Air travel is set to increase sharply
Proposals for up to three new runways at airports in south-east England have been condemned by environmental and residents' groups.
Airport operator BAA said the government should choose from a shortlist of its favoured options - including one new runway each at Heathrow and Gatwick, and one or two at Stansted.
Campaigners opposed to the expansion of Stansted accused BAA of wanting to "line its own pockets", while those at Heathrow accused BAA of the "mother of all U-turns".
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BAA, which was responding to a government consultation, said the final decision still rests with ministers.
But it said the expansion is needed to cope with a predicted rise in the number of air passengers from 117 million a year now, to 300 million by 2030.
It advised against building a new airport at Cliffe in north Kent - an option being considered by the government - claiming it would be financially unviable and environmentally damaging.
Opponents to the expansion of Stansted Airport in Essex said BAA had abandoned a previous commitment not to push for more runways there.
Norman Mead, chairman of Stop Stansted Expansion, said the proposals put at risk "homes that have existed for centuries - as well as ancient woodlands and important wildlife habitats".
He added: "It would be environmental vandalism on an unprecedented scale."
John Williams, spokesperson for BAA Stansted, said the airport has simply stated that extra runways are a technical possibility.
Residents are strongly opposed to airport expansion
"These are not BAA schemes; the government has come up with these schemes, and has asked people to respond as part of the consultation, and we are responding to their consultation," he said.
The completion of a second new runway at Stansted would depend on the success of the first to be built, BAA said.
Near Heathrow, campaigners said they were dismayed at the suggestion a new short-haul runway could be built at the west London airport.
John Stewart, chairman of Heathrow-based pressure group Hacan (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise) ClearSkies, said: "We feel betrayed and angry but equally as determined to fight on.
"This has to be the mother of all U-turns. For so long, BAA has reassured people that it would not be pressing for a third runway at Heathrow."
The No Airport at Cliffe Action Group said that while it was "very nice" not to be included in the BAA plan, the group would fight on until the government categorically said there would be no airport there.
Mike Clasper, who takes over as BAA chief executive next month, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme the new runways would be vital to meet increased demand.
BAA said the first new runway would be needed by 2011-13.
Mr Clasper said: "Aviation growth is critical to the national economy. More and more people want to fly.
"It's become part of the public transport system and unless we start planning ahead, then we'll end up with the gridlock and decline that we've got on the railways."
Unless we start planning ahead, then we'll end up with the gridlock and decline that we've got on the railways
BAA's proposals were well received by some members of the business community, which hopes airport expansion would contribute to growth in the South East.
"Our reason for that is that Heathrow Airport has been absolutely fundamental to the growth of economic activity," said Frank Stroud, spokesman for the Thames Valley Chamber of Commerce.
Airlines also welcomed BAA's proposals, with BA and Virgin Atlantic both stressing the need for a new runway at Heathrow in particular.
Plans under consideration by the government for airport expansion in the South-East include:
A third runway at Heathrow
Up to three new runways at Stansted
Up to two new runways at Gatwick
A new £9bn airport at Cliffe in north Kent
The consultation process - which is also looking at other areas of the UK - is expected to run until the end of June.
Transport Minister Alistair Darling is then due to outline his final decisions in a White Paper towards the end of the year.