THE new chief executive of airport operator BAA has used his speech to members of a transport committee to call for a third runway at Heathrow.

Despite claiming he did not feel it was his place to set the country's aviation policy, Colin Matthews told the Transport Times event of his support for expansion when he appeared earlier today (Wednesday).

His comments are in direct contrast to those of London First, an organisation of city businesses, which feels the priority should be to improve what Heathrow already has.

He is also likely to anger campaign groups and local residents whose homes will be demolished to make way, as all agree Heathrow's problems will not be solved by a third runway and will cause major damage to the environment.

Mr Matthews told the committee: "As a company we (BAA) have made our fair share of mistakes. (However) I have joined a company that is committed to delivering better services for passengers and which, I would argue, has made considerable progress in doing so in the past year.

"That is why my starting point is the need to be clear about our respective roles - as government, as regulators, as BAA, and as airlines - in meeting the aviation needs of this country.

"Let me be clear: I do not believe it is the job of BAA, or indeed any private company, to decide aviation policy in this country. That is the role of government.

"And that is why, I believe, it was entirely right and proper that the government should have set out its strategic vision in the White Paper of 2003.

"(Before then) there was no clear, defined policy to act as a reference point. And that is also why we in this country have not built a single, major new runway in the South East of England since 1946 despite the huge transformation in global aviation in that period.

"And the result? Year on year, more and more congestion at Heathrow, our gateway to the world. Less resilience as the airport has got fuller and fuller. "More stacking, as planes wait to land, and taxi-ing before they take off, with the consequences of that for the environment and costs.

"Heathrow still is a global leader on the two key factors of frequency and network strength. On the third, reliability, it is not. (It matters) Because disruption equals not just time lost, but also waste, pollution, costs and aggravation.

"But reliability depends on capacity, and on that the figures speak for themselves. Heathrow operates at over 99% Schipol, and other European airports, at a maximum of 75% They have three, four or five runways. We have had two since the Second World War.

"Only a third runway will give us that flexibility. So, to those who say make Heathrow better, before you make it bigger, I say that is a false choice.

"The answer is not either new facilities, or a new runway. It is both.

"There is, of course, much more to think about in the months ahead - and I have no doubt that events will prove their usual distraction, for good and bad reasons.

"I do not pretend a monopoly of wisdom, either for myself (after just three months), or indeed BAA. What I do hope for is a serious debate based on a serious analysis which lives up to the huge responsibilities we all bear."

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