Leading airline bosses confirmed a downturn in leisure demand since the coronavirus outbreak in Italy last week but insisted they expect it to be “temporary”.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O’Leary said: “There is a reduction in leisure demand, but it is short term.

“We see no diminution in demand or cancellations for Easter at this point. May could be soft, but I expect the panic to reduce after that and demand  return – stimulated by a lot of deals.”

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Speaking at an Airlines for Europe summit in Brussels, O’Leary insisted: “There is a lot of misinformation. The next couple of weeks will be soft, but it will settle down over Easter, unless something more happens. We’ve been through Sars and 9/11. The media panic about travel is short term.”

International Airlines Group chief executive Willie Walsh agreed the situation would stabilise, but warned demand could initially stabilise at a lower level.

He said: “It’s too early to say what the impact will be. I don’t see any similarity to 9/11. That saw a very significant impact on demand on the North Atlantic, but it recovered quickly. The situation with the coronavirus is much more dynamic.

“We saw a significant reduction in demand in Asia. Demand stabilised until the announcement on Italy. If the situation follows the pattern in Asia we would expect it to stabilise in a couple of weeks.”

Walsh confirmed “a fall in demand from business channels as a result of more-restrictive travel policies as well as cancellation of large events”, but said: “I have no doubt traffic will recover.”

Air France-KLM chief executive Benjamin Smith agreed: “I wouldn’t use 9/11 as a reference point. Sars could be, but the difference is the type of media attention this is getting. Once there is a better understanding, we should see a rebound.”

He said the crisis “will accelerate consolidation” among airlines, adding: “There are a lot of weak carriers in the world.”