Two of the most powerful figures in aviation have demanded urgent airport expansion in South-east England – reawakening the spectre of demolition in communities bordering on Heathrow, Stansted and Gatwick.
Michael O'Leary, chief executive of Ryanair, told The Independent that expansion at Stansted is essential: "A second runway would account for all the growth you need in the South-east for 10 or 20 years."
Stansted's current owner, BAA, withdrew a planning application for a second runway shortly after the last election. But the Essex airport is up for sale, and Ryanair has expressed an interest in taking a stake. Mr O'Leary said that if his airline were part of the successful bid, he would plan to "Grow it like gangbusters". Keith Williams, chief executive of British Airways, told the Aviation Club: "The goals of more capacity and connectivity are not the demands of the aviation industry. They are the demands of the British economy." He added: "This is a nettle which should have been grasped long ago."
While Mr Williams stopped short of calling for a third runway at his airline's main base, BA has lobbied intensively for expansion at Heathrow.
The Coalition has ruled out any additional runway in the South-east for the lifetime of this parliament. But in the reshuffle, Justine Greening – the strongly anti-expansion Transport Secretary – was moved, paving the way for a new runway to be announced soon after the next election. David Cameron has appointed the former head of the Financial Services Authority, Sir Howard Davies, to chair an independent commission on airport capacity. It will report in the summer of 2015 – meaning at least three more years of uncertainty for the communities alongside London's three biggest airports.
At Stansted, the village of Molehill Green would be demolished. Les Pratt, a retired carpenter and local resident, said: "We chose to move here because our son and our grandchildren live just round the corner from us. I would try to oppose expansion with whatever I could do within the laws of the land."
Peter Sanders, chairman of Stop Stansted Expansion, said: "This weakening of the Government's position is regrettable, indeed deplorable." But he added that he expected the new commission to draw the same conclusion as a 1980s report, that an extra runway at Stansted would be: "An unprecedented and wholly unacceptable major environmental and visual disaster."
Across at Sipson – a village that would be largely flattened to make way for a third runway at Heathrow – a hand-painted banner has been strung across the fence guarding an empty patch of land, reading: "BAA don't bully Sipson families 4 profit".
The proposed third runway would be suitable only for smaller, short-haul aircraft. Its western extent is limited by the 15th-century Harmondsworth Barn, which Sir John Betjeman called the "Cathedral of Middlesex". It is adjacent to a church and pub, the Five Bells, which would also be spared. The landlady, Michelle West, said: "Once the recession passes it's all just going to come back again – but there would be a hell of a fight."
A local resident, Jo Ryan, said: "The village will be cut off so it will die anyway. The school will be closed because of the aeroplanes. It wouldn't be feasible to have children in the school because it would be too noisy".
A spokesman for Heathrow's owner said: "We welcome the Government setting up an independent commission to look at hub airport capacity. It's vital to the UK's future that we examine objectively the pros and cons of all options. It's also vital that there's cross-party consensus over the commission – so whichever party wins the next election, its recommendations will be implemented."
Pro-expansion campaigners at Gatwick claim that a new runway at the Sussex airport would cause far less disruption than the options at Heathrow and Stansted. Jeremy Taylor, chief executive of Gatwick Diamond Business, said: "We've got the least number of affected households affected by a 'land-grab', and we have the access by rail and motorway."
An agreement signed in 1979 with West Sussex County Council prevents the construction of any new runway before August 2019. Gatwick's chief executive, Stewart Wingate, said "We recognise and respect that agreement. However, like any responsible business, Gatwick looks ahead into the future and thinks about what might be needed to continue to run a successful operation". A tranche of land south of the existing runway has been safeguarded in case of future expansion.
The Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign has long argued that: "It makes no sense to expand Gatwick so as to attract more passengers from the north. A new runway won't work before 2019, and it won't work after 2019."
Given that no decision is likely before the end of 2015, and the time likely to be taken for the planning process, the restriction looks increasingly irrelevant. Meanwhile, the bookmaker Ladbrokes is quoting odds of 7-1 for a third runway to be in use at Heathrow before 2020. When Michael O'Leary was asked by The Independent whether his airline would fly to Heathrow if a third runway was built, he said: "No, I suspect I'll probably be dead."