Passenger numbers dropped at Birmingham International Airport last year - but soared at regional rivals across the country.

Bosses say the 2.3 per cent fall for Birmingham reflected the collapse of budget operator duo - but they believe new operators and routes will see numbers increase during 2005.

The Birmingham figures show 8.87 million passengers in 2004 compared with nine million in 2003. Overall, nationally, there was an eight per cent increase in passenger numbers.

Traffic at the UK's regional airports increased by nine per cent to 88 million. Of the ten largest regional airports, the fastest growing was Newcastle - up 21 per cent to 4.72 million.

A spokeswoman at Birmingham International said a range of new routes had been launched and more were to follow. They included Monarch Scheduled, which will launch one service a day to Tenerife and Malaga starting from this Thursday.

She said: "It promises to be a busy summer at Birmingham International Airport with four new scheduled services and several new destinations already launched this year, so we expect to see a rise in traffic during 2005 due to these positive developments.''

UK airports handled 217 million passengers last year - an increase of eight per cent on the 2003 total, official figures showed.

The Civil Aviation Authority statistics revealed that in the period from 1987 to 2004, passenger numbers doubled at London's airports and tripled at regional airports.

But despite the rise last year, the number of passengers travelling between the UK and North America still did not reach pre-September 11 levels.

The CAA reported that passenger traffic at the five main London airports - Heathrow, Gatwick, Stansted, Luton and London City - grew by seven per cent last year to 129 million passengers.

Heathrow numbers rose 3.6 per cent to 67.34 million, Gatwick was up five per cent to 31.46 million, Stansted was up 12 per cent to 20.91 million, Luton rose 11 per cent to 7.53 million and London City increased 14 per cent to 1.67 million.

Bristol enjoyed a 19 per cent increase to 4.64 million and Leeds Bradford handled 2.36 million passengers - seven per cent more than in 2003.

Among other airports enjoying big increases were Exeter - up 57 per cent to 621,624 passengers; Plymouth, which was up 44 per cent to 128,621; Blackpool which increased 43 per cent to 266,179 and Southampton where passenger numbers increased 26 per cent to 1.53 million.

The majority of passengers using UK airports last year flew to or from Europe. The number of passengers on European flights totalled 122 million - seven per cent up on the 2003 total.

The largest growth was on routes to the Czech Republic - up 59 per cent, or 770,000.

With more Eastern European countries now members of the EU, passenger numbers on Eastern European routes rose 97 per cent with an extra million travellers last year.

After Europe the next most popular destinations were either other UK airports or North America.

There were 25 million passengers on UK domestic flights last year - up six per cent on 2003 and 21 million on North American flights - up nine per cent. Despite the American increase passenger numbers between the UK and North America did not return last year to the year 2000 level of 23 million. Passenger numbers were up 21 per cent last year on routes both to Africa and the Middle East.

The proportion of passengers at UK airports flying on UK scheduled airlines reached 50.1 per cent last year - the highest level for the last 20 years.

This contrasted with the proportion flying on UK charter carriers which, at 15.1 per cent last year, reached its lowest level for 20 years.