October 12, 2008

End of Our Affair With Air Travel?

Airline failures, the credit crunch and a dismal airport experience have caused a sharp fall in the number of fliers from the UK. Martin Hickman reports

Air travel is declining for the first time in almost 20 years, The Independent on Sunday discloses today. Airline failures, harder economic times and a dismal airport experience have caused a sharp downturn in the number of travellers boarding planes at British airports.

IoS figures show that traffic at 18 leading UK airports fell by 4.5 per cent last month from 20.8 million to 19.9 million, with almost one million fewer fliers in the skies. The biggest airports recorded large falls in traffic: Heathrow was down 3.6 per cent and Gatwick 6.8 per cent; Manchester tumbled 6.7 per cent. Overall, the seven airports controlled by BAA, the UK's biggest airport operator, fell 5 per cent.

At the same time, the number of flights crossing Britain's skies dipped by 2.6 per cent, the third monthly fall in a row. The downturn suggests that Britons may be falling out of love with flying after years of boom for low-cost flights. It is likely to end two decades of unbroken growth in UK air traffic, which has risen every year since 1991, an increase that continued even in the aftermath of the September 11 terrorist attacks in the US. Industry observers say that air travel - heavily criticised by green groups for causing climate change emissions - is in much worse shape than it was then.

Rising food, fuel and council tax bills have caused householders to cut back on luxuries, including travel.

Holiday experts also believe that long queues and extenstive security checks at airports have removed any pleasure from flying. The collapse of XL Leisure, the UK's third largest holiday company, on 12 September - which left 85,000 holidaymakers stranded abroad - created embarrassing publicity for the industry and left customers worried about what would happen if their airline went bust.

"I can't remember it being tougher," said Ray Mason, a travel industry executive for 20 years.

Mr Mason, managing director of travel.co.uk, added: "XL has almost been a watershed and people are finally getting the message that the era of cheap travel is at an end and they will have to pay much more for their flights. There is a lot of nervousness out there, and it will affect bookings."

Tony Bosworth, Friends of the Earth aviation campaigner, said the IoS figures showed that the Government should order an immediate review of airport expansion.

This week, the Government gave permission for an extra 10 million passengers a year at Stansted in Essex and it is expected to approve a new runway at Heathrow in the next year despite claims from campaigners that it will breach EU noise and pollution limits. The planned expansion is based on the 2003 aviation White Paper, which forecast that passenger numbers would grow by up to 243 per cent by 2020 from 2002 levels.

UK air travel has increased every year since 1991, even rising by 4 per cent in the wake of 9/11. Since 2003, however, passenger growth has slowed, rising by 7 per cent, 6 per cent, 3 per cent and 2.3 per cent, hitting 240.7 million in 2007. In the past 12 months, the number has stuck at between 240.6 million and 241.8 million. Now it has fallen - sharply.

Flights landing or taking off from the UK fell year on year by 1 per cent in July, 2.5 per cent in August and 2.6 per cent in September, according to figures from the National Air Traffic Service (Nats). The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) has yet to release figures for passenger numbers for August or September.

Research by The Independent on Sunday, however, shows that in August the number of flights at 18 leading airports barely rose above last summer, ticking up 1 per cent. Gatwick had 240,000 fewer passengers and Heathrow, scene of furious protests by climate change protesters, recorded 220,000 fewer travellers.

Glasgow was down 11 per cent, Newcastle and Cardiff were down by 10 per cent. Stansted fell by 4.7 per cent and Aberdeen by 4.2 per cent. Only four of the airports recorded rises, including London City, which bucked the trend with an 11 per cent rise, and low-cost Luton, up 1.9 per cent.

BAA maintained that the prospects for aviation were strong. "Historically," it said, "air traffic growth recovers from short- term shocks such as those currently being played out in the financial markets, as evidenced by the growth in traffic after the Gulf wars, 9/11 and the Asian economic problems in the late 1990s."

The travel industry has been hit by a series of failures. Talks are taking place to stop Italy's troubled national carrier Alitalia sliding into bankruptcy. Low-cost operator Zoom and transatlantic business service Silverjet have already gone bust. And the collapse of XL Leisure removed 10 per cent of the package holiday market at a stroke.

Holiday companies are expected to take at least 18 months to increase capacity to match XL's business - and they may choose not to, amid continuing uncertainty in the sector.

British airports have been hit by a fall in American tourists visiting Europe. Some foreign travellers are thought to be avoiding a British stopover because of the poor reputation of Gatwick and Heathrow, especially after the Terminal 5 debacle.

John Strickland, an aviation consultant, said air travel was now in a "more extreme position" than after September 11.

"There were about a dozen airlines that went bust after 9/11 and we have that number this year already," he said.

"We are in uncharted territory. People are cutting their spending and airlines are looking at their routes for the winter."

Additional reporting by Ian Griggs

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