Passenger numbers fall sharply at UK airports

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The number of passengers travelling through BAA’s seven UK airports fell sharply last month reflecting the impact of weakening economic growth as well as the collapse of two airlines.

Overall passenger traffic declined by 5 per cent year on year in September, a rapid deterioration compared to the fall of 1.4 per cent in the first nine months.

Traffic volumes have been falling for six consecutive months and have fallen in seven of nine months this year, as demand for air travel has slowed under pressure from weaker consumer confidence and higher fares as a result of rising fuel costs.

Glasgow airport was hit by the biggest drop in traffic with a fall of 11 per cent year on year, partly as a result of the failure of two carriers in recent weeks, Zoom Airlines and XL Airways. The collapse of the two airlines also helped to depress the performance at Gatwick, where passenger numbers fell by 6.8 per cent last month.

London Gatwick, which BAA has recently put up for sale, has suffered in particular from the transfer of a large number of its US long-haul services to Heathrow as a result of the US/European Union “open skies” treaty, which opened Heathrow for the first time to full competition for all US and European carriers.

Both American Airlines and Continental Airlines have closed their Gatwick bases, and British Airways has also transferred several US long-haul services from Gatwick to Heathrow.

The biggest decline by market came from European charter traffic, which fell by 12.6 per cent year on year, also reflecting the collapse of XL Leisure Group, the third largest UK tour operator. North Atlantic traffic fell by 6.8 per cent and passengers on other long-haul routes fell by six per cent.

None of the BAA airports escaped the downturn with traffic at Heathrow declining by 3.6 per cent year on year and Stansted passenger volumes falling 4.7 per cent.

Stansted too has lost long-haul traffic as a result of the failures of Eos Airlines and Maxjet Airways, while American Airlines has halted its service between Stansted and New York JFK.

The worsening performance of the aviation sector was underlined last week by British Airways, which reported a big drop in premium passenger traffic in September under pressure from the turmoil in financial markets and weakening economic growth. BA said its forward bookings were being affected by “the increased anxiety in financial markets and by the uncertain economic outlook”.

Keith Williams, BA chief financial officer, said recently the banking crisis would put “even more pressure on our income from sales to premium customers”.

The decline in passenger traffic has come at a difficult time for BAA, as it seeks to find buyers for Gatwick. The UK Competition Commission is also expected to call early next year for the sale of Stansted and one of either Glasgow or Edinburgh airports as part of the break up of BAA aimed at improving competition between UK airports.

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