Ministers have reaffirmed their proposals to enlarge Heathrow and Stansted but also insisted that the projects would only go ahead if environmental concerns could be addressed.
The Government's refusal to abandon plans for major airport expansion came under fire from a wide "green" alliance ranging from Friends of the Earth to the Conservative Party.
In his "progress report" on the 2003 aviation White Paper, the Transport Secretary Douglas Alexander confirmed that a new runway at Stansted Airport would not be operational before 2015 - more than three years after the projected date put forward in the document.
He stressed there would be full consultation next year on the development of Heathrow where a "mixed mode" approach - take-offs and landings on the same runway - could be introduced. Mr Alexander also announced he would be consulting next year on an "emissions cost assessment" which will consider whether the aviation sector is meeting its external climate change costs.
He said that analysis since 2003 confirmed the view that a new Heathrow runway would have to be supported by a new passenger terminal and changes to nearby roads.
The announcement makes clear there has been a degree of slippage in the timetable elsewhere. The White Paper suggested extra capacity would be needed by 2016 at Birmingham and 2020 at Edinburgh. Both airports now believe the extra runways will not be needed until after 2020 because of more efficient use of existing facilities. At Leeds-Bradford runway extensions were supported by the White Paper, but the operators have no plans to take the idea forward.
Industry leaders backed the Government rather than the Conservatives, emphasising the contribution that aviation makes to the economy. Chris Grayling, the Tories' transport spokesman said: "The Government's policy of predict and provide for future aviation growth is completely inconsistent with the messages they are giving us on climate change."
Richard Dyer, aviation campaigner at Friends of the Earth, said: "The Government must listen to the alarm bells, abandon its airport expansion plans and take urgent action to cut carbon dioxide emissions."
He said Mr Alexander's plan to bring aviation into a European Union Emissions Trading Scheme was not a solution. "It will not be introduced for a number of years and is unlikely to lead to a significant reduction in the growth in air travel."
David Frost, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the expansion of Britain's aviation capacity was crucial given the increasing international nature of business. "I am glad that the Government has not bowed to the immense pressure being put upon it and that it recognises the economic imperative of expansion at Stansted and Heathrow," he said.Reuse content