The consultation, Adding Capacity at Heathrow Airport, outlines plans to enable the airport to handle around 700,000 flights a year.
The 2003 The Future of Air Transport White Paper identified the need for more runway capacity in the south east and supported further development at Heathrow, but only after a second runway was built at Stansted and provided strict local noise and air quality limits could be met public transport access improved.
But plans for a second runway at Stansted have met with strong resistance and Kelly has today indicated that expanding Heathrow is now a higher priority:
"Heathrow supports 170,000 jobs, billions of pounds of British exports and is our main gateway to the global economy. But for too long it has operated at nearly full capacity, with relatively minor problems causing severe delays to passengers.
"If nothing changes, Heathrow's status as a world-class airport will be gradually eroded - jobs will be lost and the economy will suffer. London and the UK's nations and regions alike are reliant on the good international connections that the Heathrow hub provides."
The consultation document also presents how Heathrow can be expanded without breaching European Union limits on air pollution and the government's own limits on noise pollution. These state that there be no net increase in the total area of the 57dBA noise contour, measured at 127sq.km in the summer of 2002 – at a time when the super-noisy Concorde was still operating daily flights.
The Project for the Sustainable Development of Heathrow was set up in 2004 to consider these details for the consultation. It included experts from the Highways Agency, the Civil Aviation Authority, the airport's operator BAA, the Government Office for London and has drawn on wider expertise from NATS and technical experts in air quality.
The plans are certain to be fiercely resisted by local and environmental groups.
Kelly said: "I am clear that any decision on expansion has to be compatible with meeting tough local environmental tests on noise and air quality. I fully understand this is an issue which raises strong feelings on all sides which is why we are making every effort to encourage people to make their views known."
The consultation also invites views on plans to introduce "mixed-mode" as an interim measure on the existing runways, allowing them to handle both take-offs and landings. This would permit up to 60,000 more flights a year, but would see an end to a series of agreements reached with local residents to provide them with predictable periods of noise relief.
The closing date for responses to the consultation is 27 February 2008.
Read the consultation at www.dft.gov.uk/heathrowconsultation