Regional airports in the UK are growing much faster than most London rivals and are offering an increasing array of long and short-haul destinations, enabling more passengers to avoid connecting through Heathrow.

The Civil Aviation Authority said on Thursday that regional airports accounted for 42 per cent of air passengers travelling to and from the UK last year, with the strongest growth occurring in international scheduled services.

Eight regional airports offer services to 12 or more international destinations now. Only two, Manchester and Birmingham, offered international flights in 1990, the CAA said.

The competition for passengers in the UK regions is intense, with a growing challenge from airports in continental Europe, North America and the Middle East.

Foreign airlines have been gaining market share in the regions, as increasing numbers of passengers choose to avoid the well-publicised hassle of connecting through Heathrow, which has come under heavy attack during the summer for failing service standards.

Dubai-based Emirates and Continental Airlines of the US, which has one of its main hubs at New York Newark airport, are the most significant long-haul scheduled airlines at UK regional airports, as measured by passenger numbers.

Emirates operates to four regional airports, most recently adding Newcastle. Continental flies to six after adding Bristol and Belfast.

The CAA report says that surveys carried out at UK airports have revealed a noticeable change in the journey patterns of passengers travelling to and from Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales and other UK regions outside London. The share of passengers that travel to London by air, road or rail to catch a flight fell from about 60 per cent in 2000 to 50 per cent last year.

According to the CAA, the regional airports have adopted a more commercial approach to winning air services. Virtually all of the bigger regional airports are now partially or wholly in private ownership, with the main exception of the Manchester Airports Group, which is still owned by local authorities. There is a daily service from 19 UK regional airports to Amsterdam Schiphol and 13 to Paris Charles de Gaulle airports, says the CAA report.

The big European network carriers Air France-KLM and Germany’s Lufthansa have maintained or increased services despite the competition from low-cost airlines on short-haul routes.

Airline services from the UK regions to their continental European airports depend greatly on passengers transferring to other services.

More than 60 per cent of KLM passengers from Birmingham and Manchester are connecting at Amsterdam.

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