By Daniel Hunter

Heathrow has said that it handled 70 million passengers in 2012, the highest number on record, as the crowded airport saw bigger and fuller planes.

Numbers rose 0.9% from 2011, with 3.2% growth in its staple North Atlantic business, and traffic to the Far East and Brazil boosted by new routes.

Heathrow’s performance in 2012 was led by North Atlantic traffic which increased 3.2%. Strength in services with Brazil, up 21.6% (due to more flights), the Middle East and central Asia, up 3.4% (due partially to recovery in key markets from the unrest in the region that impacted 2011) and East Asia, up 6.2% (due partly to recovery from 2011’s Japanese tsunami) was offset particularly by weakness in African and Indian traffic, down 5.7% and 3.4% respectively, due to airlines reducing or ceasing services.

Heathrow’s European traffic increased modestly, up 0.5%. However, there were significant variances, reflecting economic conditions, with Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain seeing a collective passenger reduction of 4.5% over the course of 2012. Greece experienced the largest reduction (-7.3%) followed by Italy (-6.8%). Offsetting this, Germany’s traffic increased by 2.3% and France’s traffic rose by 0.6%. Domestic traffic was up slightly, by 0.5%.

The BRIC economies performed well throughout 2012, collectively up 2.4%. Of these, Brazil saw the biggest increase, followed by China, which saw passenger numbers rise 5.9%, whilst Russia had a 4.5% increase in passenger numbers.

Traffic in 2012 was characterised by higher load factors - which show how full the average flight was - at 75.6%, versus 75.2% in 2011 and a record. There were also more seats per aircraft (197.4 versus 194.8 in 2011). These are the key drivers of the modest growth that can be expected in Heathrow’s traffic as long as it operates within its current capacity constraints - illustrated by the fact that the 471,341 flights Heathrow operated in 2012 remain close to the cap of 480,000 per year.

“The figures for 2012 show Heathrow is delivering higher passenger numbers despite a tough economic climate," Chief Executive for Heathrow, Colin Matthews, said.

"At the same time passenger satisfaction reached record levels. Over the next twelve months we will continue to improve the passenger experience and focus on our investment programme, as we move towards completion of the new Terminal 2.”

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