DALLAS – More U.S. airlines and cruise operators are offering refunds or letting pregnant women change itineraries if they booked a trip to places dealing with an outbreak of Zika virus.
While health officials say most people exposed to the virus suffer only mild symptoms, the risk is far greater for pregnant women. Brazilian officials have linked the mosquito-borne illness to babies born with small or deformed heads.
Zika has been detected mostly in Latin America and the Caribbean. The World Health Organization warns that the virus is likely to spread to most of the Americas.
United Airlines and American Airlines say that since early this week they have been giving some passengers going to affected areas the chance to delay their trip or get a refund. United spokesman Charles Hobart said the offer was intended for pregnant woman, or those expecting to become pregnant, and their travel companions. Others customers who are worried can call the airline, he said.
American’s offer extends to pregnant women whose doctors recommend against travel, and it expanded the offer from a few countries in Central America to any Zika-hit destination outside the U.S.
On Thursday, a JetBlue Airways spokesman said the airline would give refunds or rebook passengers concerned about travelling to areas affected by the virus. Delta Air Lines posted a travel advisory on its website that passengers “may qualify” for a refund or change in itinerary if they contact the airline by Feb. 29. A spokesman declined to expand on the advisory.
Among other airlines and cruise companies:
— Spirit Airlines will refund or rebook customers who are pregnant or travelling with a pregnant woman to the affected regions, a spokesman said.. Others who don’t want to fly to outbreak zones can get a credit with fees waived.
— Southwest Airlines is sticking to its regular policy of letting customers who cancel ahead of time use their ticket value on another trip.
— Carnival Cruise Line said it would let pregnant women get a credit, delay their trip, or rebook to destinations not on the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention list of Zika locales.
— Royal Caribbean Cruises said it too would let pregnant women reschedule their trips for a later date at no penalty.
— Norwegian Cruise Line said it is trying to rebook pregnant customers to later trips or to areas away from the outbreak.
Infectious diseases have caused serious disruption to travel before, including the 2003 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, in Asia. The U.S. government recommended then against nonessential travel to the region, and federal health officials met planes, cargo ships and cruise ships arriving from China in their effort to contain the spread of SARS.
It is unclear how many passengers will ask for their money back, given that many of the refund offers are limited to pregnant women.
United Airlines spokesman Charles Hobart said the company has given refunds to some customers but he didn’t know how many. Spirit Airlines spokesman Stephen Schuler said that as of Wednesday “very few” passengers had asked for refunds or waivers.
An executive for JetBlue, which flies to many destinations in the Caribbean and a few in Central and South America, said Thursday that there has been little effect so far from the outbreak.
“We really see no measurable impact, either to advance bookings or customer refunds,” JetBlue executive vice-president Marty St. George said on a conference call with investors. “It’s something that we’re going to pay attention to with our footprint in Latin America.”
Helane Becker, an analyst with Cowen and Co., said she didn’t consider the Zika outbreak to pose the same threat to the travel industry as outbreaks of Ebola and SARS. She said the greatest fear of Zika is limited to a small group — pregnant women or those looking to become pregnant. Still, she said, travel bookings might drop because of heavy media coverage and public fear.
The CDC advises pregnant women to ask their doctor before travelling to an area where Zika has been reported. Here are the areas covered by the CDC travel alert:
— Central and South America: Bolivia, Brazil, Colombia, Ecuador, El Salvador, French Guiana, Guatemala, Guyana, Honduras, Mexico, Panama, Paraguay, Suriname and Venezuela.
– Caribbean: Barbados, the Dominican Republic, Guadeloupe, Haiti, Martinique, the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico, St. Martin, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
— Also: Cape Verde, off the coast of western Africa, and Samoa in the South Pacific.
AP Business Writer Sarah Sell in Portland, Oregon, contributed to this report.
David Koenig can be reached at http://twitter.com/airlinewriter