Heathrow Airport: No decision until after general election
The final decision on UK airport expansion will be taken by the next government, ministers have confirmed.
A commission chaired by ex-Financial Services Authority boss Sir Howard Davies to examine ways to expand airport capacity will report in 2015.
Options include a third runway at Heathrow and a new four-runway facility in the Thames estuary.
The coalition was initially against Heathrow expansion but leading Tories are now calling for a third runway.
The commission will also look at possible expansion at two other major London airports - Gatwick and Stansted.
London Mayor Boris Johnson, who opposes the expansion of Heathrow, has called the decision to set up a commission a "fudge".
And he strongly criticised Prime Minister David Cameron's decision to remove transport secretary Justine Greening from her post, which he claimed was a prelude to a U-turn on a third runway.
Ms Greening's successor Patrick McLoughlin said the Davies commission would identify and recommend to government "options for maintaining this country's status as an international hub for aviation".
In a written statement, the new transport secretary 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."
The Davies commission will publish an interim report by the end of 2013, with ideas on how to improve the use of existing runway capacity over the next five years and an assessment of what is needed to maintain the UK's global hub status.
That will be followed, in the summer of 2015, by the commission's final report, which will include a recommendation on the best option for increasing airport capacity.
Mr McLoughlin said he wanted a fair and open process 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."
Downing Street also stressed the need for cross-party consensus on an issue that was of "fundamental importance to the long-term competitiveness of the UK".
"This is a contentious issue and if we are going to deliver a lasting solution for the UK, we need to move forward on an agreed evidence base and, if possible, a high degree of political consensus," said the prime minister's official spokesman.