(Bangkok) The International Air Transport Association gathered the world's airlines with the WHO in Bangkok on Wednesday, 23 April to refine battle plans in the war on Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). "The impact of SARS on the global air transport has been devastating," said Kevin Dobby, IATA's Corporate Secretary who heads the association's SARS Task Force. "The industry is completely engaged with the WHO and will do whatever is necessary to fight the spread of SARS. This is our number one priority."

Denied Boarding to SARS

The meeting heard some encouraging news from the WHO. "We were told by WHO that SARS is transmitted by droplets through close person to person contact and not through the air. We were also reassured that the disease is communicable only after symptoms of the disease appear. As a result the WHO reassured the industry that the screening procedures for passengers being implemented at airports are effective. As evidence, of the 200 million travelers who have boarded aircraft since the beginning of this crisis, there have bee less than 5 cases of possible transmission in the cabin-and these were on flights that occurred before screening procedures were put in place," explained Dobby. "As we see screening procedures intensifying around the world with questioning of passengers and body temperature checks it is clear that air travel is being made even safer."

The analogy was drawn to how the industry deals with security. "It is the same principle as our approach to fighting terrorism. If we can stop people with symptoms of SARS from boarding we are maintaining a safe environment for passengers and stopping the geographic spread of the disease at the same time," noted Dobby.

Working with the WHO

Airlines at the Bangkok meeting drew up further plans to help combat the disease looking at all of their procedures for areas as wide-ranging as passenger handling, aircraft cleaning, maintenance and inflight service. "Our goal is to do the maximum needed to protect our passengers and employees. We are working extremely closely with the WHO to ensure that airlines continue to have access to the most up-to-date expert advice available," commented Dobby.

Government Relief and Standardization

Standardization of procedures will be essential to effective airline countermeasures. "Our work with the WHO puts airlines on a common knowledge footing. Public health authorities across Asia have been quick in their individual response to the crisis. What we need now is the coordinated support and understanding of governments. In the first instance, this means avoiding the imposition of reactionary and in-efficient countermeasures. This is a global problem, requiring a global solution. As a start we will be making this case to the ASEAN ministers due to meet in Bangkok next week."

"The second aspect of government support is relief in government imposed charges on the industry. Aviation is the backbone of tourism and tourism is an essential component of economies around the world. Singapore, Chinese Taipei and other forward-looking authorities have provided airport charges relief to help airlines maintain service as passenger numbers plummet. Hong Kong, while being the crisis epicenter, has been slow to make good on its indications of charges relief for airlines. Similarly, while Thailand announced relief for its tourism industry it failed to address the need for charges relief at its airports. Seoul and Narita are also high on our list of airports that need to come to the table with some measures to help airlines maintain service. If airlines cannot afford to fly the situation for all of us only gets worse. It is clearly time to cooperate."