(This Feb. 5 corrects story to remove erroneous reference to non-British Airways IAG airlines not flying to China in paragraph five)
By Alexander Cornwell
DOHA (Reuters) - The coronavirus epidemic will have a only a marginal impact on global travel demand and the airline industry is healthy enough to absorb any economic slowdown in China, the chief executive of British Airways parent IAG (ICAG.L) said on Wednesday.
Dozens of airlines have suspended flights to China in response to the worsening health emergency that has killed close to 500, nearly all in the country, while a meeting of international aviation officials in Singapore was canceled.
“The aviation industry is very robust. We may see some marginal impact,” IAG CEO Willie Walsh told reporters in Doha at a CAPA aviation summit.
British Airways has suspended flights between London Heathrow and Beijing and Shanghai, which Walsh said represented around 1% of the airline’s capacity.
There had been no impact on the group’s other airlines, including Ireland’s Aer Lingus and Spain’s Iberia.
Walsh, who steps down in March, said he did not expect the virus to deter people from traveling. Asked if the industry was healthy enough to absorb a downturn in China’s economy, he said: “without question” adding that airlines were more capable of responding to economic shocks than in the past.
Qatar Airways, which owns a minority stake in IAG, has also canceled passenger flights to China, though its chief executive said that was because other countries had placed entry restrictions on those who had recently visited China.
Akbar al-Baker said that made it difficult to staff China flights because those staff would not be able to operate flights to some other countries for some time afterwards.
A global airline lobby, the International Air Transport Association said it was too early to say how much the virus would impact the industry this year but is confident of a recovery.
“This industry has demonstrated its ability to overcome these type of difficult events and overcome them successfully,” Chief Executive Alexandre de Juniac told Reuters.
Reporting by Alexander Cornwell; Editing by Kirsten Donovan, Philippa Fletcher and David Evans