The UK government has published its long-awaited report into future airport demand and expansion options in the London region for the next 30 years.

The South East and East Anglia Regional Air Services study (Seras) sets out options including: a third runway at London Heathrow; up to three new runways at London Stansted; and a new greenfield airport at Cliffe, a greenfield site south-east of London, which would have four runways with the possibility of another for night-time operation in crosswinds. New runways at London Gatwick and London Luton are ruled out, although the latter may receive a runway extension to 3,000m (9,800ft).

The report will now go through a process of public consultation, which will end in November. It was generally welcomed by UK airlines. Virgin Atlantic chairman Richard Branson says he is "delighted" with the report, adding, "this issue has been ducked and dodged by successive previous governments".

If unconstrained, the report predicts that demand for air travel in the UK will reach 500 million passengers by 2030, of which 300 million will be in the south- east. Two-thirds of these would prefer to travel from Heathrow. Even if it does get an extra runway, the report predicts that capacity at Heathrow will be 116 million by 2030 - just over half of the predicted demand - and that the airport will be operating to its maximum capacity.

It is made clear that there are serious obstacles to be overcome if an extra Heathrow runway is to be granted. The report notes that around 228Ha (563 acres) of environmentally sensitive "greenbelt" land will be required and "the associated requirements for housing and land for business use will almost certainly require further loss of greenbelt". Regional policy is meant to ensure that economic growth puts minimal pressure on labour and land resources.

Noise will clearly be a major debating point. Surrey County Council, a neighbouring local government body, argues: "The blight of aircraft noise would spread to include residents who are currently unaffected." The report suggests a slight increase in those affected within a noise level of 57dBa, but slight falls in those more severely affected at 63dBa and 67dBa.

Another hurdle will be the issue of emissions. "It is clear that another runway at Heathrow could not be considered unless the government was confident that it was feasible to contain the level of NO2 and, if necessary, other pollutants, at and around the airport within European Union (EU) limits," says the report. Modelling work carried out as part of the report shows that an extra runway at Heathrow would lead to homes being exposed to levels of NO2 that exceed EU guidelines.

However, British Airways chief executive Rod Eddington is confident that these obstacles can be overcome. "The runway could be accommodated within the noise levels set down as a condition of the Terminal Five decision," he says. However, Seras notes that there would need to be "rapid improvements" in engine technology, and that any new   runway may have to be restricted to quieter aircraft.

Meanwhile, Stansted, seen by many as the most likely candidate for expansion, could get up to three new runways. If two or three extra are constructed a new rail link to London will have to be built. Stansted handled 13.7 million passengers last year, just shy of its permitted capacity of 15 million. With only the present runway, it is estimated that 26 million passengers will pass through the airport by 2030, rising to 74 million with one extra runway; 98 million with two; and 122 million with three extra runways.

The most radical suggestion is a new airport at Cliffe, a location chosen for its ready availability of land, transport links to London (and Europe through the Channel Tunnel), the minimal environmental impact that construction would have, and the fact that it lies in a regeneration area. Government incentives for airlines to move from Heathrow to Cliffe would be available. The first two of the four runways could be open by 2011. The airport would specifically be designed for hub operation - unlike Stansted.

Another possible development would be at the former military airfield of Alconbury north of London as a low-cost/cargo airport.

Source: Airline Business