The recession put the brakes on the growth of UK passenger traffic but numbers are rising again. Ian Taylor reports

It may surprise some in the industry to know that half the UK adult population has not flown in the past two years, and only about one in 10 (11%) made more than two return flights.

The figures are from research by TNS in June this year, but they were confirmed by TNS asking the same question of more than 2,000 respondents at the end of last month.

They suggest one-third (34%) of the adult population took one or two return flights in two years. A mere 4% made five or more return flights and just 1% more than 10. That includes flights for business and for visiting friends and family.

These figures fit findings from other sources, including the Civil Aviation Authority. The occasional nature of flying for most people is a major reason why the intensity of concern about airport expansion among industry and business leaders is not matched by a similar level of public concern – except among those who are opposed.

A breakdown of the market suggests that those we might describe as ‘occasional flyers’ – the 45% of the population who make up to five return flights over two years – are most likely to live in London or the south of England, be under 35, and reasonably affluent.

‘Regular flyers’, the 4% of the population who take more than five return flights, are most likely to be older (35-54), wealthier and live in the north. They are also most likely to make more domestic or connecting flights, since most overseas destinations are best served from Heathrow.

The growth in annual passenger numbers over the past 20 years has been remarkable, more than doubling between 1992 (106 million) and the 12-month period up to this August (220 million) despite a fall since 2007 (240 million). These figures represent all passengers in and out of UK airports, flying both ways, so the vast majority are double counted.

Looking at the numbers it would be hard to claim that no-frills carriers have caused the market to grow (see graphic). Passenger numbers rose by 75% in the 10 years to 2000, before the explosive growth of Ryanair and easyJet, and only by 18% between 2000 and 2010.

In the 10 years to 2007 growth was higher at 64%: 1997 marked the start of deregulation in Europe which sparked the low-cost boom, but growth still has not matched the pre-budget carrier era.

What marks out easyJet and Ryanair is the way they have made consistently high profits and dominated the short-haul market while legacy carriers with global networks have struggled.

The latter have to meet the wholly different service requirements for medium and long-haul flying (and compete with the booming Middle East carriers) while retaining vital share in the short-haul market.

London airports dominate with 61% of all traffic, and Heathrow dominates London.

Gatwick has more leisure traffic (84%) than Heathrow (69%), and is busiest in high summer whereas Heathrow is near capacity all year. But the pair are close in one respect: the average annual income of UK leisure passengers in 2011 was just under £56,000 at Gatwick and a fraction above this at Heathrow. At Stansted it was just shy of £50,000.

Gatwick is the biggest airport for UK domestic passengers, handling 2.8 million last year, 8.4% of its total. Heathrow and Manchester also saw more than two million domestic passengers, with Stansted, Birmingham and Luton above one million.Heathrow dominated connecting traffic, with almost 21 million passengers, 87% of the UK total.

A final point of interest: those flying abroad on package holidays last year accounted for 37% of passengers at Gatwick, 47% at Manchester and 13% at Heathrow. Packages remain a vital part of the market from the UK’s three biggest airports.