UK airports handled 1.9% fewer passengers in 2008 compared with 2007 statistics released today by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) show.
This is the first time annual passenger numbers have fallen since 1991 and only the fourth time since the end of the Second World War.
The biggest decline in passenger numbers came in the last quarter of 2008, with November showing an 8.9% decrease and December passenger numbers declining by 7.9%.
CAA group director of Economic Regulation Dr Harry Bush said that the fall in numbers was expected, given the worsening economic situation.
"The combination of business failures, such as those of XL Leisure Group and Zoom Airlines, together with a fluctuating oil price and the economic downturn has had a marked effect on the numbers of trips being taken," Bush said.
"Early indications are that these falls will continue, with the prospect of UK passenger numbers falling for two consecutive years."
The fall at London airports Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City was 2% overall, with the largest decline in both absolute and percentage terms at Stansted.
Conversely, Luton served an extra 255,000 or 2.6% more than 2007, and London City saw its fifth consecutive year of double-digit growth with a 12% overall increase.
At regional airports outside of London, traffic contracted by 1.8% to 98 million passengers. Manchester airport, the largest regional airport, saw passenger numbers fall by 3.8% whereas Birmingham airport grew by 4.8%.
In 2008, 25 million passengers took domestic flights. This represents a fall of 4.8% (1.2 million passengers) on 2007, a trend believed to be driven by greater competition between domestic rail services.
By Daniel Garrun.