BREAKING: United Airlines pulls plug on Hong Kong service

A white United jet comes in for landing

United Airlines (NASDAQ: UAL) is the first major international airline to stop service to Hong Kong because of the coronavirus outbreak in China. 

The carrier announced Tuesday afternoon that it is suspending flights to Hong Kong beginning Feb. 8. It has gradually ratcheted down its schedule in the past week, with all flights canceled from the U.S. to Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu as of Feb. 4. It had previously planned to continue a daily flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong, but said the continued drop in demand no longer justified the flight.

The last flight to Hong Kong will be Feb. 5 and the last eastbound flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco will be Feb. 7. United said it expects to resume westbound operations on Feb. 22, but could adjust plans again as the situation is fluid.

The news also coincides with reports of three confirmed cases of the new virus in Hong Kong, where the South China Morning Post reports hospital workers walked off the job to force city leaders to close off the border with mainland China as a way to prevent the disease’s spread..

United had previously suspended flights to Hong Kong from Newark International Airport. Air Mauritius on Tuesday ended its Hong Kong service and Fiji Airways has cut back flights to Hong Kong. Most airlines have only adjusted their schedules for mainland China so far.

Hong Kong has already suffered a steep downturn in passenger traffic as anti-government protests have roiled the island city. Carriers such as Cathay Pacific were already suffering financially before the coronavirus struck. The protests along with the epidemic are drying up airfreight capacity on passenger aircraft, making it difficult for companies to maintain smooth supply chain operations.

At least 425 people have died in China because of the disease. Some analysts conservatively estimate 70,000 people will be infected.

United Continental Holdings closed Tuesday’s trading session up 5.3 points, but the stock is down 10% in the past month.