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Passenger numbers fall at UK airports

By Kevin Done, Aerospace Correspondent

Published: April 15 2009 10:05 | Last updated: April 15 2009 10:05

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Passenger numbers at BAA’s seven UK airports fell sharply last month, led by big drops in traffic across the North Atlantic and in European charter operations.

BAA, a subsidiary of Spain’s Ferrovial, which is facing the break-up of its monopoly control of Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports by the UK competition authorities, said on Wednesday passenger traffic in March had fallen 11.3 per cent year-on-year to 10.3m.

The decline has hit BAA at a difficult time, as it is being forced to sell three of its airports, Gatwick, Stansted and either Glasgow or Edinburgh in response to the recent report by the Competition Commission, which ordered that new owners should be brought into the UK airports market.

The sale of Gatwick is at an advanced stage, with final binding offers from three rival consortiums due to be made by the end of the month. BAA has until mid-May to decide whether it will appeal against the order.

The three airports most likely to be sold all have a large share of leisure travellers, and each was hit by steep declines in passenger numbers last month.

Passenger volumes dropped 17.7 per cent year-on-year at Gatwick; 15.9 per cent at Stansted; and 13 per cent at Glasgow.

Air travel globally is being hit hard by the recession, as airlines are forced to cut capacity, ground aircraft, reduce flights and remove some lossmaking destinations.

BAA said the overall underlying fall in traffic at its seven airports due to the “difficult economic conditions” was in the range of 8 to 9 per cent.

That was partly due to the later timing of Easter this year, with the holiday falling in April rather than in March as last year.

Traffic across the North Atlantic in March fell 17.6 per cent, while European charter traffic plunged 30.7 per cent.

British Airways, the biggest operator at Heathrow and a market leader in traffic across the North Atlantic, warned this month that it expected to report an operating loss of about £225m for its latest financial year to the end of March, including severance costs after it cut thousands of jobs.

BA said that premium passenger traffic, its most lucrative customer segment, was 13 per cent lower year-on-year in March.

There was also new evidence that traffic from the US was being harder hit than previously expected, affecting BA’s forecast dollar revenue.

BAA said Heathrow, BA’s global hub, remained the most resilient of its airports, with traffic declining 7.5 per cent –not taking account of the Easter effect.

That was partly because of the airport’s greater share of stronger long-haul markets, as well as rising numbers of transfer passengers, underlining Heathrow’s role as the UK’s only hub airport.

The number of travellers using BAA airports has been falling year-on-year for the past 12 months. The rate of decline, however, has worsened markedly since September.

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