Virgin Atlantic president Sir Richard Branson has called for Heathrow to be expanded rather than for the government to sanction building a new airport in the Thames Estuary.

Branson stressed that more airport capacity is needed urgently and building an airport in the Thames could take 20 years.

Plans for a third runway at Heathrow were scrapped by the government coalition two years ago, but ministers have since shown some willingness to consider a new airport in the Thames estuary despite a moratorium on airport expansion in the southeast.

In an interview with BBC South East, Branson argued the UK was losing business to Continental Europe because of a lack of airport capacity.

He said: “There is no more capacity at Heathrow, Gatwick is pretty well full and much of the business is now going to France and Germany.”

Transport secretary Justine Greening is poised to launch a consultation on the future of UK aviation, including a review of airport capacity and of options including a new airport on reclaimed land in the Thames estuary.

Kent MP Gordon Henderson, who represents Sittingbourne and Sheppey, described the plan as “barmy”. The Conservative MP said: “I’m delighted that someone so high profile agrees with those of us that think it’s a barmy idea and uneconomic.

“It’s clear that if they built a hub in the Thames estuary they would have to close Heathrow. That would cause all sorts of logistical problems.”