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Coronavirus: Emirates, Qatar Airways take measures to counter disease's impact on travel

Qatar Airways lays off 200 Filipino staff in Doha, while rival Emirates urges pilots to take unpaid leave
Cleaning staff boarding Emirates Airbus A380 to disinfect it against the coronavirus in Dubai, 5 March 2020 (Reuters)

Qatar Airways has laid off about 200 Filipino staff in Doha this week, while rival airline Emirates asked pilots to take unpaid leave as the coronavirus outbreak hammers demand for travel, Reuters reported.

The state-owned airlines have had to slash dozens of flights, which are crucial for their Gulf hubs through which millions of passengers pass each year.

On Tuesday, Philippines Foreign Affairs Secretary Teodoro Locsin Jr. said his department will prepare for the repatriation of around 200 Filipino workers laid off by Qatar Airways.

"I don't need clearance from anybody. I'm taking them home,” Locsin said in a tweet.

Manila's Labour Secretary Silvestre Bello told Reuters on Wednesday that the government was trying to ascertain the "real cause" behind the unexpected decision to lay off the workers.

Qatar Airways did not respond to a request for comment by Reuters.

The layoffs were reported earlier by ABS-CBN. It said the Filipino employees, including engineers and maintenance staff, were laid off on Tuesday and others had also lost their jobs.

State-owned Qatar Airways had warned it would report its third consecutive loss this financial year, which ends this month, before the outbreak battered global travel demand.

Qatar has the highest number of COVID-19 cases among Arab Gulf countries, with over 440 cases reported on Tuesday. 

The country has ordered all shops to be closed, except for those selling food and medicine, and shut down mosques, bars, cinemas and schools, among other measures to contain the spread of the novel virus. 

Emirates asks pilots to take unpaid leave

Meanwhile, Dubai's Emirates has joined other airlines around the world in asking pilots to take unpaid leave.

"You are strongly encouraged to make use of this opportunity to volunteer for additional paid and unpaid leave," the airline said in an internal email to pilots seen by Reuters.

Emirates, one of the world's biggest international airlines, did not immediately respond to a Reuters request for comment.

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Tourism and aviation are vital to Dubai's economy, which does not have the vast oil wealth of some of its neighbours.

Emirates Group, which employed over 100,000 people, including about 4,000 pilots as of March 2019, asked staff to take unpaid leave earlier this month, although pilots were not included in the request then.

Emirates has told staff the coronavirus epidemic could be the biggest challenge it has faced in many years.

The airline has frozen recruitment and continues to cut flights as the situation worsens globally.

In response to a Reuters query as to whether the Dubai government would provide support to its state aviation entities, the state media office sent a statement from the emirate's airport operator.

Dubai Airports said it was working with business partners to mitigate the impact of the coronavirus but could not comment further as commercial arrangements were confidential.

Abu Dhabi's Etihad Airways on Wednesday announced another raft of flight cancellations, including to India and Egypt.