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Originally published Wednesday, July 17, 2013 at 9:37 AM

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London’s Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport, wants to expand

Third runway should be built, say airport officials to let Heathrow handle up to 740,000 flights a year, up from the current 480,000.

Associated Press

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LONDON — Heathrow unveiled new proposals Wednesday to create a third runway at the London airport — saying that the ideas will allow a vast expansion at Europe’s busiest air hub.

The three options put forward on Wednesday will allow the airport to move from a capacity of 480,000 flights a year to 740,000 — expansion that supporters insist is critical in order for the country to remain competitive on the world stage. The cheapest option would cost 14 billion pounds ($21 billion), the most expensive 18 billion pounds.

“It is clear that the best solution for taxpayers, passengers and business is to build on the strength we already have at Heathrow,” Colin Matthews, Heathrow’s chief executive, said in a statement. “Today we are showing how that vision can be achieved whilst keeping the impact on local residents to an absolute minimum.”

The plans will mean hundreds or in some case thousands of compulsory property purchases, depending on the plan. At least one of the options calls for the new runway to swallow up a handful of local villages, a conservation area and a church.

But after years of debate, Heathrow argued that their options are better and cheaper than other proposals — some of which entail building an entire new airport from scratch.

London Mayor Boris Johnson, a champion of big thinking, has suggested that building an artificial island in the middle of the Thames Estuary could be an option — or maybe on the Isle of Grain in north Kent, east of London.

“Ambitious cities all over the world are already stealing a march on us and putting themselves in a position to eat London’s breakfast, lunch and dinner by constructing mega airports that plug them directly into the global supply chains that we need to be part of,” Johnson said in a statement. “Those cities have moved heaven and earth to locate their airports away from their major centers of population, in areas where they have been able to build airports with four runways or more.”

Heathrow executives backed away from immediately proposing a fourth runway — at least for now. They did argue that expanding to a third runway would require a new terminal.

Expansion at Heathrow has long been controversial, and the notion of another runway there has been defeated at least once. Residents have complained about the noise and pollution, and have rallied politicians of all parties on their side. A commission was established to decide the issue — a ruling so politically unpalatable it will be decided after the next election in 2015.

In its proposal Wednesday, Heathrow executives argued that even though the airport’s capacity would be greatly increased, steps would be taken to have planes that were quieter and to make them fly higher.

But John Stewart, the chair of a residents’ group that has long campaigned against noise, was skeptical.

“My concern is that they can’t have a bigger airport and a quieter airport at the same time,” Stewart said. “We will fight this and we will build a coalition with environmental groups, local authorities and sympathetic politicians.”

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