Britain's Heathrow Airport swung back to a profit last year for the first time since the pandemic after passenger numbers returned to close to pre-COVID levels, and it forecast a rise to a record 81.4 million travellers this year.

Heathrow, Britain and Europe's busiest hub, on Wednesday reported annual adjusted pretax profit of 38 million pounds ($47.91 million) for 2023, up from a loss of 684 million pounds in 2022, its first profit in four years.

The return to the black comes as a number of Heathrow's current shareholders, including Spain's Ferrovial, are looking to sell their stakes in the airport.

Heathrow said the popularity of transatlantic travel, to New York in particular, pushed 2023 passenger numbers to 79.2 million last year and it expected to add 2 million this year.

But while surging travel demand will boost the airport's finances, it is also facing a 20% cut in real terms to its charges this year under new prices set by the regulator.

"We will have to pull every lever to become more efficient and make tough choices on where we spend and invest our money," Thomas Woldbye, who became chief executive in October, said.

Last year, Ferrovial agreed to sell its 25% stake in Heathrow for $3 billion to Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund (PIF) and Ardian, in a deal, which allows other shareholders to "tag-along" and divest at the same price as Ferrovial.

Shareholders in Heathrow accounting for a 35% stake also intend to sell their shares alongside Ferrovial, the Spanish firm said in January, meaning the deal now depends on the buyers increasing their stakes or finding a partner.

Heathrow said that it did not pay its investors a dividend in 2023 and none were forecast for this year, but it added they were "plausible subject to financial performance". ($1 = 0.7931 pounds) (Reporting by Eva Mathews in Bengaluru and Sarah Young in London; Editing by Rashmi Aich and Tomasz Janowski