Some 900,000 fewer travellers flew from BAA's seven UK airports last month than in May 2008, as weak consumer confidence and even weaker sterling continued to take its toll on the aviation sector.
The 11.8 million people travelling through Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Southampton and the three Scottish airports was a drop of 7.3 per cent year on year, the airports operator said yesterday.
Overall, the London airports were down 7.4 per cent. Heathrow stood up relatively well to the challenging conditions battering the aviation sector, down just 3.9 per cent. Gatwick – down by 6.5 per cent – also saw an improvement on the five-month average of a 10.3 per cent decline from 2008's January to May period.
But Stansted saw a massive 18.5 per cent decline in passenger numbers last month, taking it to a 15 per cent drop over the first five months of the year. Although BAA blamed the collapse on service reductions by the low-cost airlines Easyjet and Ryanair in response to falling consumer spending, Ryanair used the figures as an opportunity to reiterate calls for an early sale of the facility.
The Competition Commission ruled in March that BAA must sell Gatwick, Stansted and one Scottish airport. The Gatwick sale is under way, although BAA is struggling to get the price it wants. The Ferrovial-owned group is also appealing against the wider break-up of its assets.
Stephen McNamara, from Ryanair, said: "We call for the fast-tracking of its sale in order to tackle [Stansted's] plummeting traffic. The abysmal performance of the BAA airports underlines the urgent need for government action to protect UK tourism and UK jobs. BAA airports have lost almost 5 million passengers so far this year."
Of BAA's seven airports, only Edinburgh saw growth last month, flying 1.4 per cent more travellers, thanks to the lure of newly introduced low-cost flights.
Taken together, scheduled traffic to Europe through BAA's airports was down by 5.2 per cent, its North Atlantic traffic by 9.1 per cent. Domestic flights carried 10 per cent fewer passengers than in May last year. European charter traffic, a woeful 20.5 per cent down on May 2008, nonetheless showed an improvement from earlier in the year.
The whole aviation sector is suffering brutally from the recession. Willie Walsh, the chief executive of British Airways, has described both the airline industry, and BA itself, as "fighting for survival" as the flag carrier negotiates pay cuts and staffing reductions. This week the International Air Transport Association, at its annual meeting in Kuala Lumpur, forecast global airline losses of $9bn (£5bn) this year as revenues slide by 15 per cent.