HONG KONG — Cathay Pacific Airways, Asia's fourth-largest carrier, said Sunday that it would not rule out grounding its passenger fleet as a deadly respiratory virus keeps would-be travelers at home and planes nearly empty.
Such a step would be the most dramatic example of the damage that severe acute respiratory syndrome has inflicted on businesses in the region.
"If demand falls still further we will have to respond accordingly. Clearly we can't rule out any particular course of action, but we will respond to circumstances," said Tony Tyler, director of corporate development at Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific.
The virus has been spread around the globe by air travelers, killing at least 130 people and infecting nearly 3,200 since appearing in the southern Chinese province of Guangdong in November, with Hong Kong and mainland China hardest hit.
No deaths have been reported in the United States.
On Sunday in Hong Kong, 195 flights, or 37% of those scheduled, were canceled, according to the airport authority. Passenger numbers at the airport have been down more than 60%.
Over the weekend, Hong Kong officials made public the list of 167 buildings where suspected SARS cases have been recorded, after weeks of intense community pressure.
Health experts have argued for the disclosure in hopes that it would raise awareness in the community, although the government was initially reluctant to do so for privacy concerns.
"It's a two-edged sword," said L.H. Chiu, a property manager on eastern Hong Kong island. "It's probably good for the others in the building but it may cause some hurt for the people actually involved."
Cathay Pacific's Tyler spoke after an internal memo was posted on a Web site Saturday, revealing that the airline's passenger numbers could fall below 6,000 per day in May. The memo said such a low number could drive Cathay to consider grounding its passenger fleet.
Cathay is carrying about 10,000 passengers per day, compared with 30,000 under ordinary circumstances.
Shares of Cathay Pacific plunged to a 17-month low on news of the possible grounding.
"The notice that was posted to our staff simply reflected the fact that, if things deteriorated, then we'd have to take appropriate steps," Tyler said, referring to the memo.
"We have absolutely no plans" to cancel all passenger flights, he added.
SARS has forced airlines throughout the Asia-Pacific region to slash services. Cathay has cut 42% of its flights.
A World Health Organization advisory that warned against visiting Hong Kong and neighboring Guangdong province has led countless travelers to postpone or cancel trips to Hong Kong.
Analysts forecast damage for some Asian economies, especially Hong Kong, where Cathay Pacific, among the world's most profitable airlines, is seeing a collapse in traffic.
"We forecast that the number of passengers could fall to less than 6,000 per day in May, in which case we will have to consider grounding the entire passenger fleet," Nick Rhodes, Cathay Pacific's director of flight operations, said in the internal memo.
"We are literally hemorrhaging cash, approximately $3 million per day," the memo said.