LATAM Airlines offers refunds to pregnant travelers to Zika-hit region

SANTIAGO (Reuters) - LATAM Airlines on Wednesday became the latest carrier to offer refunds or the option of itinerary changes to pregnant women planning to travel to Latin American and Caribbean countries impacted by the Zika virus.

A woman walks away from her apartment as health workers fumigates the Altos del Cerro neighborhood in Soyapango, El Salvador January 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jose Cabezas

Flight reservations have not been affected so far by worries about Zika, a spokeswoman for the airline said. But hotels and cruise operators who serve the region have said they are seeing growing concerns from travelers.

An outbreak of the mosquito-borne virus, linked to brain damage in thousands of babies in Brazil, is likely to spread to all countries in the Americas except for Canada and Chile, the World Health Organization (WHO) said this week.

American Airlines Group Inc more than doubled its previous list of destinations for which it was offering refunds to pregnant travelers, adding Puerto Rico, Martinique and four countries to an initial list of five Central American airports.

Chile-based LATAM Airlines, Latin America’s largest carrier, said it would offer refunds or the opportunity to change destination to medically certified pregnant women and their traveling companions booked on international flights to Brazil, Colombia, Mexico, and other affected Latin American and Caribbean countries.

“For pregnant passengers that have already initiated their trips to the aforementioned destinations, they can return early, subject to seat availability, at no extra charge,” the airline said in a statement.

U.S. airline United Airlines also said this week it was allowing customers with reserved tickets for travel to impacted regions to postpone their trips or obtain refunds with no penalty.

In a similar move, Norwegian Cruise Line Holdings Ltd and rival Carnival Corp have said they would allow expectant mothers covered by the CDC advisories to reschedule cruises to a later date or switch to an itinerary outside the affected countries.

LATAM Airlines, a group formed by Chile’s LAN and Brazil’s TAM, had not yet seen an impact on reservations due to concerns about the outbreak, a spokeswoman for the company said on Wednesday.

Avianca, the region’s second biggest airline, and smaller Brazilian carrier Gol made similar comments on Tuesday.

However, the outbreak presents another potential headache for LATAM, which is already struggling with currency fluctuations, labor disputes and a fast declining Brazilian economy. The company is expected to post a net annual loss for the third year in a row when it reports 2015 results in March, according to Thomson Reuters estimates.

Reporting by Anthony Esposito, Rosalba O’Brien and Felipe Iturrieta in Santiago and Jeffrey Dastin in New York; Editing by Frances Kerry and Sandra Maler