Gatwick remains a “credible” option for expansion despite the government opting to approve a third runway at rival Heathrow.

The claim came today as Gatwick reported a 15% rise in December passenger numbers to 3.1 million.

This enabled the airport to achieve annual throughput of 43 million passengers – the highest for any single runway airport in the world.

Long-haul services grew by 26.8% with Toronto showing the biggest passenger increase, 191,124 passengers or 97% in 2016, versus the previous year.

Belfast saw the largest overall rise in passengers at 338,486.

The airport forecasts that the most popular long-haul destinations in 2017 will include Barbados, Dubai, Jamaica, Las Vegas, New York, Orlando and Vancouver, while Amsterdam, Edinburgh, Barcelona and Venice will be the top short-haul destinations.

Gatwick chief executive Stewart Wingate said: “Three million more passengers are travelling through the airport this year versus the same time last year, with 43 million passengers now passing through the airport annually. A figure that puts us 14 years ahead of industry predictions.

“This milestone is an impressive conclusion to 2016, the year that saw the 80th anniversary of the very first flight from Gatwick.

“Gatwick’s booming long-haul services and increased cargo volumes illustrate the vital contribution the airport continues to make to the local and national economy, in the airport’s busiest-ever December, as we continue to offer the UK government a credible and deliverable option for runway expansion.”