The Ebola crisis in West Africa has closed borders and international airlines have cut flights to the area, but some say the measures aimed at controlling the outbreak also are holding up humanitarian aid deliveries.
Senegal and Ivory Coast have closed airports to planes coming from Ebola-affected countries, and many airlines have cut services to the capitals of Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia despite World Health Organization calls to keep air traffic moving.
WHO officials have discouraged air-transit restictions, saying the risk of transmitting the disease during a flight is quite low. The virus cannot transfer from one person to another through the air — by coughing, for example — but only from direct contact with blood or other bodily fluids.
Still, some airlines have chosen to cut flights. Alassan Senghore, Africa director for the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, says his organization cannot get staff into and out of affected countries.
“It is really hampering efforts. The conditions in those countries, the closure of the borders and all those things, is not helping. So we try to use some creative ways — by driving by road, which is costly, takes time, and it really doesn’t help anybody," said Senghore.
Humanitarian agencies criticized Senegal when it closed Dakar airport to U.N. flights last month. The government here subsequently announced it will open a humanitarian corridor, but details have not yet been released.
The West African aviation market has expanded rapidly in the past five years, and there are concerns that travel bans will reverse that growth.
Companies like Kenya Airways, Arik Air and Air Côte d’Ivoire have cut dozens of flights each week since the beginning of August.
The International Air Transport Association says flights to Liberia, Sierra Leone and Guinea account for just three percent of annual African carrier revenues, but an IATA spokesman on Africa, Chris Goater, says lost revenue could skyrocket if the virus continues to spread.
“If it were to spread to the whole West Africa region that would go higher to around a third of African carriers’ revenue. So if it were to spread, and similar restrictions were to start across the whole of West Africa, that would start to have a major impact on African carriers," said Goater.
An aviation analysis company, OAG, measures flights in terms of available seats.
During the first two weeks of August, Banjul-based carrier Gambia Bird flew nearly 6,000 seats to and from Freetown and Monrovia, OAG says. But then Gambia Bird cancelled all flights from mid-August through the end of September.
British Airways has cancelled more than 4,000 seats to these destinations, through the end of the year.
Liberia’s finance minister, Amara Konneh, says the flight shutdowns are isolating the country and crippling the economy.
“If those interested in investing in Liberia cannot come here, and Liberians who are also interested in building partnerships abroad for their private ventures here in Liberia cannot [travel], then you have an economic issue," said Konneh.
Carlos Lopes, executive secretary for the U.N. Economic Commission for Africa, says air restrictions have hit key sectors in the three countries.
“A lot of activities that are supposed to take place in mining are no longer taking place," said Lopes. "In agriculture [it's] the same."
He says companies cannot get staff into countries or plan for future projects.
At a meeting earlier this week, the African Union called for an end to travel restrictions on the Ebola-affected countries.