updated 11/12/2009 6:12:32 PM ET 2009-11-12T23:12:32

European airport operators said Thursday that they are seeing a "slow and gradual" recovery in air travel in October after an unprecedented fall in passenger numbers.

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The Airports Council International Europe said that from January through September passenger traffic fell 7.7 percent and cargo slumped by 19.8 percent — wiping out gains in the number of people flying over the last three years.

That decline is starting to turn around, they said. But they don't expect air travel to make a sustained recovery until mid-2010 and said current growth is coming almost entirely from low-cost airlines who are adding airplanes and routes as major carriers freeze or cut back capacity.

Smaller regional airports are suffering worst from the downturn because they rely heavily on a limited number of airlines and routes, it said.

Spain, Ireland, Britain, Lithuania and Estonia "were particularly hard hit, reflecting the exposure of these national economies to the global crisis," it said.

ACI Europe revised upward a June traffic forecast, saying passenger numbers were now likely to fall 7 percent over the year with cargo down 15 percent — instead of its earlier estimates of an 8 percent drop in passenger figures and a 16 percent fall in cargo traffic.

It said airports are losing revenue from airlines and airport shops and restaurants while facing an increase in security costs.

"Security alone now accounts for up to 35 percent of airports' operating costs," it said. "On average, 41 percent of airport staff is now security related."

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