Airlines throughout Asia have been forced to slash capacity as passengers defer travel to regions affected by the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) virus, which threatens to overshadow the war in Iraq.

The region's carriers had been expected to enjoy some degree of insulation from the fall-off in demand for international travel due to the war and global economic downturn thanks to continuing growth in intra-Asian traffic. However, the SARS epidemic gripping parts of China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Vietnam has devastated demand on many of the continent's busiest routes, prompting some analysts to liken the situation to an airline industry "perfect storm".

Despite last week's unprecedented World Health Organization (WHO) warning to travellers to postpone trips to Hong Kong and parts of China, Cathay Pacific Airways had by 4 April removed only 4% of its system-wide capacity. Its Hong Kong- based rival Dragonair, which predominantly serves mainland China and secondary destinations in Asia, has been harder hit and said on 2 April it was eliminating 25% of its capacity in response to the SARS crisis.

Singapore Airlines has cut weekly flights by 125, representing a capacity reduction of 13.6% effective until at least the end of May, and Australian flag carrier Qantas is scaling back international flights by 20%.

The WHO has called on airports to screen passengers departing from Beijing, Hanoi, Hong Kong, Singapore, Taiwan, Toronto and China's Guangdong and Shanxi provinces.

"The ramifications of this are going to go right the way through the year," says Association of Asia Pacific Airlines director-general Richard Stirland.

European carriers are also warning they are suffering from the repercussions of SARS, although the war in Iraq is having a proportionally greater impact on them.

Source: Flight International