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Airlines worry Zika virus may be hurting Americas travel

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(Reuters) — A number of airlines have raised concerns that the rapidly spreading Zika virus may be discouraging travel in the Americas, the International Air Transport Association's director general and CEO, Tony Tyler, told reporters in New York on Thursday.

His comment on the sidelines of an event hosted by the global airline trade group marks one of the industry's first acknowledgments that the mosquito-borne virus could hit revenue.

"A number of members have expressed concern that they may already be seeing some effect on travel, particularly in the Americas," he said. "When we publish (traffic) numbers, particularly I think the regional numbers for January, perhaps there will be the first indication of that."

Mr. Tyler could not comment on what kind of impact the airlines were seeing, whether destination switches by travelers or lower bookings overall.

Bookings to Zika-hit parts of the Americas fell some 3.4% from a year ago between Jan. 15, when the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention issued a travel advisory for pregnant women, and Feb. 10, according to a report last week by travel data analysis company ForwardKeys.

Scientists are investigating a potential link between Zika infections of pregnant women and more than 4,300 suspected cases in Brazil of babies born with microcephaly, a condition marked by abnormally small head size that can result in developmental problems.

Top airlines so far have reported no material change to flight bookings because of the virus, and they note that identifying a shift would be difficult because unit revenue already is down sharply to places such as Brazil because of the country's economic crisis.

But some ticket prices appear to be falling in the Americas nonetheless. The lowest fares to debt-strapped San Juan, Puerto Rico have fallen 22% on average from a year ago, according to an early February analysis of six of the busiest U.S. domestic routes to the island's capital by Harrell Associates.

Puerto Rico is one of 28 countries and territories in the Americas battling Zika. At least three conferences at major Puerto Rican hotels were recently canceled and one postponed because of concerns over the virus.

Much remains unknown about Zika, including whether the virus actually causes microcephaly. Researchers have confirmed more than 460 of the cases in Brazil as microcephaly and identified evidence of Zika infection in 41 of these cases, but have not proven that Zika can cause the condition.