The operator of Heathrow plans to develop a third runway on its existing site with the option of adding a fourth much later this century, according to a report today.

Heathrow Airport Holdings is likely to seek permission for a “phased” approach to runway growth, the Financial Times reports, citing two people familiar with the situation.

Heathrow is focusing on options for adding a third runway close to its existing operations.

One added that this infrastructure could support growth in air travel through to 2040 or later.

That person said Heathrow could also seek permission to “safeguard” land for a fourth runway that could be built at some point much later this century, but there was no guarantee construction would happen.

This approach would enable Heathrow to emphasise that expansion would be cheaper than building a hub in the Thames estuary, favoured by London mayor Boris Johnson, and could be financed through the charges airlines pay for using the west London hub, the newspaper reports.

Heathrow said in a submission to the Airport Commission in March that, while it needed a third runway “now”, the need for a fourth “may not materialise”, given uncertainty about passenger growth forecasts that extend to 2050.

A third runway at Heathrow, backed by the former Labour government but rejected by the coalition, has been projected to cost up to £13 billion, compared to estimates of £20 billion.