EXETER Airport bosses are hoping the launch of new routes to sunny destinations will help to reverse a decline in passenger numbers.
The number of travellers flying from Devon's airport was down nearly two per cent last year, to 697,074. It followed a drop of nearly four per cent in 2011.
Matt Roach, the airport's managing director, said: "These are challenging times. We saw 2012 as a year in which we have tried to set some strong foundations for future growth and future operations at the airport.
"Being two per cent down on passenger numbers is a steady enough performance in terms of regional airports. Economic conditions are extremely challenging and air passenger duty continues to have a significant negative impact on demand for flying."
Across all UK airports, total passenger numbers increased by 0.7 per cent in 2012, to 223.8m. But there were wide variations in how different airports fared.
In the South West, Bournemouth enjoyed a 13 per cent increase in passenger numbers and Bristol saw a 2.6 per cent rise.
By contrast, Newquay was the UK's worst performing airport, with passenger numbers dropping 20 per cent.
Last year Exeter's best month was November – with passenger numbers up 16 per cent on a year earlier – while the biggest fall was in September, when numbers were down 10 per cent year-on-year.
Mr Roach said the addition of new routes and the development of Flybe's Manchester hub – where passengers can connect to destinations around the world – could drive increased traffic from Exeter.
Flybe will start flying to Barcelona and Nice in the coming months, while Thomson and First Choice are launching a new route to Enfidha in Tunisia this summer. A second weekly flight to Dalaman in Turkey is also being introduced.
The Isles of Scilly Steamship Company is increasing the frequency of its flights to the islands this summer. But Air Transat has stopped flying direct from Exeter to Canada. "Flybe's hub concept seems to have been very well received, and we now have three daily flights to Manchester," said Mr Roach. "I had some very positive feedback recently from some passengers who had flown from Australia to Exeter with just an hour's stop-off in Abu Dhabi and an hour in Manchester.
"The new routes reflect a confidence in the South West market from these operators, and it's vital that we see strong bookings so they can become established routes out of Exeter and not one-offs."
The number of travellers using Exeter Airport topped one million in 2007 but has been falling since then, though the rate of decline has slowed since 2009. In the longer term, the airport's master plan projects traffic levels reaching 3.25m passengers a year.
Domestic scheduled flights account for just over one third of passengers using the airport, with the remainder split between scheduled international flights and charter traffic.
The opening of the new Hampton by Hilton hotel in May this year is expected to make Exeter Airport more attractive to passengers living further away.
"There are some challenging head winds that will continue to affect consumer demand in 2013 but if these new routes are successful then hopefully that will be the first step towards starting to see growth in the future," said Mr Roach.