The British government announced its support Thursday for a controversial third runway at London's chronically overcrowded Heathrow Airport, setting the stage for a battle royale with a host of expansion opponents.
Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon told the House of Commons that a third runway and another new passenger terminal are crucial if the airport is to remain an international transport hub.
"Heathrow connects us to the growth markets of the future," he said, adding that it was already losing market share.
Heathrow, the busiest airport in Europe by passenger volume, handles more than 450,000 flights a year, including many lucrative cross-Atlantic routes. But its limited runway capacity and overcrowding have allowed competing airports in Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam to threaten its position.
Amsterdam's Schipol airport has five runways and Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport has four.
The government's decision was welcomed by business and union leaders, who believe it will lead to the creation of roughly 65,000 new jobs.
"(The new runway) will help Britain to create jobs and remain central to the global economy," said Paul Charles, spokesman for Virgin Atlantic airline. His comments were echoed by leaders of the Unite civil aviation union.
Government approval is an important hurdle, but proponents of the runway still face a well-organized, well-funded environmental coalition determined to prevent it from being built. Britain's two major opposition parties also oppose the plan.
Opponents say adding more than 200,000 flights a year would torpedo Britain's plan to reduce carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and also violate European Union pollution and noise standards.
They say building the new facilities would require destroying 700 homes, including the village of Sipson, and significantly increase noise levels for 2 million nearby residents.
The exact planned length of the new runway at Heathrow was not known.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown, speaking in Berlin before the official announcement in London, said the decision would help Britain's economy but also promised the project would meet all environmental standards.
"It is always our desire to make sure that we protect the economic future of the country, while at the same time meeting the very tough environmental conditions that we have set ourselves for noise and pollution and for climate change," he said.
Government officials said this will be accomplished by using quieter, cleaner-running aircraft.
Hoon also announced a series of improvements to the country's rail network, including the creation of a high-speed link to Heathrow, the possible construction of a new line linking north and south England, and the electrification of some rail lines.
John Stewart, head of a local opposition group, said Thursday that activists are mapping out a legal strategy and are still confident they can stop the third runway.
"The plain fact remains that if Labour loses the next general election, this expansion will not take place," Stewart said, characterizing the ruling Labour Party's support as "the last gasp of the dinosaurs."
Associated Press Writer David Stringer contributed to this report.