Cameron Holds Airport Summit As Row Looms
David Cameron has held a secret summit with the head of a panel reviewing options for expanding Britain's airport capacity as he braces for a major row to erupt on the issue next week.
Sky News has learnt that the Prime Minister met Sir Howard Davies on Wednesday to discuss the Airports Commission's interim report, which will be published on December 17.
Political tensions are running high ahead of the report amid speculation that it will shortlist just three favoured options, each of which includes the construction of at least one new runway at Heathrow Airport.
Boris Johnson, the Mayor of London, has expressed fury over reports suggesting that his idea for a new four-runway hub airport in the Thames Estuary has been sidelined.
People close to the Commission's work said that Sir Howard had been irritated by the speculation, suggesting that much of it had been inaccurate.
The panel is understood to have outlined three Heathrow-centric proposals: a third runway at the UK's biggest airport; a bigger expansion comprising two new runways there; and an additional runway there alongside a second runway at Gatwick.
That could mean only two viable proposals would be taken forward, since the owners of Gatwick have insisted that they will not build a second runway if Heathrow is also allowed to expand.
Mr Cameron is understood to have urged Sir Howard to include in next week's report an alternative option that does not involve a new runway at Heathrow.
That could mean a revival of the London Mayor's proposal or an expansion focused on London's third airport, Stansted.
A Downing Street spokesman said: "The Airports Commission is independent of Government and its work is a matter for it. It will deliver its interim report next week. The final report to Government is due in 2015.
"Part of the Airport Commission's remit is to engage with representatives from across the political spectrum. As the Airports Commission have made clear, Sir Howard Davies has met with political representatives in all parties, which includes the Prime Minister, as part of this process, but they have not been given a copy of the draft report."
Sir Howard met George Osborne, the Chancellor, earlier this week while Sky News understands that Mr Johnson met the Transport Secretary, Patrick McLoughlin, on Thursday to discuss a range of issues including the Airports Commission's review.
A Whitehall official pointed out that Mr Johnson had consistently said that he would assist the Commission's work but would "not necessarily be bound by its conclusions".
A spokesman for the Mayor declined to comment on his meeting with Mr McLoughlin, although Mr Johnson said publicly on Wednesday that if only three options remained after next week's report, each of which included expanding Heathrow, "that would be scandalous".
The publication of an interim report, which will set out several options meriting further analysis ahead of a formal recommendation after the 2015 general election, was supposed to defuse political tensions over Britain's future aviation capacity.
However, Sky News understands that the Government will publish an official response in the new year, underlining the difficulty it faces in navigating an issue that will feature in the manifestos of all the main parties in 18 months' time.
Stewart Wingate, Gatwick's chief executive, said: "Gatwick's case for a second runway is compelling. Compared to Heathrow we are cheaper, quicker, have a significantly lower environmental impact and we are the most deliverable solution.
"Heathrow's answer for passengers is to re-establish their monopoly which will mean high fares forever, and huge environmental damage to their local communities."
The requirement for new runway capacity has become more pressing as the south-east's airports reach bursting point.
Rival European hubs in Frankfurt and Paris are growing rapidly, while Dubai is expected to overtake Heathrow as the biggest airport by international passengers within two years.
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