Such is Jenine Langrish’s anguish with noisy passenger aircraft flying over her Victorian house close to Heathrow airport that in 2010 she decided to vote for the Conservative party for the first time in her life.

Previously a Liberal Democrat supporter, Ms Langrish voted for Zac Goldsmith, an environmental campaigner, because as Conservative candidate for Richmond Park, west London, he promised to fight plans to build a third runway at Heathrow.

“I really wanted the Conservatives to win,” says Ms Langrish, highlighting how the party opposed the former Labour government’s plans for expansion at Heathrow because of concerns about aviation’s contribution to climate change. “I wanted the certainty there would not be any expansion of Heathrow.”

A former fund manager, Ms Langrish is a member of the Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise, an influential lobby group. Even though the Lib Dems also oppose a third runway, she decided to vote Conservative, judging that the party had a more realistic chance of forming a government and thus blocking Heathrow’s expansion.

Opposing the third runway undoubtedly won the Conservatives votes – and possibly seats, including Richmond Park – and they went on to form a coalition government with the Lib Dems. But now – with the UK economy facing a period of near-stagnation– is David Cameron, prime minister, starting to regret his decision to reject the case for a third runway at Heathrow? “We were trying to get the green vote and it’s backfired because we now have a very obvious problem – we need more flights,” says one Conservative minister, who declines to be named.

Aviation has been the midwife of globalisation, but Heathrow is struggling to assist airlines, led by British Airways, in that role – notably by supporting more flights to emerging markets – because the airport is operating at full capacity. As a result, Britain risks losing billions of pounds in trade and investment.

Heathrow became a gateway to the world more than half a century ago at the start of the jet age, and assumed the status of the largest airport by number of international passengers. But its capacity crunch means it is now losing out in a global battle to provide links to fast-growing developing countries. Once a catwalk on which to parade Britain’s leadership in the aerospace industry, it is in serious danger of being marginalised as a globally significant hub airport.

At hubs, there are significant numbers of “transfer passengers” – people who fly into the airport on one aircraft then leave soon after on another for their final destination. These arrangements should mean that airlines at Heathrow – primarily British Airways and its partners in the Oneworld carrier alliance – are able to fill their aircraft with sufficient passengers to support a broad global network of profitable long-haul routes.

In truth, however, the airlines operating at Heathrow are heavily focused on routes to the US because the business-oriented north Atlantic market is the most lucrative in the world.

It is the airports in Amsterdam, Frankfurt and Paris, which each boast four or more runways, that are stepping in to enable more flights to emerging markets. Dubai airport is expanding at a breathtaking pace, linking west with east, and aims to replace Heathrow as the largest by international passengers by 2015. Airports in Abu Dhabi and Doha have similar plans.

The number of destinations served by Heathrow has actually been falling. “There is a real possibility that the UK will lose its hub airport capability,” says Daniel Moylan, transport adviser to Boris Johnson, London’s mayor, who has championed the case for a new, four-runway hub airport to the east of London in the Thames estuary. “It is already the case that some British people use Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam as their hub airport, and this could just become the norm.”

Proposals for a Thames estuary airport have been around since the 1940s, or as long as Heathrow has been operating. Edward Heath’s Conservative government backed plans for such an airport in 1971, but the project was subsequently dropped by Harold Wilson’s Labour administration. It underlines how aviation policy has been a political football for the past 40 years, and that Britain’s politicians have collectively failed to ensure that the UK has a hub airport capable of coping with rising demand for air travel.

The coalition government will belatedly start to address some of these issues this month in a policy paper, amid signs that Mr Cameron and George Osborne, chancellor, could back the case for a new Thames estuary airport. However, the government is unlikely to reach final decisions until 2013, and this policy vacuum is a “disgrace”, says Willie Walsh, chief executive of International Airlines Group, parent of BA – the biggest airline at Heathrow.

You would not choose to build an airport at Heathrow today. Towards the end of second world war, when it was selected as London’s new airport, Heathrow was surrounded by apple orchards and open fields.

Now, the airport is hemmed in on three sides by London’s suburban sprawl, which explains why jet noise is such an issue for the capital’s residents.

Heathrow has earned the unfortunate distinction of being the European Union’s noisiest airport. An estimated 725,000 people who live around Heathrow or under its flight paths are affected by noise that is deemed to be a nuisance. This amounts to 29 per cent of the EU population affected by such noise.

But it is not just Londoners who are angry. Passengers have long complained about “Heathrow hassle” – its confusing layout, cramped terminals and delays. Heathrow’s poor customer service record is rooted in not having enough runway capacity. It is constantly struggling to cram in its permitted 480,000 combined landings and take-offs each year on two runways.

Given aircraft are taking off or landing every 45 seconds, there is no slack in the system to cope with bad weather. For example, one day last month almost half of all scheduled flights were cancelled because of snow and fog.

All of this ultimately matters because Heathrow is the UK’s only hub. Without new runways, airlines have little incentive to start providing routes to emerging markets. This could be a major problem as developing countries are expected to grow faster than Europe and the US. BAA, Heathrow’s owner, commissioned a report by Frontier Economics last September that found the UK could miss out on trade worth at least £14bn over the next decade because of the airport’s capacity constraints.

This could explain why the government now seems to be waking up to the benefits of having a properly functioning hub. In November, Mr Osborne said the government would look at all options for preserving the UK’s “aviation hub status” – apart from a third runway at Heathrow.

Ministers are therefore expected to consider the case for expanding London’s other main airports, Gatwick and Stansted. However, their initial focus is likely to be on a proposal by Lord Foster, the architect whose portfolio includes Beijing’s new airport and the restored Reichstag building in Berlin, for a new hub in the Thames estuary. Steve Hilton, Mr Cameron’s policy chief, is said by one government official to believe that an estuary airport “is the major pro-growth big idea”.

The chosen site for Lord Foster’s airport – the Isle of Grain on Kent’s Hoo peninsula – is a sparsely populated wilderness some 30 miles from London. Charles Dickens captured the area’s raw desolation when he used it as the setting for Great Expectations.

“It’s as close as you can get to a greenfield site,” says Lord Foster. “Why not seize the opportunity?”

His Thames Hub plan is actually far more than just an airport. He is recommending a highly ambitious overhaul of some of the antiquated infrastructure of south-east England, including a high-speed rail link from the airport to London and a new Thames river barrier. As well as enabling the construction of new homes on previously flood-threatened land, the barrier would serve as a tunnel for road and rail links between the airport and London.

The price tag for all this is an eye-watering £50bn, consisting of £20bn for the airport and £30bn for the other components. Invoking the spirit of Britain’s Victorian engineers, Lord Foster urges the government to act decisively. His exasperation at how Heathrow’s Terminal 5 took 20 years to move from design competition to opening, is evident. Beijing airport’s Terminal 3 took just four-and-a-half years to do the same thing.

But the Thames Hub project is attracting growing numbers of sceptics and outright opponents. The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and some local Kent campaigners oppose the proposal because the estuary marshes are a protected habitat that provides an important breeding and feeding ground for hundreds of thousands of birds, many of them endangered species.

Richard Deakin, head of National Air Traffic Services, has doubts about whether Heathrow could continue alongside a Thames estuary airport because of the potential for conflict over airspace, adding that there could also be conflicts with Dutch airspace.

Andrew Haines, of the Civil Aviation Authority, expresses safety concerns at an estuary airport because some of the large birds in the area, such as Brent geese, could fly into aircraft engines. But his biggest issue is financial. Lord Foster’s team claims strong interest from private investors, including sovereign wealth funds, but Mr Haines says some state funding would almost certainly be necessary for the project to become a reality.

At Heathrow, airlines provide BAA with the ability to secure a return on its investments by paying landing charges on a per-passenger basis, and Mr Haines voices concern that these levies could increase dramatically at a Thames estuary airport in the absence of state subsidy. “We can’t see how aviation could fund a £50bn price tag,” he says.

Finally, the Liberal Democrats are opposed to a Thames estuary airport, meaning the coalition government could split over the issue.

Even if all of these hurdles can be overcome, Lord Foster’s plan is no quick fix, given his airport would be unlikely to open until 2028 at the earliest. Mr Walsh challenges ministers to have the “political balls” to reconsider the case for a third runway at Heathrow as a temporary solution to the capacity crunch, but doubts they will make such a move.

Mr Walsh goes on to say that Britain needs a four-runway airport in the long term – most likely away from Heathrow – but predicts that ministers will end up doing little or nothing. “I’ll bet you that in 2050, British Airways will be flying from a two-runway airport at Heathrow.”

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