PASSENGER numbers at Prestwick have surged by 29% over the last three months as Ryanair added new routes from the airport.

The no-frills operator put on services to Barcelona in Spain and the Polish cities of Bydgoszcz and Warsaw for its winter schedule, with about 120,000 people passing through the terminal between November and January.

It is a welcome boost for the struggling Ayrshire airport, which was put up for sale by its New Zealand owner Infraco a year ago but has struggled to find a buyer. Its woes were com-pounded last month when Polish airline Wizz Air relocated its two routes to Glasgow Airport, leaving Ryanair as the sole passenger airline operating from Prestwick.

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The uplift follows a steep drop in passenger numbers a year ago as Ryanair decided to ground many of its aircraft over the winter in order to save on fuel costs. That saw about 60,000 fewer passengers use the airport between November and January.

However, Iain Cochrane, the airport's chief executive, said the latest figures were cause for "cautious optimism" and the strategy of positioning Prestwick as Scotland's low-cost gateway to popular holiday destinations was paying off.

"January's figures represent a satisfying start to the year and the outlook for the rest of 2013 is very encouraging," he said.

"Thanks to new routes and extra frequencies announced by our partner Ryanair for our summer programme, we expect passenger numbers will continue to rise."

Ryanair recently ended months of speculation about its future at Prestwick by announcing two new routes for its summer schedule and increasing the frequency of other services, with the total number of flights due to go from 86 to 95 a week. The total number of routes will increase to 27, with new services to Warsaw and the Polish city of Rzeszow. The airport is due to employ 50 extra ground staff over the summer to cope with the increased demand.

Mr Cochrane added: "A recent report shows last year we supported over 1800 jobs in Scotland, many in tourism, and helped boost the Scottish economy by almost £62 million.

"However, our task in helping to build a stronger economy continues to be frustrated by the imposition of Air Passenger Duty, a toxic UK Government tax that damages tourism and weakens Scotland's competitiveness. For example, once we had eight daily flights from here to London Stansted; now, because of the tax, we have none.

"We therefore renew our call for the tax to be devolved to the Scottish Government so revenues raised can support Scottish aviation and help attract new routes."