The aviation industry has criticised the postponement of a government consultation on future UK airport capacity needs.
Announcing the consultation would be put back to "later this year" Transport Secretary Justine Greening said an aviation solution was needed that was sustainable "not only economically and environmentally but also politically".
The British Air Transport Association said the government "cannot keep on kicking this issue into the long grass while our competitors gain at our expense".
"It is vital for the UK's economic prosperity that we have an aviation policy that addresses the needs of all the UK," said Simon Buck, chief executive of the British Air Transport Association.
It has been suggested that the coalition government has been divided over possible plans to build new airports or expand existing ones, including Heathrow in west London and that this has led to the consultation delay.
A "call for evidence" on how to maintain the UK's international connectivity and hub status was to have been published alongside an aviation policy framework document that the Transport Secretary did bring out today.
Greening said the policy framework document would be followed, later this year, by issuing an open call for evidence "inviting stakeholders to submit specific, evidence-based proposals for consideration in identifying the medium and long-term steps needed to meet the Government's economic and environmental objectives for aviation".
"This is a structured process towards delivering a solution that is sustainable, not only economically and environmentally but also politically," she said.
"Success depends upon agreeing a solution that can be delivered regardless of the political cycle and that requires an objective evidence-based process which draws on the views of the full range of interested parties."
Announcements made today included:
- Improving efficiency at the border, including a review of the UK's visa regime, bringing forward the recruitment of 70 additional border staff at Heathrow and working with the US authorities to look at the options for speeding up entry into the US;
- £500m towards a western rail link to Heathrow, which is in addition to £1.4bn already being invested to improve surface access to airports;
- Further liberalisation of the UK aviation market to encourage foreign airlines to develop routes from airports other than Heathrow;
- Improving reliability and reducing delays at Heathrow;
- Pushing for international action on aviation emissions while continuing to support EU Emissions Trading Scheme;
- Incentivising noise reduction though higher landing fees for noisier aircraft at unsociable hours and higher penalties for breaching noise limits at any time;
- Introducing airport performance charters which will set out the level of service that airlines and their passengers should expect from airport operators.
"This framework aims to strike a balance between allowing the aviation industry to make the most of our current capacity, while also recognising the need for a tough regime to tackle levels of noise experienced by residents on the ground," said Greening.
"London is already one of the best-connected cities in the world, but there is still an important but challenging debate to be had on how we accommodate the long-term growth of aviation."
The aviation industry had hoped that they could make their views known about future airport policy when the now-delayed call for evidence came out.
"This policy framework is long overdue, and now it is unveiled without addressing the key question – what does the government think about options for airport capacity?" said Virgin Atlantic chief executive Steve Ridgway.
"While the UK dithers, our international competitors race ahead.
"Research has shown that if our hub capacity continues to be constrained, it is likely to reduce economic activity in the UK by £8.5bn a year by 2021 and lower employment by almost 150,000."
As well as calls for the revival of the shelved plan for an extra, third, runway at Heathrow, pro-expansionists have also urged expansion of Stansted and Gatwick airports.
There are also two Thames Estuary new airport schemes – the "Boris Island" plan backed by London Mayor Boris Johnson and the £50bn project put forward by architect Lord Foster.
"We are concerned that a delay pushes the time for decision further away," said Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association.
"The UK economy needs a thriving airports sector with vibrant point-to-point airports and sufficient world-class hub capacity.
"The government must set a clear timetable and deadline to make decisions on this as soon as possible.
"The more we delay the more jobs, businesses and routes the UK loses to competitors."
Birmingham Airport chief executive Paul Kehoe said: "We called for a proper debate on aviation and the delay shows that the government has listened.
"For too long, aviation strategy has been determined by narrow self-interest, and the very important needs of London and the South East have been conflated with the wider national interest.
"Now we all have the time to come up with a strategy which will benefit the whole of the UK."
CBI director-general John Cridland said: "We have no time to lose in getting on with solving the UK's aviation capacity issues, if we are to double our exports by 2020. So the further delay to the government's call for evidence on future capacity is disappointing.
"Everyone understands this is a difficult issue, and not one with any easy answers. However, political deadlock is getting us nowhere, and every day the UK is losing out to its European rivals on new routes to growing markets."
Gatwick Airport chief executive Stewart Wingate said: "Aviation is a crucial part of the UK's infrastructure and it should be allowed to grow and prosper.
"But London and the South East has enough runway capacity today to boost the UK's connectivity to the rest of the world. Gatwick alone has room for another 11 million passengers off the single runway."
Shadow transport secretary Maria Eagle said: "The government cannot continue to keep its aviation strategy in a holding pattern without harming jobs and growth.
"A decision needs to be made on how to sustainably deliver the aviation capacity the country will need in the future and ministers have made a huge mistake in again delaying the call for evidence on how best to meet this challenge."