IN DECEMBER 2003 the government's Aviation White Paper set out a long-term strategy for air travel aimed at balancing the need to travel with the need to protect the environment.
The White Paper's environmental slant was clear. It rejected plans for new capacity at several airports and in greeneld sites, instead opting to develop regional airports by making better use of existing capacity.
The only commitment to new runway building was a second runway at Stansted, with a vague promise that a third runway at Heathrow would follow.
A progress report on the White Paper released late last year reafirmed this strategy and last week airport operator BAA gave the strongest indication yet that the plan remains on track by announcing it will seek planning permission for the second runway at Stansted (News last week).
But the Stansted choice remains deeply unpopular with airlines. 'From an airlines' perspective, Stansted was always the lowest priority in terms of investment, ' says Roger Wiltshire, secretary general of trade association British Air Transport Association. 'The airlines - BAA's customers - have difficulties with the project so BAA have opposition.' he major international players want more landing slots at Heathrow and the budget airlines are adamant that they will not pay hiked landing charges to fund the £2.7bn that BAA plans to spend on a new runway and terminal at Stansted.
Ryanair chief executive Michael O'Leary dismissed it as a 'gold-plated Taj Mahal' while Easyjet chief executive Andy Harrison said it remained 'over engineered and too expensive'.
The two airlines believe the new runway could be much shorter, require only 200ha (as opposed to 486ha) of land and be built for less than £1bn.
BAA - of ially at least - remains committed to Stansted and says the plans are 'fit for purpose'. But a lot has happened to BAA since December 2003, not least its takeover by the Spanish giant Ferrovial. As a rcely commercially driven organisation it is far less likely to toe the political line than its predecessor.
And today marks the end of a Competition Commission consultation over whether or not BAA's monopoly position in the South East should be investigated, which could take two to three years.
It seems certain that ultimately the Commission will force BAA to sell off one or more of its four South East sites. Stansted would fetch a far higher price as a site with planning permission than one without.
And finally there is the competition. Luton airport has set out plans to shift its runway in a bid to increase capacity and remains committed to the cheap and cheerful airport model favoured by Easyjet and Ryanair.
Heathrow remains the golden goose of UK airports and is only going to increase in worth when Terminal 5 opens next year and the razing and replacement of Terminal 2 swings into action.
All it needs is more runway capacity and in Future Heathrow there is even a campaign for it.