Fewer fly because of delays and better rail links

Improvements to long distance rail travel combined with delays at airports have dramatically slowed the growth in air passenger numbers, the Civil Aviation Authority has disclosed.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) report found that while budget airlines such as Ryanair and easyJet continued to attract new customers at the rate of 10 per cent a year, the number of people taking charter flights was now falling.

Worst hit was domestic air travel, which slipped by 1.4 per cent in the past 12 months while international holiday flights, accounting for a third of all journeys by air, are growing at just 0.2 per cent.

This has helped slash the long-term trend of air passenger growth since the mid-1970s from 6 per cent to just 2 per cent since 2005, the CAA said.

The report's authors say the economy and the ease of rail travel was driving the downturn rather than people giving up air travel to help the environment.

"As yet, air passengers' attitudes to the environment do not seem to be having a significant effect on the demand for air travel," the report said.

There has been a spate of infrastructure improvements to the national and international networks.

The opening of a high-speed rail link between London St Pancras and Paris has helped cement the Eurostar as the preferred route to the continent. This will open up other major European cities, such as Amsterdam, and is expected to further drive the growth of international rail travel. Meanwhile, the upgrade of the West Coast Main Line, despite the chaotic scenes over the new year when engineering work overran, has continued to attract customers. Improvements to the East Coast Main Line mean that trains linking London to destinations such as Leeds and Newcastle now depart every half hour. By contrast, domestic air services have been forced to reduce capacity. A spokesman for the Association of Train Operating Companies said: "The railways are now seen as competitive and flexible compared to flying.

"There are no restrictions on luggage and you can turn up on the day and travel with none of the hassle of going to an airport."

More than one billion passengers used the railways in 2006 with that number growing by between 5 and 6 per cent in 2007.

Despite the findings, the Government has predicted air passenger numbers will triple by 2030, and looks set to build new runways at Stansted and Heathrow, in a move which has angered environmentalists.

Friends of the Earth campaigner Richard Dyer said: "We are calling for taxes to be applied to domestic flights. People will then be encouraged to make a much cleaner choice."