London airport expansion plans in jeopardy

Plans to expand airports around London are in jeopardy after the government postponed the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow and the Civil Aviation Authority capped airline charges at Stansted.

Airport operator BAA intended to use increased charges at Stansted to build a second runway at the airport after the government gave planning permission.

Anti-expansion protestors breached a Stansted perimeter fence and closed the airport for five hours on Tuesday, then vowed to make similar protests at Heathrow.

Transport secretary Geoff Hoon delayed a decision on expanding Heathrow until the end of January – the third delay this year – saying he needed more time. Hoon signalled support for a third runway, in line with government policy since 2003, but said: “There are strong views across a range of interests.”

Another runway would increase flights at Heathrow from 480,000 to 700,000 a year.

At least five ministers oppose the expansion and the Conservatives have vowed to cancel construction. Many Labour MPs fear opposition to a third runway would cost the party seats at a general election.

The protest at Stansted led to the cancellation of 54 Ryanair flights and police made 57 arrests. Ryanair blamed BAA for not removing the protestors quickly. But passengers hit out at Ryanair for lack of information. Police had to control check-in queues before people were ordered to leave and re-book online.

Development of a second Stansted runway appears on hold after the CAA excluded the £2.3 billion project from its price-control regime at the airport until 2014 – in line with a recommendation by the Competition Commission.

Airline charges at Stansted will be capped at £6.34 per passenger for 2009-11, then at the annual rate of inflation plus 1.63% until 2014 – with the airport forced to compensate carriers for lengthy security or baggage delays.

The Competition Commission is expected to order BAA to sell Stansted in March. The airport operator put Gatwick up for sale this week and expects bids by January 19.

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