The owner of Heathrow airport will be free to make the case for a third runway during the consultation on how to preserve Britain’s status as a leading aviation hub, the transport minister says.

In an interview, Theresa Villiers, whose responsibilities include aviation, reiterated the government’s opposition to expansion of Heathrow but said BAA, Heathrow’s operator, could lobby for a change of policy.

Ms Villiers hit back at the government’s aviation critics, denying that the decision to reject the previous Labour administration’s plan for a third runway at Heathrow was a pitch to secure votes in west London, where residents object to the noise generated by jets flying into the airport.

She also strongly rejected suggestions that ministers were being “slow” by not coming to a conclusion on how to respond to Britain’s hub airport capacity crunch until the spring of next year.

The government has delayed a consultation document about airport capacity issues from March to the summer. BAA has signalled that it could take legal action if ministers refuse to consider responses that make the case for Heathrow expansion.

Ms Villiers highlighted how the general election manifestos of both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrat opposed a third runway at Heathrow but said: “If BAA want to come along and argue for a different approach – of course we’ll consider their representations and the evidence that they submit.”

Heathrow, the UK’s only hub airport, is operating near full capacity, and BAA says Britain risks missing out on trade worth £14bn over the next decade because the airport is struggling to support aviation links to fast-growing emerging markets.

Ms Villiers responded by saying the government had to balance the needs of the economy with concerns about the environmental impact of aviation.

“We have to make a decision, as a government, based on the evidence of what’s best for our economy and UK plc,” she said.

“The commercial interest of BAA is one thing – it’s not necessarily the same as the economic needs of the overall economy. We have a wider picture to look at.”

Some in the aviation industry consider Heathrow’s expansion to be the only affordable way of preserving the UK’s position as a leading aviation hub, although Lord Foster, the architect, has proposed a new airport in the Thames estuary.

While acknowledging that Heathrow was “very full”, Ms Villiers questioned whether the UK was suffering from a capacity crunch.

She highlighted how British Airways, by combining with BMI British Midland and gaining new take-off and landing slots at Heathrow under a deal completed last month, was starting to provide new routes to Asia from the airport.

Ms Villiers said the aviation industry needed to consider whether some flights coming into Heathrow could land at other airports in south-east England with spare capacity, so that the hub could focus on destinations “with the greatest economic added value”.

“There’s a conversation to be had about how we can use our spare capacity in the south-east,” she said.

She accused the former Labour administration of wrongly trying to make its aviation policy fit a predetermined outcome of increasing airport capacity. As well as expanding Heathrow, Labour also backed a second runway at Stansted airport.

The minister denied that the coalition was making a similar mistake to Labour in its policy making by saying it would look at all options for securing the UK’s aviation hub status apart from building a third runway at Heathrow.

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