Airline bosses have warned that "the chickens are coming home to roost" after the "easy, populist decision" to scrap a third runway at Heathrow, as Britain's aviation industry delivered its loudest call yet to the coalition to spell out its strategy for airport expansion.
Union and business leaders joined the bosses of International Airlines Group, Virgin, Heathrow and Manchester airport on Monday to demand that an imminent consultation on aviation "does not become a pretext for further delay". They said years of indecision meant Britain was "falling behind as an economic powerhouse at the worst possible time".
Willie Walsh, chief executive of British Airways' owner IAG, said politicians could decide that "we're happy where we are â the quarter-finals â or we can decide to become winners. What we've said in this country is that we have no ambition and that message has gone around the world." He said the industry was "not asking for a penny from taxpayers, just for the government to get out of the way".
While the group, speaking collectively as the Aviation Foundation, said that "all options" needed to be considered, most indicated that they favoured Heathrow expansion as a solution. It said a successful consultation had to be quick, clear and objective, while achieving cross-party consensus.
Steve Ridgway, Virgin Atlantic boss, said blocking the third runway was causing Britain to lose opportunities and business when it could least afford it. "It was an easy and populist decision to make at the time, and now the chickens are coming home to roost. They can't fudge it any more. If that means painful conversations about Heathrow, let's have it, because the economic future is pretty stark. Our foreign competitors must be loving the inaction in the UK."
Brendan Barber, general secretary of the TUC, said: "I've not seen a credible alternative to the third runway and we desperately need the extra aviation capacity in the south-east."
John Longworth, director general of the British Chambers of Commerce, said the government must "stop tiptoeing around on aviation because of short-term political considerations."
The coalition is expected to publish a framework for aviation and launch a consultation on "hub capacity" in July, which will look at whether Britain needs larger airports to allow transfer of passengers and sustain long-haul routes. Walsh reiterated his threat to boycott any consultation that excludes expanding Heathrow, saying it would be a "joke" and "meaningless".
Colin Matthews, chief executive of BAA, Heathrow's owners, stressed that: "A new runway at an airport that isn't a hub is not the same as extra hub capacity."
However, bosses of other airports â although ostensibly spoken for by the Aviation Foundation â distanced themselves from his arguments.
Stewart Wingate, chief executive of Gatwick airport, said most air passengers travelled "point-to-point", and "connectivity" was the major question. "Is it possible to deliver an estuary airport? It seems unlikely. Given the population density around Heathrow, it makes the delivery [of a third runway] a problem. Stansted and Gatwick and other options seem to be more deliverable."
He said new aircraft, such as the Dreamliner and the A380, would make long-haul, point-to-point routes to emerging markets viable with fewer passengers, adding that Gatwick already served more destinations than Heathrow. Gatwick â which reported an 8.6% rise in turnover yesterday and pledged further investment as underlying earnings jumped 16.9% to ÂŁ221.5m â is reviving proposals for a second runway, to be built after 2020, which would double its current capacity of 35 million passengers a year.
Asked about the Aviation Foundation's proposals, Wingate said: "My focus is on the [Department for Transport] and what they say â that's the real driver here."
Birmingham airport, which is expanding its own runway, also dissented, saying the "hub" model needed replacing with a "balanced, national" aviation strategy. Paul Kehoe, the chief executive, said the government should "draw a line under old-fashioned industry thinking. It is time to start recognising that there is more than one solution for UK aviation."
Meanwhile, environmentalist groups warned against the "myth" that a third runway or expansion was essential for the UK economy. Hacan, which represents residents under the Heathrow flight paths, said the airport had more departure flights each week to key global business centres than its two closest rivals in Paris and Frankfurt combined.
Friends of the Earth said: "We don't need to build new airports or runways in the south-east âŠ Creating more air capacity will lead to more pollution, more misery for local communities and make it much harder to tackle climate change."