More British fliers would prefer to expand regional airports rather than any other option. Ian Taylor reports on an exclusive TNS survey for Travel Weekly

UK air travellers favour expanding regional airports over building a third runway at Heathrow or expanding other airports in the southeast, according to research for Travel Weekly.

The study by TNS found only one in 10 air travellers back building a Thames estuary airport, almost the same proportion as want a stop to all airport expansion (9%).

The findings come amid growing pressure for the government to ditch its ban on expanding Heathrow and as Conservative leaders appear increasingly uncomfortable with the coalition policy of no new runways in the southeast.

Tory MPs and business groups have lobbied for transport secretary Justine Greening, who has opposed Heathrow expansion, to be replaced next month.

Yet the research suggests ditching Greening would not curry favour among most fliers, despite twice as many preferring Heathrow expansion to building a new hub airport.

The study of more than 1,050 UK adults found that 49% had flown in the past two years. These fliers were asked to name “the best option” for developing UK airports.

More than one in five (22%) said the priority should be “to expand facilities and services at regional airports not in London and the southeast”, 18% opted for a third runway at Heathrow and 16% backed investment in high-speed rail so airports could “focus on international flights”.

Only 4% backed the government ban on airport expansion in the southeast. One in five (21%) were undecided.

The proportion in favour of expanding Heathrow was highest in the southeast, but less popular among Londoners – only one in seven choosing that option. Expanding regional airports had most support in the north.

When respondents’ preferred and second-best options were taken together, 37% favoured expanding regional airports, 34% investment in high-speed rail and 28% a third Heathrow runway.

A Thames estuary airport was the least popular of the expansion options, with just 20% putting it in their top two.

Support for regional airports was especially strong among 35 to 54-year-olds living in better-off households.

High-speed rail was favoured by those in the east of England, Yorkshire and Humberside, and the southwest.

Not surprisingly, air passengers showed a strong preference for flying from a nearby airport. In London, 58% preferred Heathrow, but in the southeast as a whole 47% preferred Gatwick against 29% for Heathrow.

Nationally, 20% chose Heathrow, 15% Manchester and 13% Gatwick as their preferred airport. No airport outside these top three – the country’s biggest – rated in double figures.

However, Stansted – the UK’s fourth-biggest airport – was rated below smaller airports Birmingham and East Midlands and on a par with Bristol. Luton (the UK’s fifth-biggest) was 11th out of 14 airports behind Newcastle, Glasgow and Cardiff.

TNS head of travel and tourism Tom Costley said: “This evident consumer preference for using local airports is a feature we have identified in previous studies and is especially relevant for the occasional flier.

“The diversity of opinion regarding strategy for developing airport capacity is interesting. Regional influence continues to have a significant impact.”

TNS interviewed 1,052 respondents as part of the TNS Omnibus survey in May.