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CPA asks airlines to suspend China-NMI flights

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BECAUSE it doesn’t have the authority to suspend or ban incoming flights from China, the Commonwealth Ports Authority is seeking the “cooperation and collaboration” of the airlines in light of the novel coronavirus or 2019-nCoV outbreak in the Asian country.

Representatives from different airline companies attended the emergency meeting with CPA officials at 9 a.m. Thursday.

During the meeting, the CPA board was informed that all airline companies on island had volunteered to suspend their flights from China. The suspension will take effect until further notice for all the airlines except for HK Express, which has yet to announce the duration of its flight suspension, according to Ivan Quichocho, Tan Holdings vice president for business development.

CPA Board Chairwoman Kimberlyn King-Hinds said repeatedly during the meeting that “we don’t have the authority to cancel, suspend or ban incoming flights — all we could do was to ask for the airlines’ cooperation and collaboration.”

In a teleconference with officials of the U.S. Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration in Washington, D.C., the CPA board asked if there are circumstances that would allow CPA to suspend or temporarily cancel direct flights from China.

King-Hinds said it was the federal authorities’ position that “CPA’s action in requesting for the cooperation and collaboration of the airlines is the appropriate measure at this time.” The authority to suspend, cancel or ban flights lies with the Department of Homeland Security, the federal authorities told CPA.

During the meeting, the CPA board worked with CPA Executive Director Chris Tenorio in drafting a letter to the airlines.

In the letter, Tenorio stated that the “virus is reported to spread person-to-person and the CNMI receives a large volume of travelers and tourists directly from mainland China and transiting through Seoul and Incheon, Republic of Korea. Although a screening program protocol at the Saipan International Airport has been established, I must note that the incubation time of the 2019-nCoV can be up to 14 days, meaning infected travelers and tourists may not display any symptoms of the virus upon their arrival to the CNMI. Additionally, unlike other U.S. airports that handle a large volume of incoming passengers from China, the Saipan International Airport currently does not receive assistance from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the form of additional staff to carry out the screening. If the status quo remains, I am highly concerned that an outbreak of the 2019-nCoV in the CNMI may be likely.”

Commonwealth Ports Authority board members and officials listen to one of the airline representatives during an emergency meeting, Thursday, at the Aircraft Rescue & Firefighting office.  Photo by Emmanuel T. Erediano

Tenorio added, “Due to these circumstances, I am requesting each airline’s assistance in combating the 2019-nCoV threat. I am requesting that all airlines consider not enplaning travelers transiting directly or indirectly from mainland China to the CNMI. I am requesting that you consider suspending the arrival of all such travelers for the period of the governor’s emergency declaration.”

Safety first

In a press statement, CPA said its mission, “among other responsibilities, is to ensure the safety of our citizens and travelers to our airports and seaports at all times. This safety component is primarily focused on safety systems in aviation and airport operations.”

CPA said the public health safety concern with the 2019 novel coronavirus “is a substantial concern for our community requiring our immediate action to confer with our airlines in response to the emergency declaration by Gov. Ralph DLG Torres. The process is intended to balance our responsibility in our ‘Open Skies’ for all airlines and travelers against the compelling interest of our Commonwealth to prevent the arrival of a communicable health threat in our islands.”

CPA said the authority to regulate, suspend or cancel flights, travelers and airlines into the CNMI is within the jurisdiction of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, Customs and Border Protection.

CPA’s role is “to confer with DHS-CBP and the FAA with respect to achieving the interests of border control and safety while protecting our Commonwealth.”

CPA said it “must focus on the goal of public safety rather than whose authority or responsibility it is…. It is our collective responsibility to approach the coronavirus issue with informed vigilance and purpose.”

CPA appreciates “the cooperation of our airlines and partners in the aviation industry in dealing with a public health threat that is fluid, unpredictable, and serious in scope and impact. CPA will continue to keep the traveling public, our airline partners, stakeholders, and our community informed and abreast of our efforts with the administration and [the Commonwealth Healthcare Corp.] to work together to protect our community.”

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