Transport Secretary Ruth Kelly has set out proposals for a third runway and a sixth terminal at Heathrow.
Announcing options for consultation, she said without growth the airport's status would suffer, but any expansion must meet noise and pollution tests.
Among options are a 2,200m third runway built north of Heathrow by 2020, and a sixth terminal, which will require the destruction of an entire village.
Critics say more than 50 communities and towns will suffer increased noise.
Analysis published by the government on Thursday suggests an expanded Heathrow could meet air pollution and noise limits over time.
It says three runways could be operated from 2020, without breaching air quality limits - thanks to developments like cleaner aircraft engines.
But it says take-offs and landings should be limited to 605,000 a year initially, to meet noise restrictions.
As older, noisier planes are phased out, this could rise to 702,000 by 2030. Currently there are 480,000 a year.
The third runway is among proposals in a consultation process which will run until 27 February.
Another is a sixth terminal to serve the new runway, which would require 700 properties to be bulldozed, including the village of Sipson.
In the meantime, the two existing runways could be used for both take-off and landings - currently arrivals are switched from one to the other after 3pm to give residents a break from the noise.
And agreements governing the direction in which aircraft leave and arrive at the airport could be changed.
The government says it would have to be confident that any expansion would be able to comply with EU limits on air pollution and would not breach limits on the size of the area significantly affected by aircraft noise.
Ms Kelly said: "Heathrow supports 170,000 jobs, billions of pounds of British exports and is our main gateway to the global economy.
"But for too long it has operated at nearly full capacity, with relatively minor problems causing severe delays to passengers.
"If nothing changes, Heathrow's status as a world-class airport will be gradually eroded - jobs will be lost and the economy will suffer."
But shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers said there were "tough questions" to answer as Prime Minister Gordon Brown had said he would look at whether carbon emissions could be cut by 80%.
And she said: "This is one of the most important decisions we face as a nation and it is scandalous that Ruth Kelly won't answer in Parliament to the MPs who represent people whose lives are directly impacted by the future Heathrow."
Ministers have backed in principle plans to expand Heathrow, first put forward in the 2003 aviation White Paper.
Airport operator BAA's chief executive Stephen Nelson told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's been over capacity for 17 years, it's now handling 60,000 more passengers a day than it was built for - that puts us under extraordinary pressure."
Proposals would mean some areas get more noise, some get less
He said the airport brought tourists, businesses and jobs to London. BA has argued a third runway could be worth £9bn a year to the national economy.
But John Stewart, chairman of the anti-airport expansion group Hacan, questioned the figures, telling the BBC: "There's a mantra here that it's important for the economy - the expansion of Heathrow. What has never been worked out is how those figures are arrived at."
And he said the proposals could be defeated by the strength of opposition to them from local authorities, MPs and "direct action activists".
'Robbed of peace'
The 2M Group, which represents 12 local authorities in the Heathrow area, says the plans will mean 900 extra flights a day and increased noise for more than 50 towns and communities, from Maidenhead, west of Heathrow eastwards into Kensington and Chelsea in London.
Susan Kramer, the Lib Dems' transport spokeswoman, whose Richmond Park constituency is among those affected, said the plans would rob people in west London of the "half day of peace" they currently get.
She added: "At a time of climate change, with aviation having such a big impact, shouldn't we be completely rethinking this and putting that kind of investment into rail?"
But the GMB union said expansion was needed because the current infrastructure was worn out and a major cause of delays to flights.
And David Frost, of the British Chambers of Commerce, added: "Heathrow expansion is one of the fundamental infrastructure projects necessary to keep the country competitive."
PROJECTED NOISE FOOTPRINTS FOR HEATHROW EXPANSION
2002 Recent noise footprint showing sound at 57 decibels - the point at which the government says noise becomes "a community annoyance". There were 466,000 Air Transport Movements (ATMs) in 2002; defined as a plane taking off or landing.
2015 Indicative noise contour if planes were taking off and landing on both of Heathrow's runways. 540,000 ATMs a year.
2020 A projection showing three runways in action with 702,000 ATMs a year.
Source: Department for Transport