Coronavirus: foreign aircraft scrambled for Wuhan evacuation

Governments around the world are organizing to repatriate their citizens via planes from Wuhan ‒ the heart of the Coronavirus epidemic. Meanwhile, several carriers have already announced the suspension of their flights to China to prevent the spread.

Scrambling for evacuation

As foreign nationals are being evacuated from China, some flights are having difficulties with local authorities.

On January 30, 2020, around 200 British citizens were expecting to be repatriated from Wuhan. However, it appears that their flight was canceled. To date, the Foreign Ministry of the United Kingdom has not given any explanation. Another aircraft, a Boeing 747 of the Spanish carrier Wamos, was chartered and brought back 83 British and 27 foreigners. While no passenger showed any symptoms before takeoff, two of them tested positive on arrival in RAF Brize Norton base.

An Airbus A340 Esterel of the French Air Force specifically chartered with a medical team on board to evacuate 200 French nationals was supposed to fly to Wuhan on January 30, 2020, but its departure was also delayed. The use of a military plane may have irritated the Chinese authorities, concerned to see their sovereignty undermined, diplomatic sources quoted by Le Monde commented. The aircraft was eventually allowed to fly back and landed on Istres BA 125 Air Base, southern France.

In Germany, two positive cases were detected among the 124 people that were repatriated from Wuhan in a military plane on February 1, 2020. They are still quarantined in a base near Germersheim, southwestern Germany.

In a coordinated effort, a flight onboard Hifly‘s Airbus A380, registration 9H-MIP, was chartered to evacuate European citizens, the French Minister of Health Agnès Buzyn announced. The superjumbo reportedly took off for Paris-Charles de Gaulle International Airport to pick up doctors and flew to Wuhan with a leg in Hanoi, Vietnam. Onboard were 254 people of 30 different nationalities. Upon arrival, twenty of the passengers were tested after presenting symptoms similar to the coronavirus. They all came out negative.

The first U.S. citizens were evacuated on January 28, 2020, using a Kalitta Air 747-400 freighter specially converted with pallet seats. Members of the United States Consulate and other citizens were on board. The South Korean government also chartered two Kalitta 747F freighters.

An Air India’s jumbo Boeing 747 plane with a medical team on board evacuated 324 Indian nationals from Wuhan and landed in Delhi. The passengers were quarantined and will be observed for two weeks. Qantas sent a jumbo plane to repatriate 243 Australian citizens that will be quarantined in the RAAF base of Learmonth, in western Australia. 

Canada is reportedly organizing the evacuation of 325 people who requested it. They will undergo a “thorough medical examination before boarding, during the flight and upon arrival” at the military base in Trenton, Ontario. For now, the Canadian authorities are awaiting an authorization to enter Wuhan’s airspace, currently closed, from their Chinese counterparts.

Following Austria, with a C130, and Turkey, with an A400M, Russia should also send multiple military aircraft to evacuate some of the 600 Russian nationals currently in the Hubei province. 

Carriers modify their flight plans

After closing their routes towards Wuhan, where the 2019-nCoV virus originated, multiple airlines have expanded their measures to the rest of mainland China.

Following a directive from the British government, British Airways has suspended all its flights to and from mainland China. The Indonesian airline Lion Air announced a similar measure. Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific said it would temporarily suspend its core business, flights to mainland China, until the end of March 2020. Lufthansa (LHAB) (LHA) has also suspended its flights until February 9, 2020.

After reducing in half the frequency of its flights due to a lack of demand, Air France suspended its routes to Shanghai and Beijing until February 9, 2020. Its sister airline, KLM Royal Dutch Airlines, also suspended its flights towards mainland China.

Despite defining the coronavirus spread as a “global emergency” on January 30, 2020, the World Health Organization deems travel restrictions as unnecessary except with the province of Hubei, where Wuhan is located.

Hong Kong Airport has been exempted from those cancellations.

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