A new runway at either Heathrow or Gatwick is a step closer after a Government-appointed commission shortlisted the two sites.
The Airports Commission, headed by former Financial Services Authority chief Sir Howard Davies, has concluded that there is a need for one additional runway to be in operation in the south east of the UK by 2030, in its interim report published today.
The three options the commission says it will be taking forward for further detailed study proposals are Heathrow’s proposal for one new 3,500m runway to the northwest; extending Heathrow’s existing northern runway to at least 6,000m enabling it to operate as two independent runways; and Gatwick’s proposal for a new runway to the south of the existing runway.
It added that its analysis also indicated "that there is likely to be a demand case for a second additional runway to be operational by 2050".
The commission has not shortlisted proposals for expansion at either Stansted airport in Essex or at Birmingham Airport, though Sir Howard's team said there was likely to be a case for considering Stansted and Birmingham as potential options for any second new runway by 2050.
The commission also said it had not shortlisted any of the Thames Estuary options, favoured by London mayor Boris Johnson, "because there are too many uncertainties and challenges surrounding them at this stage”.
But it said it would undertake further study of the Isle of Grain option in the first half of 2014 and "will reach a view later next year on whether that option offers a credible proposal for consideration alongside the other shortlisted options".
There are no firm long-term proposals in the commission's interim report. Those will come when the commission makes its final report in the summer of 2015 – after the next general election.
Launching the report, Sir Howard said: "Decisions on airport capacity are important national strategic choices and must be based upon the best evidence available.
“The commission has undertaken a fresh, comprehensive and transparent study of the issues. This report is the product of extensive consultation, independent analysis and careful consideration by the commissioners."
He continued: "The UK enjoys excellent connectivity today. The capacity challenge is not yet critical but it will become so if no action is taken soon and our analysis clearly supports the provision of one net additional runway by 2030.
"In the meantime, we encourage the Government to act on our recommendations to make the best of our existing capacity.
"The commission will now focus on the challenge of appraising the three options, further assessing the case for a new airport in the Thames Estuary, and delivering a robust final recommendation to Government in summer 2015."
The interim report was welcomed by bosses of Heathrow and Gatwick, with Stansted's owners saying they were pleased that the airport was being considered for expansion after 2030.
Philippa Oldham, head of Transport and Manufacturing at the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, said: “If the UK economy is to remain globally competitive, it is vital that we address the UK’s looming airport capacity crunch. The South East as a whole is predicted to reach full airport capacity by 2030 if nothing is done to remedy the problem.
“This shortlist offers some much welcome clarity on the country’s options. In drawing up this shortlist, the Airports Commission has rightly prioritised market demand and cost-effectiveness. Gatwick is now one of the shortlisted options, reflecting the rise in demand for budget airline flights.
"But while the shortlist addresses the shortfall in aviation capacity, it is also vital that action is taken to ensure that the rest of our transport infrastructure can cope with this projected increase.”