -- its only domestic route connected to Daegu -- from Tuesday through March 9.
Asiana also started to halt or reduce some flights on its mid and long-haul routes as people increasingly opt not to travel abroad amid the fast-spreading coronavirus outbreak.
Most flights to and from China have been suspended since early this month.
Air Busan Co., a budget carrier unit of Asiana, said it halted its Daegu-Jeju and Daegu-Taipei routes last week. It also plans to remove its office in Daegu in coming weeks.
Also Monday, Air Busan said its employees will voluntarily take unpaid leave as air travel demand has plummeted due to the spreading coronavirus outbreak.
Air Busan said many of its 1,400 employees are set to choose from three options -- working four days a week, or taking 15 days or 30 days of unpaid leave -- beginning March.
Air Busan has also said it will cut wages of its executives and heads of departments by up to 30 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
The Busan-based carrier said it will suspend nine Chinese and 19 Southeast Asian routes in March due to a sharp decline in air travel demand over the coronavirus outbreak.
Last week, all of Asiana Airlines' 10,500 employees began to take turns going on 10 days of unpaid leave as part of the cost-cutting measure.
In the latest blow to its operations, Korean Air halted operation of its Incheon-Tel Aviv route on Monday. The suspension will remain in effect until March 28.
The move came two days after Israel barred nearly 180 foreigners, including 130 Koreans, aboard a Korean Air flight from entering the country without any prior notice after they landed in Tel Aviv. They returned to Incheon International Airport, west of Seoul, on Sunday.
Nearly 30 South Koreans who recently made a group pilgrimage to Israel have been found to be infected with coronavirus.
Full-service carriers are not alone, as things are taking a turn for the worse on the low-cost carrier front.
Jeju Air Co., the country's biggest low-cost carrier, said it will suspend its Daegu-Jeju route -- its only domestic route linked to Daegu -- from Monday through Feb. 29.
To help airlines weather the fallout of the coronavirus outbreak, the government said last week it will extend loans worth a total of 300 billion won (US$250 million) to airlines, mostly low-cost ones, through the state-run Korea Development Bank and allow them to delay payment of airport usage fees.
The government also plans to take administrative measures to not only allow airlines to change their business plans and set up alternative routes to offset lower demand on Chinese routes but also to allow them to operate irregular flight schedules depending on market demand.
South Korea has two full-service carriers -- Korean Air and Asiana Airlines -- and seven low-cost carriers -- Jeju Air, Jin Air, Air Busan Co., Air Seoul Inc., Eastar Jet, T'way and Fly Gangwon.