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Happy landing?

Recent leaks suggest that the government will approve as many as three new airport runways around London. Damian Arnold reports on the fight for the right to lay plane asphalt in the South East.

Whitehall policy advisers are huddled over maps of south east England, sweating in the knowledge that they will soon have to recommend the site of London's next runway.

Time is running out for them to recommend to ministers where to build arguably the most controversial few kilometres of asphalt ever.

Pressure on the powers that be is fast reaching fever pitch because no action has been taken since 1990 when then chairman of the Civil Aviation Authority Sir Christopher Tugendhat wrote to Tory transport minister Cecil Parkinson: 'I cannot emphasise too strongly the importance we attach to the early identification of the next site for major runway development'.

Twelve years and a Rugby XV of transport ministers later, this government has finally taken on the responsibility of resolving the massive undercapacity to halt market loss to western European neighbours.

Charles De Gaulle in Paris has four runways while Frankfurt will have four by 2006. Schipol in Amsterdam will soon have five runways and is gunning to monopolise the market in transfer traffic that accounts for 30% of Heathrow's business. New European airstrips, we are told, threaten the £10bn contribution that aviation makes to the UK's economy.

Politicians from all sides, including chair of the transport select committee Gwynneth Dunwoody, have strongly urged the government to ensure there is capacity to cash in on the expected doubling of current UK levels of 180M passengers a year by 2020.

The first formal response to the declaration of runway capacity war will surface in April with the government's South East Regional Airport Study by consultant Halcrow. This will identify as many as 30 sites where capacity could be added. These will be 'brigaded' into five packages and presented in the White Paper.

Whitehall leaks suggest that the government's response will be to back new runways at Heathrow, Gatwick and Stansted airports in this autumn's Aviation White Paper.

This supposed hardening of policy comes after a year of concerted pressure from operators and the business community.

The argument from the CBI to the Airline Operators Association is that London hasn't had a major new runway for 50 years while Paris has had two since the last World Cup.

While the UK's growing enthusiasm for new runways is unlikely to stretch to building on war graves, like a scheme recently approved near Paris, the planning process for runways and other big infrastructure projects in the UK will be fast tracked.

However, even if the legislation passes muster, industry experts predict that planning and building new capacity in the South East will still take at least 10 years. In the meantime, capacity around London's airports is predicted to saturate and overspill within five years. The White Paper must accept regional airports taking a bigger slice of the pie in the short term, say the lobbyists.

Scott Wilson director David Farthing champions the cause of RAF Finningly, now restyled as Doncaster Airport. 'It could soak up many of the five million plus people who come down from Yorkshire and Humberside to London to fly, ' he says. Other likely northern candidates are Liverpool, the fastest growing regional airport in Europe; and Manchester which boasts a capacity for 19M a year.

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