Budget airlines and severe problems on the railways last year contributed to a 7 per cent increase on the 1999 figures for passengers travelling through British airports.

Civil Aviation Authority statistics show that 180 million passengers passed through UK airports in 2000. Passenger traffic at the main London airports increased by seven per cent, with the biggest expansion near the capital at Stansted, Luton, and London City.

Liverpool saw 52 per cent more air travellers, Prestwick 29 per cent, Cardiff 15 per cent, and Southampton 14 per cent.

The growth is partly attributed to the new budget airline routes from the regional airports ­ a trend continuing this year with London City Airport's new Lufthansa service to Berlin, which began in March, and the new flights, from last week, to Dublin and Belfast. Also in March, the airline Go introduced eight destinations from Bristol, including Ibiza, Nice, Alicante and Barcelona.

Rail disruption late last year also encouraged a surge in air passengers. But there are indications that next year may not see a similar increase. British Airways has already noticed a 15.3 per cent fall in economy passenger numbers, and a drop in premium traffic by 11 per cent. The decline is partly blamed on the foot and mouth crisis.