There will be no firm decisions on UK airport expansion before the next general election, the Government confirmed today.
A future airport policy independent commission, to be chaired by former Financial Services Authority chairman Sir Howard Davies, will not publish its final report until the summer of 2015, the Government said.
A decision on whether to support any of the recommendations in the commission's final report will be taken by the next government, new Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said.
The announcement means that the debate over whether Heathrow should have a third runway or whether a new airport should be built in the Thames Estuary will drag on for many more months.
The coalition Government was initially opposed to a third runway at Heathrow - an expansion which was supported by the last Labour administration.
But leading Tories have, of late, called for a third runway, while London Mayor Boris Johnson and architect Lord Foster have proposed new estuary airports.
The Heathrow debate dominated Prime Minister David Cameron's Government reshuffle this week, with an anti-Heathrow expansion minister, Justine Greening, being removed from her post as Transport Secretary.
Announcing the Davies Commission in a written Parliamentary statement today, Ms Greening's successor Mr McLoughlin said the commission would identify and recommend to Government "options for maintaining this country's status as an international hub for aviation".
Mr McLoughlin said: "This is a very difficult debate, but the reality is that since the 1960s Britain has failed to keep pace with our international competitors in addressing long-term aviation capacity and connectivity needs."
He went on: "The Government believes that maintaining the UK's status as a leading global aviation hub is fundamental to our long-term international competitiveness.
"But the Government is also mindful of the need to take full account of the social, environmental and other impacts of any expansion in airport capacity."
Mr McLoughlin continued: "Successive governments have sought to develop a credible long-term aviation policy to meet the international connectivity needs of the UK.
"In each case the policy has failed for want of trust in the process, consensus on the evidence upon which the policy was based and the difficulty of sustaining a challenging long term policy through a change of Government.
"The country cannot afford for this failure to continue."
The Davies Commission will provide an interim report to the Government no later than the end of 2013, setting out:
:: An assessment of the evidence on the nature, scale and timing of the steps needed to maintain the UK's global hub status, and;
:: Recommendation(s) for immediate actions to improve the use of existing runway capacity in the next five years - consistent with credible long-term options.
The Commission will then publish by the summer of 2015 a final report, for consideration by the Government and Opposition parties, containing:
:: An assessment of the options for meeting the UK's international connectivity needs, including their economic, social and environmental impact;
:: Recommendation(s) for the optimum approach to meeting any need;
:: Recommendation(s) for ensuring that the need is met as expeditiously as practicable within the required timescale, and;
:: Materials to support the Government in preparing a national policy statement to accelerate the resolution of any future planning application(s).
Mr McLoughlin said the Government wanted the commission to be part of a process that is fair and open and which took account of the views of passengers and residents as well as the aviation industry, business, local and devolved government and environmental groups.
He added: "We would like, if possible, to involve the opposition as part of our work alongside Sir Howard to finalise the arrangements for the commission."
The commission will also look at possible expansion at two other major London airports - Gatwick and Stansted.
Mr McLoughlin said today: "Germany, France and the Netherlands have all grown their capacity more extensively than the UK over the years, and so are better equipped, now and in the future, to connect with the fast-growing markets of emerging economies.
"The consequences are clear. Our largest airport and our only hub airport - Heathrow - is already operating at capacity. Gatwick, the world's busiest single-runway airport, will be full early in the next decade, while spare capacity at Stansted airport is forecast to run out in the early 2030s."
Sir Howard, 61, was executive chairman of the Financial Services Authority from 1997 to 2003 and was deputy governor of the Bank of England from 1995 to 1997.
He was director of the London School of Economics from 2003 until last year.
Earlier in his career he was director general of the CBI and was special adviser to the then chancellor of the Exchequer Nigel (now Lord) Lawson in the 1980s.