France asks EU to suspend flights to Mexico
PARIS (Reuters) - France called on Wednesday for a European Union ban on flights to Mexico in the latest response to fears of swine flu, but the EU's executive Commission said it had no power to curtail travel from its 27 member nations.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has asked for a stronger initiative at European level," French government spokesman Luc Chatel said.
"France is calling for a meeting of transport ministers as soon as possible and is calling for the suspension of flights to Mexico," he told reporters.
EU countries may impose individual travel restrictions such as suspending flights over swine flu, but the Commission cannot impose an EU-wide ban, a Commission official told Reuters.
"France of course is free to discuss a coordinated approach with all or some other member states given the complexities and cross-border aspects of air travel," the official said.
"This could take many forms and does not necessarily have to include all member states, as some may feel there is no need for such action. But there will be no diktat from Brussels."
Moreover, aviation experts expressed doubts over how an unprecedented one-way travel ban would work in practice.
French Health Minister Roselyne Bachelot said she would ask EU counterparts at a meeting on Thursday to suspend flights to but not from Mexico, the epicentre of the outbreak.
France has 20 suspected cases of the new H1N1 swine flu virus, of which two are considered probable. The pair, who had returned from a trip to Mexico, are in hospital in Paris.
Bachelot said suspending return flights could be counter-productive because it would force passengers to seek other ways of leaving the country and make it more difficult to trace individual journeys.
An airline scheduling expert who is a veteran of planning network operations, asking not to be identified, said the proposal raised more questions than answers at this stage.
"If you are, say, Lufthansa and flying to Mexico City, the only way you fly out is to fly in with the same aircraft and crews from your home base. It is ludicrous to say you would suspend flights to a country and not from it."
Most airlines operate a hub and spoke system that relies on making connections at a central point. For European airlines, cutting Mexico would mean removing a spoke from the network, something difficult and costly to do in only one direction.
Asked why Europe-bound flights from Mexico would be maintained under the French proposal, Chatel said, "The aim is to allow our citizens to be repatriated."
Regarding Thursday's meeting of health ministers, an EU spokeswoman said: "Tomorrow they will discuss preventive measures and that might perhaps also cover travel advice."
Air France said it continued to operate its two daily scheduled flights to Mexico in a code-sharing partnership.
"If authorities decide to suspend them then we will clearly comply," an Air France-KLM group spokesman said.
Spain's Iberia, which has strong links with Latin America, said it was operating its 12 flights a week as normal.
British Airways also maintained flights to Mexico.
In the United States, airlines have so far reported little change in their operations due to swine flu.
US Airways Group, which flies to 11 cities in Mexico, said it had not cancelled any flights to that country.
"We're obviously monitoring demand and we'll adapt accordingly," said US Airways spokesman Jim Olson.
(Additional reporting by Pete Harrison, Darren Ennis, Kyle Peterson, Anna Willard)
(Writing by Anna Willard, Tim Hepher, editing by Philippa Fletcher)
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