(ATTN: UPDATES stock prices in 8th para)
By Choi Kyong-ae
SEOUL, March 4 (Yonhap) -- South Korea's two full-service carriers said Wednesday that they will temporarily suspend or reduce most of their flights to the United States and Europe due to declining air travel demand amid the spreading coronavirus outbreak.
The move comes as an increasing number of people opt not to travel amid virus fears and as the number of countries and regions restricting entry from coronavirus-hit South Korea has exceeded 90.
Out of 13 U.S. routes, Korean Air Lines Co., the country's biggest airline by sales, said it will temporarily suspend flights on eight routes and reduce the number of flights on 11 routes by late April.
The company also plans to halt services on eight out of 12 European routes by the end of March, while reducing flights on two routes and keeping current flight schedules on two other routes.
Asiana Airlines Inc. said that out of five U.S. routes, it will suspend the Incheon-Honolulu route from March 9-12, while considering decreasing flights on routes to Los Angeles, New York and Seattle.
The Incheon-San Francisco route will be suspended for 45 days through April 14 as punishment for its deadly crash landing in the U.S. city five years ago. In July 2013, an Asiana B777 crash-landed at San Francisco International Airport, killing three and injuring 49 out of 307 passengers.
Asiana has already halted six out of seven routes to Europe, with the Incheon-Frankfurt route in service.
The two airlines said they may reorganize further flights if the U.S. and Europe expand entry restrictions or quarantine procedures on people from South Korea, which has reported 5,621 confirmed COVID-19 cases and 33 related deaths as of Wednesday.
With the deadly respiratory illness showing now signs of slowing, local airlines began to reduce the number of flights on their routes -- or stop them altogether -- in late January to minimize the impact of the virus on their earnings.
Korean Air has switched to smaller planes on routes to Atlanta, Los Angeles and New York from March to reflect declining travel demand.
The national flag carrier said it will extend flight suspensions to China by one month through April 25. It served 204 flights a week on 30 routes to China before the new coronavirus hit. The numbers have plunged to 57 flights on 10 routes and look set to fall further unless the virus is contained.
Korean Air recently announced a plan to sell non-core assets, such as an idle property in central Seoul and its 100 percent stake in a leisure affiliate, in efforts to weather the fallout from the virus.
Asiana said it will halt more flights on Asian routes until mid-April. Its flights to China fell to 53 on 14 routes from 204 on 26 routes.
In self-help measures, Asiana asked all 10,500 employees to take turns going on 10 days of unpaid leave starting Feb. 19 so the company can cut costs and avoid snowballing losses.
The company also plans to cut the wages of executives and managers by up to 50 percent on a monthly basis until the virus outbreak slows down.
Korean Air's net losses deepened to 624.87 billion won (US$529 million) in 2019 from 185.65 billion won a year earlier. Asiana's net losses widened to 837.79 billion won from 195.86 billion won during the same period.
Low-cost carriers are taking similar steps to deal with the virus outbreak.
All executives at Air Seoul Inc. on Tuesday expressed their intention to resign in a show of their commitment to overcoming difficulties sparked by the coronavirus.
They also returned a portion of their salaries -- as much as 30 percent -- this month and won't accept salaries in March.
"Employees will take paid leave for the whole of next month with a salary worth 70 percent of their regular wages," a company spokeswoman said.
Air Seoul, a budget carrier unit of Asiana, said it will suspend all flights on 10 of its international routes from March 1-15, while continuing to serve the Incheon-Takamatsu route, which is not operated by any other local airline.
Air Busan Co., another Asiana budget carrier unit, on Friday asked all employees to take unpaid leave for at least 15 days or up to 30 days in March.
Jeju Air Co., the country's biggest low-cost carrier, entered an emergency management system last week to cut costs and stay afloat. It swung to a net loss of 34.1 billion won last year from a net profit of 70.88 billion won a year ago.
Out of its 17 routes to mainland China, Jeju Air currently only operates the Incheon-Weihai route. Its flights to Hong Kong and Macao are not in service, and flights to Taiwan were suspended on Wednesday.
Jin Air Co., a low-cost carrier unit of Korean Air, and Air Busan Co. have suspended all of their flights to China until the end of March.
Jin Air asked its cabin crew members to take one-month paid leave at a salary worth 70 percent of regular pay from March to May. It previously proposed unpaid leave for up to 12 months to all employees.
Eastar Jet paid 40 percent of its normal salaries to executives and employees this month.
South Korea has two full-service carriers -- Korean Air and Asiana Airlines -- and seven low-cost carriers -- Jeju Air, Jin Air, Air Busan, Air Seoul, Eastar Jet, T'way and Fly Gangwon.
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