Airfares Soar 174% as Chinese Rush to Escape Virus in Europe

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Cambridge University student James Shen didn’t hesitate to pay double for a business-class ticket to fly to China last Friday, deciding it would be safer there than in the U.K. as the coronavirus spreads in Europe.

“I feel much more protected here,” Shen said after arriving home in Suzhou, about 60 miles (95 kilometers) west of Shanghai. “In the U.K, when I tell people how serious the outbreak is, people laugh at me and say I’m overreacting to a flu. But as Chinese people, we have vivid memories about SARS and what just happened in Wuhan.”

Shen, a 23-year-old master’s student, said he paid about 40,000 yuan ($5,700) for his return ticket. Prices have climbed further in recent days or availability has disappeared altogether. Travel agency Group Ltd. isn’t offering any seats on direct flights from London to Shanghai until April 13, while a one-way China Eastern Airlines Corp. ticket on that day is available at 26,928 yuan on Skyscanner Ltd. Data from Inc. show the average price of a one-way economy ticket from Europe to China shot up 174% in the week through Sunday, from 5,492 yuan to 15,021 yuan. Those from the U.S. rose 137%.

The surging fares mark a reversal from few weeks ago, when long-haul flights to and from China would fetch a fraction of their typical prices, underscoring how the epicenter of the pandemic has shifted.

Countries are tightening restrictions on travel and gatherings in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, which has infected more than 166,000 people worldwide and killed over 6,400. The subsequent slump in demand has forced carriers from American Airlines Inc. to Qantas Airways Ltd. to make drastic capacity cuts.

“Prices are like commodities at times like this and travelers don’t have many choices,” said Shukor Yusof, founder of the aviation consulting firm Endau Analytics in Malaysia. “But this is going to be a one-time thing for airlines.”

Korean Air Lines Co. said it has “slightly” increased round-trip ticket prices after cutting about 80% of its services, and it has reduced its service to New York to one flight a day from two. Singapore Airlines Ltd. flights to New York are now only offered on its 19-hour non-stop service, which doesn’t have economy class.

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Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. said it is reinstating some flights from the U.S. and London to cater to growing demand from students overseas and others wanting to return to Hong Kong ahead of Easter holidays. It will also use aircraft with more seats on several flights from the U.S., which has declared a national emergency because of the virus. The carrier said Monday it would add three more flights from London on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, bringing the total to nine extra flights from the U.K. capital this week.

European countries in the Schengen free-travel zone are considering restricting access to foreigners and asking residents to refrain from leaving, effectively sealing their borders, according to three officials familiar with the matter. France may intensify its national lock-down, Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire said in a television interview. Asian countries such as Vietnam are banning entry of tourists from the U.K. and Schengen nations, while the likes of Hong Kong require arrivals from the region to undergo quarantine.

The virus has infected more than 80,000 people in China and killed 3,213, but the number of reported cases there is tapering off and Europe is turning into a front line in the battle against the disease.

Shen wasn’t willing to hang around, booking his flight on March 7.

“I now feel like I made a winning bet,” he said. “My parents really wanted me back home, where it seems safer nowadays.”

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