SEOUL, April 5 (Yonhap) -- The number of air passengers in South Korea fell to a record low last month due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, data showed Sunday, as countries around the globe impose lockdowns and restrict travel and people shun travel.
The number of air passengers stood at 1.74 million in March, according to industry data, marking the first time that the figure has fallen below 2 million since the country started to record such statistics from 1997.
The passenger number was 10.62 million in January but was halved to 5.5 million in February when the country reported the wide spread of the novel coronavirus.
South Korea reported its first COVID-19 patient on Jan. 20.
In the fourth week of March, the number of international air passengers stood at some 78,500, compared with 1.73 million a year earlier.
The number of passengers using Incheon International Airport, the country's gateway, fell to below the 10,000 level for the first time since its operation in 2001.
Local airlines are estimated to have suffered at least 6.45 trillion won (US$5.22 billion) in losses due to the drop in passengers and flight reductions in the first quarter of the year.
In the face of higher fixed costs in the segment, local airlines may run out cash and cash equivalents.
Last week, South Korean airlines urged the government to take immediate action to help the financially troubled airline industry stay afloat amid the growing coronavirus impact.
The Korea Civil Aviation Association (KCA) asked the government to offer massive low-rate loans, payment guarantees for airlines' corporate bonds and steep tax cuts to airlines as the airlines' self-rescue measures won't be of a big help in the unprecedented crisis.
"The airline industry is collapsing, with 840,000 jobs in airlines, tourism and other related businesses at risk," the association said in a letter sent to the transport ministry, finance ministry and the financial authorities.
The association warned that the airlines could go bankrupt if the COVID-19 pandemic prolongs, though many airline employees are taking turns staying home without pay or at reduced pay, with executives returning some of their wages.
South Korea's nine airlines have suspended most of their flights on international routes as more than 180 countries and territories imposed entry restrictions against passengers from South Korea.
They are two full-service carriers -- Korean Air Lines Co., Asiana Airlines Inc. -- and seven low-cost carriers -- Jeju Air Co., Jin Air Co., Air Busan Co., Air Seoul Inc., Eastar Jet, T'way Air Co. and Fly Gangwon.
The association said a whopping 900 billion won worth of fixed costs are piling up on a daily basis for airlines, and they face 5.3 trillion won worth of debts maturing by December.
Last month, the government unveiled an emergency relief package worth 100 trillion won to help smaller companies hit hard by the virus and stabilize financial markets.
The Financial Services Commission said Friday it is closely monitoring the airline industry and is in consultations with the transport ministry over necessary steps.
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