British Airways carried nearly four per cent fewer passengers last month, partly as a result of unofficial strike action which badly hit its services at London Heathrow.

The airline yesterday said it handled 3,101,000 during August, a fall of 3.9 per cent on the same month last year. In the UK/European market, passenger traffic fell 4.9 per cent, down from 2,170,000 to 2,063,000.

The carrier said traffic on African and Middle East routes was down 6.6 per cent to 249,000, while in the Americas it was adrift 2.6 per cent to 629,999. But on Asian Pacific routes it climbed ten per cent to 159 , 000 passengers.

BA's overall passenger load factor - a measure of how full its planes were - rose 0.2 per cent to 77.9 per cent. However in the UK/Europe market the figure was down three per cent to 71.9 per cent.

The airline was forced to cancel all its flights out of Heathrow from 6pm on August 11 to 8pm the following evening as a result of a strike by ground services staff in support of workers dismissed from Gate Gourmet, its Heathrow catering supplier. The dispute is still not fully resolved.

BA said it expects to see annual revenues for the year to March 2006 increase by between 5.5 and 6.5 per cent.

Meanwhile budget airline Ryanair seized upon the woes of BA to claim it was now the world's favourite airline after carrying more passengers in one month for the first time. Ryanair carried 3.26 million passengers in August - 156,000 more than its rival.

Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary said: "It's official - Ryanair has today become the world's favourite airline."

BA dismissed the claim.