Claims that budget airlines have presided over an explosion in air travel, making flights available to the poor, were debunked yesterday by an official report from the Civil Aviation Authority.
While low-cost carriers have been responsible for a huge increase in destinations in Europe, they have had little impact on traffic growth and have failed to extend air travel to lower-income groups, the study says.
Although the number of leisure passengers on a wide range of incomes has grown, the majority of this increase has come from those in middle and higher socio-economic groups, according to the study. Most flying is still done by people in such categories, the report says.
The statistics however showed a greater propensity to travel among business people on middle-ranking incomes of between £34,500 to £45,999.
The data revealed that the budget airlines now carry nearly half of all UK short-haul passengers. A decade ago, the proportion amounted to a few per cent.
Authority officials said that the average rate of growth of short-haul traffic is little different to that before the arrival of no-frills airlines. Most of the custom enjoyed by the budget carriers seems to have been at the expense of other airlines, they said.
Authority officials said while fares on many routes had come down, the total market did not seem to be price-sensitive. The CAA said the growth in personal income was a more significant factor in fuelling the increase in air travel and that the price of a flight was often a tiny proportion of the cost of a foreign trip.
The CAA's economic regulation director, Dr Harry Bush, said: "No-frills airlines have enormously increased the range of fare, route, destination and departure choices available to the travelling public.
"The emergence of no-frills airlines and the response of other airlines to this has benefited passengers generally, and has demonstrated the advantages of opening aviation markets to competition.
"However, no-frills airlines do not appear to have significantly altered overall traffic growth, nor have they substantially changed the profile of those flying."
The CAA figures point to a huge increase in the number of flights between Poland and Britain, evidence of the massive increase in Poles working in the UK. In 2000, there were only five scheduled daily services between here and Poland - today there are 27.
A spokesman for Ryanair said the report made it clear the regions had experienced particular growth which has benefited local economies in Britain and on the Continent. He said the CAA analysis of non-business travel was based mainly on leisure customers, and did not fully reflect those who were visiting friends and relatives which would show a greater growth in lower-income customers.