Airlines and unions have joined forces to issue a "red alert" to ministers, arguing that the west London complex is in desperate need of expansion if Britain is to retain its economic competitiveness. A government White Paper has proposed a third short runway for Heathrow, provided it can meet European targets for emissions.
The £3.5bn expansion at Madrid Barajas will increase its capacity by half to 120 take-offs and landings an hour - similar to Paris Charles de Gaulle - compared with Heathrow's current maximum of 85. Frankfurt and Schiphol also have plans to expand to 120 flights an hour.
Future Heathrow, a pressure group backed by a wide range of business interests, points out that the four runways at Barajas will be able to handle 70 million passengers a year, compared with Heathrow's 67 million.
Lord Soley, the campaign director for Future Heathrow, said the airport was "relentlessly" sliding down the league table. "The opening of two new runways at Madrid represents a red alert for the UK. We are being left behind in a critical component of national economic competitiveness.
"Having a high-capacity hub airport providing worldwide transport links is a prerequisite for economic success in the 21st century. Spain has realised that - just as France, Germany and the Netherlands have realised it by building new runways for their national hubs.
"Too many people assume that because Heathrow has been Britain's biggest passenger airport for years, it is guaranteed a place in the elite. This view could not be more wrong."
The pre-eminence of London's docks was taken for granted in the 1960s, but by 1980 they had all closed with the loss of 50,000 jobs, added Lord Soley. "I do not want a repeat in west London."
John Stewart, the chairman of Hacan ClearSkies, which is fighting expansion at Heathrow, said the Madrid runways were irrelevant. "This is the one European airport that is not a rival to Heathrow because of the close alliance between BA and Iberia, which is based at Madrid."
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