Ford, Fiat Chrysler restrict air travel for employees due to coronavirus

Kalea Hall Breana Noble
The Detroit News

In moves that signal automakers are intensifying precautions amid the expanding coronavirus, Ford Motor Co. and Fiat Chrysler Automobiles NV are restricting non-essential employee air travel — both domestic and international — after two Ford workers contracted the respiratory illness last week in China.

"Those two employees in China are both getting better," said Ford spokesman T.R. Reid on Tuesday, noting that for the safety of its employees, the Dearborn automaker decided to sharply restrict air travel until at least March 27. "We just think caution is the right thing for our folks."

Workers dismantle a booth on Friday after the Geneva auto show was canceled because of the coronavirus. Ford and Fiat Chrysler are restricting nonessential employee air travel, both domestic and international. And GM is screening all visitors at facilities.

The spread of the virus is heightening the vigilance of automakers to protect employees and others, but the companies are careful to insist they are not banning all air travel. Ford is allowing "business-critical" travel provided it is approved by senior-level management. Fiat Chrysler has requested travel be prioritized to "essential needs" only and be pre-approved by a member of its leadership team, spokesman Mike Palese said in a statement.

Meanwhile, General Motors Co. this week — ahead of a media and investor event on Wednesday showcasing its electric vehicle plans — began requiring all visitors to complete a questionnaire prior to entering GM facilities.

Visitors who say they have experienced cold or flu-like symptoms, or have traveled to China, Italy, Iran, Japan or South Korea within the last 14 days (or have been in close contact with someone who has), will be denied access. Similar restrictions have been put in place at Fiat Chrysler facilities in Europe.

GM employees are not allowed to travel to China, Italy, Japan and South Korea, and additional non-domestic travel is restricted, though travel deemed critical can be approved by senior management. 

Ford said it is not aware that any other employees have been exposed to the virus, and Fiat Chrysler is unaware of any. GM could not immediately provide details on if any employees have been infected.

Ford's move to restrict travel "is not in response to a specific risk, but in the name of caution and good responsibility," Reid said. Instead, according to a source familiar with the situation, Ford's move is an attempt to ensure other facilities and the employees in them are not forced into 14-day quarantines that could be avoided.

BMW AG this week told 150 employees in Munich to stay home after a worker there tested positive for the virus, according to reports.

Coronavirus worries have yet to affect upcoming domestic auto shows in New York next month and in Detroit in June, organizers said, even as the Swiss government forced the cancellation of the Geneva Motor Show this week. The Beijing Motor Show has been indefinitely "postponed."

No automakers have told the North American International Auto Show organizers in Detroit they are pulling their plans for the show, there are no program changes under consideration and the auto show hasn’t asked anyone to refrain from attending.

"We are closely monitoring the latest information about the novel coronavirus and are reviewing our policies and procedures," NAIAS Executive Director Rod Alberts said in a statement. "We remain optimistic that these health issues will be resolved before the 2020 NAIAS occurs in June."

But George Sboukis, owner of the Caucus Club restaurant in downtown Detroit near the TCF Center, thinks the outbreak is making some attendees skittish. The restaurant has had conversations with Asian or domestic brands and organizations about hosting events during the auto show's media week ahead of the consumer show.

"We've had several conversations, and then in the last couple of weeks we've seen everything stall," said Sboukis, noting the restaurant doesn't offer refundable deposits, though in the past, it typically has had confirmations four months ahead of the auto show when it was held in January. "I think it's those worries that have led these companies to have tabled these things for the moment."

Across West Congress Street, the London Chop House says half of its private rooms are reserved for events during press week by both domestic and foreign suppliers and automakers, general manager Bjorn Lagerfeldt said. Typically by now, however, the restaurant would be booked fully.

"The virus has posed certain challenges," Lagerfeldt said. "We have more clients asking for a clause of postponement and cancellations than I think in years past when I think it has been included but hasn't been verbal."

In the interim before the auto show, GM still plans to unveil its new electric Cadillac crossover April 2 in Los Angeles and its electric GMC Hummer truck in May, though no details have been released.

"At this time, we are continuing with our plans," GM spokesman David Barnas said in a statement to The Detroit News. "But we continue to monitor the situation closely, with health and safety being the number one priority."

Ford's plan to reveal further details on the new off-road Bronco SUV this spring also remains unchanged. Other major automakers said they, too, are monitoring the situation for how it might affect their future plans. Volkswagen AG canceled a media event for the T-Roc convertible next week in Germany.

"When it comes to New York and Detroit, we are planning to be there and are monitoring the situation to see where it goes," Volkswagen spokesman Mark Gillies said.

Organizers of the New York International Auto Show, which typically has a million attendees every year, haven't had any automakers back out of the mid-April show, and they aren't prohibiting anyone from coming to the event at this time. The auto show still has 18 automaker press conferences scheduled.  

Organizers of the New York show are staying in touch with government officials and the Jacob K. Javits Convention Center. There are more safety measures being taken to limit the spread of the virus, including 70 hand-sanitizing stations throughout the convention center, increased cleaning and having a team of paramedics on-site.

Following the cancellation of the Geneva auto show, Volkswagen, Honda Motor Co. and others live-streamed events to reveal new technology and vehicles. Fiat on social media teased followers to "stay tuned" for more information Wednesday about the new electric Fiat 500 for the European market.

Craig Erlich, executive vice president and general manager at Auburn Hills-based George P. Johnson, a brand and event marketing company that helps automakers showcase their products and their brand at auto shows, hasn’t noticed any concern from automakers about the coronavirus leading to canceling their auto show or product-showing plans. George P. Johnson’s clients include Fiat Chrysler, Honda and Nissan Motor Co.

“None of our clients have expressed interest in pulling out of shows or canceling new vehicle launches,” he said. “I think the way they are looking at it is they are monitoring the situation, and they know how important these events are to the sales of the brand.”

Meanwhile, automakers still are monitoring how supply-chain disruptions in China could interrupt production in North America. The Original Equipment Suppliers Association is working with suppliers and industry partners to monitor the impact of the coronavirus on auto parts.

"Due to the complex, global nature of the supply chain and the expanding virus containment efforts, we expect an increase in short-term part shortages and premium shipments during the coming weeks," OESA President and CEO Julie A. Fream said in a statement.

"Suppliers are working vigorously to mitigate supply issues. At this time, we are unable to predict the long-term impact of the virus on the global automotive supply chain."