The UK needs a four-runway airport at Heathrow or Luton if it wants to compete with other European hubs, a think tank has said.
The best option would be four runways immediately west of the current Heathrow site in west London, the report from Policy Exchange said.
A four-runway airport at Luton in Bedfordshire would be the next-best option.
The report did not rule out an extra, third runway at Heathrow, but said Thames Estuary airport plans, as supported by London Mayor Boris Johnson and by architect Lord Foster, were not practical.
The report was written by Tim Leunig, chief economist at the liberal think tank CentreForum, who said: "We can and should expand aviation capacity in south-east England.
"Doing so will send a much-needed signal to people that Britain is open for business.
"It is possible to expand Heathrow in such a way that it cements itself as Europe's number one hub while significantly reducing the noise nuisance over west London. A four-runway airport would be straightforward to construct and relatively low-cost by the standards of hub airports.
"It causes the lowest level of disruption to the wider economy of any likely airport expansion scenario."
Policy Exchange said an estuary airport would be too difficult to get to for too many people and would present greater environmental and construction challenges than expansion at Heathrow.
Also ruled out were four-runway airports at Gatwick or Stansted.
The report also called for a complete ban on the noisiest of aircraft at all times, a complete ban on night flights (between 11pm and 6.15am) and steeper landing angles to cut down on noise.
Heathrow is operating close to full capacity after the government blocked development of a third runway as further expansion of the site would mean a huge increase in the number of planes flying directly over the capital.
A commission chaired by former Financial Services Authority head Howard Davies to analyse ways to expand airport capacity in south-east England will report in the summer of 2015 after releasing an interim report next year, Patrick McLoughlin said last month.
BAA has seen traffic between Heathrow and emerging markets rise in recent years and believes it is now falling behind rival European airports in Frankfurt, Paris and Amsterdam in the battle for these lucrative routes because of constraints on growth.
"The strength with which the different options are put forward shows precisely why we were right to set up a proper independent review with the timescale to consider fully what is in the country's interest," said a DfT spokeswoman.
"Maintaining the UK's status as a leading aviation hub is vital to our economy and history suggests that, without an agreed evidence base and a high degree of political consensus, it will not be possible to deliver a lasting solution that is right for the UK."