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Airlines to send more empty carriers to bring Koreans home

With 36 countries turning away travelers from Korea as of Monday, airlines shoulder huge losses to fly passengers back

(Korean Air)
(Korean Air)

South Korean full-service carriers Korean Air and Asiana Airlines are reviewing sending additional ferry flights -- empty planes sent just to pick up passengers -- to Vietnam and Turkey, countries that travelers from Korea cannot enter amid the spread of the new coronavirus, according to the industry on Monday.

Korean Air Flight 679 is set to depart from Incheon Airport on Tuesday and the airline is reviewing whether to send it as a ferry flight, it said. 

“We will have to see the situation as sending ferry flights depends on the situation there (such as the number of passengers staying there),” a Korean Air official told The Korea Herald.

The air carrier already sent four ferry flights to Ho Chi Minh City, Nha Trang and Danang on Sunday to bring Koreans home after Vietnam refused to permit any Korean flights to land in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, except for ferry flights. 

Korean Air canceled its flights connecting the two countries over the weekend. 

Effective Saturday, Vietnam suspended its 15-day visa waiver program for Korean nationals for the first time since the program started in July 2004.

The measure has stirred controversy after another incident on Saturday, when Vietnamese authorities asked Asiana Airlines Flight 729 heading to Noi Bai International Airport in Hanoi to detour to Van Don International Airport, only two hours after takeoff at 10:30 a.m.

The plane had to return to Incheon as the air carrier “did not have experience landing at the airport,” according to an Asiana official. 

Asiana said Monday that Flight 735 will be a ferry flight, carrying only the cabin crew on board, and will bring back passengers from Ho Chi Minh City. The air carrier has brought back some 270 passengers from Vietnam on Sunday via two ferry flights.

The rest of the flights connecting Korea and Vietnam have been suspended, the air carrier said. 

Effective Sunday, Turkey also said it would disallow Korean flights from entering the country, except for ferry flights. 

Regarding this, Korean Air said it had reduced the number of its flights to Istanbul to once a week, while further considering whether to send ferry flights there. 

While some 230 Koreans are stuck at Istanbul Airport, according to the Korean Consulate in Istanbul, authorities said they are discussing the possibility of bringing them home on Turkish Airlines flights heading to Incheon or transferring them to Korea-bound flights in third countries. 

Market insiders said ferry flights are a last resort for air carriers, considering the loss they incur by flying empty planes. 

Besides the cost of air fuel, the air carriers must pay for labor costs for at least two or three flight attendants and two pilots, as well as landing fees and airport charges. 

“Since early this year, the market value of air carriers has dropped 23 percent, while the timing for normalization (of the aviation industry) remains unknown,” said Choi Go-woon, a researcher at Korea Investment and Securities. 

According to International Air Transport Association data, the global aviation industry has lost $29.3 billion due to the latest COVID-19 outbreak, which began in January.

By Kim Da-sol (ddd@heraldcorp.com)
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