The future of British aviation became yet more entangled with Conservative party politics yesterday when London's Mayor, Boris Johnson, launched his strongest attack yet on Government policy.
Urging the Prime Minister to "forget about the third runway at Heathrow", he said Mr Cameron risked "economic catastrophe" unless a decision on new runways was accelerated, and added: "No European country is being so blind and so complacent."
Darren Caplan, chief executive of the Airport Operators Association, warned that the airport debate was becoming a proxy for a battle between the two Tories: "We don't want this continuing to next week's party conference as a game of political football. It's a real issue we need to take seriously."
The Coalition has ruled out any increase in airport capacity during the lifetime of this Parliament, but the Conservatives' previous opposition to a third runway has weakened.
The Prime Minister has appointed Sir Howard Davies to chair an independent commission to look at all options for expansion. It is due to report in 2015. But the London Mayor said: "As soon as they can abandon all hope of a third runway, the quicker we can find salvation."
Mr Johnson told an audience of business leaders at City Hall that the only solution to the squeeze on capacity in South East England is a four-runway hub. The Mayor has long supported a new airport in the Thames Estuary, dubbed "Boris Island". But for the first time he conceded Stansted would be a "realistic location" for expansion from one to four runways.
Stansted presently lies a distant third behind Heathrow and Gatwick in terms of passenger numbers. It was recently overtaken by Manchester as Britain's third-busiest airport. BAA, its owner, is being forced to sell Stansted on competition grounds.
Mr Johnson said the earliest a third runway could be completed at Heathrow would be around 2026-28, only two to four years sooner than the time it would take to build a new hub airport for the region.