The number of passengers travelling through UK airports fell by 223 million last year, an annual decline of 75%, as governments imposed travel bans and restrictions because of the coronavirus pandemic.
About 74 million people passed through UK airports in 2020, less than a quarter of the 297 million recorded in 2019, according to PA Media’s analysis of annual Civil Aviation Authority data.
The Airport Operators Association (AOA) said the figures demonstrated the devastating impact of the virus on aviation.
Cardiff airport suffered the largest drop in passenger numbers at 86.7%, followed by Glasgow Prestwick at 85.8% and Exeter at 85.5%.
The figure for Southampton fell by 83.4%, London City by 82.3% and Leeds Bradford by 81.2%.
Heathrow, the UK’s largest airport, recorded a 72.7% decline from 80.9 million passengers in 2019 to 22.1 million last year. The figures include all passengers who travelled through British airports excluding the Channel Islands or Isle of Man.
Demand for air travel collapsed in March 2020 when the UK went into its first national lockdown, mirroring lockdowns elsewhere and forcing airlines around the world to ground their planes.
Travel began to recover by late summer and into the autumn, but passenger numbers plummeted again in November after many restrictions were reimposed in the UK as it faced a second wave of the virus.
Karen Dee, the AOA’s chief executive, said: “These figures lay bare the devastating impact Covid-19 has had on UK airports. With passengers down nearly 90% between April and December 2020, airports’ economic output was decimated and significant numbers of jobs were lost.”
She said the government’s “overly cautious” approach to reopening travel meant this summer would be “as bad, if not worse, than 2020”. UK airports will lose at least another £2.6bn in revenues this summer, following a similar loss between April and September 2020, the AOA estimates.
Dee said: “This leaves UK airports trailing behind international competitors in the EU and US, who not only received significantly more financial support from their governments but are also now able to restart travel over the summer.
“To ensure there are viable airports to support the economy and government agendas like global Britain and levelling up, the government now faces the choice of either meaningfully restarting aviation or setting out a comprehensive package of support to compensate airports for the impact of government policy.”
Travellers to popular tourist destinations such as Spain, France and Portugal have to go into quarantine and do tests when they return to the UK. Portugal was added to the UK government’s green list of countries that do not require quarantine upon return on 17 May, but was moved back to the amber list three weeks later, causing anger and frustration among travellers, some of whom said they had lost hundreds of pounds as a result.
France announced last week that it would allow fully vaccinated travellers from the UK to enter the country with a negative Covid-19 test, without requiring the seven-day quarantine that still applies to unvaccinated visitors from Britain.