Air travel sees first fall since 1991

Air travel is on course to fall for the first time in two decades after the airports operator BAA revealed that the annual number of passengers collapsed at the end of last year.

BAA, which owns seven airports including Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted, handled 145.8 million passengers in 2008 – 2.8 per cent down on 2007. The year-on-year numbers fell by 8.9 per cent in November and 6.9 per cent in December.

The falls are likely to herald the end of unbroken growth in British air traffic every year since 1991. Tour operators cutting package holidays, the collapse of the third biggest tour company, XL Leisure, and the reputation of British airports for long security delays have all put off passengers.

The figures almost certainly herald an annual fall in British passenger numbers because BAA accounts for 60 per cent of national traffic, but the total will only be known when regional airports announce figures for December at the end of this month.

The number of flights taking off from British airports fell by 1 per cent in the year to November 2008, according to the air traffic service NATS.

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