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Mideast airlines lose $7B as airports shut to combat virus

DUBAI – Seven Middle Eastern countries have suspended all commercial flights due to the fast-spreading new coronavirus, as the aviation industry's largest trade association announced Thursday that airlines in the region have already lost more than $7 billion in revenue.

Those losses translate into potentially hundreds of thousands of people losing their jobs in the airline industry in the Middle East alone, the International Air Transport Association said.

IATA called for emergency aid of up to $200 billion for airlines globally.

The Middle East has some 20,000 cases of the virus, with most cases in Iran or linked to travel from Iran.

The virus killed another 149 people in the past 24 hours in Iran, pushing the death toll there to 1,284 amid over 18,000 confirmed cases. The government on Thursday joined other countries in ordering all shopping centers closed for two weeks. Only pharmacies, food stores and other necessary supply stores will be open, state media reported.

IATA says 16,000 passenger flights have been cancelled in the Middle East since the end of January.

“A lot of jobs are at risk, economies of the nations are being impacted and airline business in the Middle East is taking a bit hit,” Muhammad Albakri, IATA’s regional vice president for Africa and the Middle East, said in a phone conference with reporters.

Already, major carriers like Emirates have urged pilots and cabin crew to take unpaid leave. Reports have emerged that Qatar Airways laid off several hundred employees. The airline did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia. The vast majority of people recover from the virus.

Job losses in the Middle East have especially far-reaching consequences to the millions of foreign workers who send remittances back home to families in India, Pakistan, the Philippines and eastern European countries. Gulf states like Qatar and the United Arab Emirates rely heavily on foreigners to work as airport support staff, pilots, cleaners and cabin crew.

Since February, Israeli national carrier El Al has laid off 1,000 employees and put another 5,500 on unpaid vacation, "almost all" of its staff, company spokesman Eitan Atias told the AP. It has reduced its flights from 47 destinations globally to just six: New York, Newark, Paris, London, Toronto and Johannesburg.

“We are suffering, we are struggling. We are bleeding," Albakri said in his most urgent appeal yet to governments to step in and help many of these state-owned airlines by cutting taxes and offering direct financial assistance. IATA represents around 290 airlines worldwide.

On Thursday, Egypt and Lebanon became the latest two countries in the Middle East to shut down airports and suspend all passenger flights, joining Saudi Arabia, Iraq, Jordan, Tunisia and Morocco.

Sudan's transitional government reopened airports for 48 hours only to allow Sudanese stranded abroad to return home and expats to leave the country. Libya's rival governments have also closed airports and border crossings, allowing only humanitarian and cargo flights.

Other countries have largely limited or halted all flights and border crossings. Some, such as Iraq and Lebanon, have ordered citizens to stay home to contain the virus.

Seventeen doctors, including five former health ministers, urged Iranian President Hassan Rouhani in a letter to impose a widespread quarantine to prevent further infections and deaths, the semi-official Fars news agency reported.

Albakri said international bookings are down 40% for Mideast airlines and domestic bookings are also similarly impacted. The loss of $7.2 billion in revenue as of March 11 is in comparison to last year's revenue at the same time, he said.

In Egypt, the Arab world's most populous country, some 138,000 jobs are immediately at risk and $1 billion in airline revenue has been lost, according to IATA.

In Saudi Arabia, which suspended the year-round Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, $3 billion in revenue(asterisk)(asterisk) has been lost in the aviation industry, and more than 140,000 people could lose their jobs.

In a telling sign of how long disruptions could last, Saudi Arabia on Thursday announced it was cancelling an entertainment festival scheduled to take place in June and July in the city of Jiddah.

Albakri said another 163,000 people are at risk of losing their jobs in the United Arab Emirates, home to the region's biggest carrier Emirates and the world's busiest airport for international travel in Dubai. The UAE's airlines have absorbed $2.8 billion in base revenue loss, Albakri said.

The UAE has not shut its airports but has suspended the entry of all visitors and even its foreign residents who are currently abroad. The decision, in effect for at least two weeks, impacts people whose homes, children, bank accounts and livelihoods are in the country, but who were traveling or outside the country. Only Emirati citizens are allowed to return.

The UAE is unique in that only about 10% of its population, or about 1 million people, are Emirati citizens. The other 90% are foreign residents who fuel its economy and keep the country running. They hold the vast majority of jobs in construction, transportation, hospitality, sales, medicine, education and other key sectors. The UAE also announced it was suspending all new labor permits, including those for drivers and domestic workers, until “further notice.”

Meanwhile, Iran also announced Thursday that 10,000 prisoners — among them an unknown number of inmates whose cases are political and related to activism or speech — would be granted amnesty under a decree by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on the occasion of the new year, called Nowruz.

The country has already released 85,000 prisoners on temporary leave to curb the spread of the virus inside prisons.

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Karimi reported from Tehran. Associated Press writers Sarah El Deeb in Beirut; Munir Ahmed in Islamabad, Pakistan; Noha ElHennawy in Cairo; Samya Kullab in Baghdad; and Ilan Ben Zion in Jerusalem contributed.

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The Associated Press receives support for health and science coverage from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.