LONDON (Reuters) - Britain's Stansted airport on Friday urged the government to let it expand into a four-runway hub, the latest group to put forward multi-billion-pound plans aimed at addressing London's air capacity crunch.
The government and business want to expand flights to fast-growing economies to ensure Britain doesn't miss out on billions of pounds of trade. With Heathrow, London's biggest airport, operating at 99 percent capacity, more runways are needed.
However, expansion plans run into opposition from environmentalists and local residents. In an attempt to defuse tensions, the Conservative-led government has set up an independent commission to examine proposals. While an interim report is due by the end of this year, a final decision is not expected until mid 2015 - after the next general election.
Stansted, Britain's fourth-biggest airport, is based 30 miles north east of central London and owned by Manchester Airports Group (MAG).
MAG said Stansted was the most-cost effective location for a four-runway hub, able to handle 160 million passengers annually. Such a project could be delivered for around 10 billion pounds ($15.2 billion) - far less than the cost of building a new hub airport from scratch or expanding Heathrow, it said.
It also put forward an alternative proposal under which it would build a second runway as part of a plan to expand capacity at a number of airports. That would allow Stansted to handle up to 90 million passenger a year, versus 17.5 million last year.
"Developing new capacity at a number of airports is likely to be best for passengers," said MAG chief executive Charlie Cornish. "Should the commission take a different view and conclude that the UK needs an effective hub to provide international connectivity, then Stansted could certainly fulfil that role in a cost-effective way."
Heathrow airport bosses on Wednesday urged the government to let it build a third runway, saying its plans would provide more flights, less noise and be cheaper and quicker to build than rival proposals.
However, its plans are vigorously opposed by London's Conservative mayor Boris Johnson, whom many commentators view as a potential rival to Prime Minister David Cameron.
Johnson has proposed a new four-runway hub should be built either east of central London on the Isle of Grain or further out in the Thames Estuary on an artificial island. If these options are not feasible, he has suggested expanding Stansted.
Under pressure from green groups and its Liberal coalition partners, the Conservative-led government overturned a decision to build a third Heathrow runway after it came to power in 2010.
MAG, which bought Stansted in February from Heathrow Ltd, said far fewer residents would be exposed to noise at Stansted than at other major airports in southern England and that space to build was more readily available around the site.
MAG is owned by ten boroughs of the city of Manchester in north west England and Australia's Industry Funds Management.
Single runway Stansted is currently mainly a low-cost leisure and holiday airport
($1 = 0.6579 British pounds)
Editing by Mark Potter