The future of British aviation became yet more entangled with Conservative party politics today when London's mayor, Boris Johnson, called the government's approach to airport capacity “lamentable”.
Urging the prime minister to “Forget about the third runway at Heathrow”, Mr Johnson told an audience of business leaders at City Hall that David Cameron risked “economic catastrophe” unless a decision on new runways was accelerated. He 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 said 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.
The former Tory transport minister, Steve Norris, backed Stansted as “the only airport of the big three which actually has the capacity to add additional runways with minimal impact”.
Mike Carrivick, chief executive of the Board of Airline Representatives in the UK, speaks for 82 foreign carriers. He said: “The ideal solution right now, despite the mayor's objections, would be for a third runway [at Heathrow] sooner than later”.
Caroline Pidgeon, the Liberal Democrat leader in the London Assembly, rejected the mayor's argument for expansion: “All we hear from the aviation industry is they want to grow, they want to see additional runways, but actually they're not using their existing slots smartly”.