Heathrow should get a third multi-billion pound runway by 2030 to cope with increasing demands for flights to Asia and freight, a major report has urged, but the recommendation has sparked a major battle.
The Airports Commission headed by Howard Davies was deliberately set up by the Conservative/Liberal Democrat government – which was divided between, and within, the parties on the issue – to report after the May election.
Making its recommendations on Wednesday, it proposed that the £25 billion project should be given the go-ahead in the teeth of objections from nearly 750,000 people living on the western side of London.
It had investigated three options: two at Heathrow and one at Gatwick on the eastern side of the city, which ran an energetic public campaign to get support for a second runway, arguing that it would affect far fewer people.
However, the commission rejected the Gatwick option, saying that an extra runway at Heathrow offered the chance to increase the number of flights to emerging markets in Asia and elsewhere.
Meanwhile, freight traffic from Heathrow could be dramatically increased with a new runway, particularly since the world’s major logistics companies already have major operations at the west London airport.
The report's findings, though predictable, pose equally predictable problems for prime minister David Cameron, given that Conservative MPs representing constituencies over much of Heathrow's flight-path will have to oppose it.
Leading Conservative, mayor of London, Boris Johnson, who now represents Uxbridge, said he believed the runway will never be built, saying it was "the sort of thing you could possibly have got away with in China in the 1950s", but not in London today.
Illustrating the immediate political pressures, Labour's Sadiq Khan, who is bidding to win Labour's nomination to run for the London mayoralty, has vowed that the runway will not be built if he gets elected.
Conservative MP for Richmond, Zac Goldsmith, who may be a contender for the Conservatives' nomination for the mayoralty next May, said an extra Heathrow runway is no more "politically deliverable any more than it is legally deliverable".
However, the Conservative government and Heathrow have made considerable play of claims that greater capacity at Heathrow will offer regional airports throughout the UK direct links to it.
Twelve airports in the UK have lost direct flights to Heathrow since 1990 because of capacity problems there, which has led opponents of IAG's planned takeover of Aer Lingus to argue that Cork and Shannon routes would inevitably be lost in the event of a deal getting over the line.
During a Commons debate, the Democratic Unionist Party's deputy leader, North Belfast MP, Nigel Dodds demanded that Belfast's two airports should enjoy guaranteed landing slots at Heathrow, which is not the case at the moment.
“Whether for tourism or investment, Northern Ireland needs to have direct links into Heathrow as the gateway to London and the main aviation hub for the United Kingdom,” he said.
Construction on a new runway cannot begin before 2020, even if the UK’s transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin quickly backs its verdict, although he has talked of returning to MPs “by the end of the year”after studying the report.