Heathrow Airport chief executive John Holland-Kaye has insisted that air quality at his west London airport is "not a problem" as he put even more pressure on Prime Minister David Cameron to give the green light to a third runway.
In his first speech since the government delayed making a final ruling on the Airports Commission's recommendations last December, Holland-Kaye said this evening that Cameron faces a "stark choice" between expanding Heathrow or building another runway at Gatwick Airport.
Addressing Cameron directly, Holland-Kaye said: "Of course as Prime Minister, you have a choice."
And in a thinly-veiled reference to Gatwick, he added: "You could choose the option that will not get us to emerging markets, which does nothing for the regions of the UK, or for exports, that delivers a fraction of the jobs or the economic benefits, is less financially robust, does not have the support of business or unions, nor the local community, nor the airlines, nor politicians, nor the policy basis of the Airports Commission. That offers local people no respite from noise. That has only one motorway and one railway line.
"Which do you say 'yes' to? You know the answer, and I am sure he does. You say 'yes' to Heathrow – obviously."
Holland-Kaye defended Heathrow's air quality standards, saying: "Heathrow today meets all EU air quality standards and with expansion, we will still meet them – in fact we won’t release new capacity until we can demonstrate that is the case.
"What you may not have heard is that we are the environmental leader in our sector – we have reduced emissions by 16 per cent over five years and are the only airport in the world to have signed the Paris Pledge on climate change."
A Gatwick spokesperson rejected Holland-Kaye's comments, however, saying: "What John Holland-Kaye fails to mention are the insurmountable barriers that have stopped Heathrow expansion time and time again. What remains obvious is that Heathrow’s time has passed.
"The simple facts show that Gatwick’s plan is not just the best, but the only legal and only deliverable solution.
“The choice is very clear – Britain finally getting on with it with growth at Gatwick or illegal expansion grounded yet again at Heathrow."
The Airports Commission, led by Sir Howard Davies, first recommended building a third runway at Heathrow last July.
The government said in December that it would delay making a decision on airport expansion in the south east until at least this summer, saying "more work will be done on environmental impacts" in the interim.
"The government will undertake a package of further work and we anticipate that it will conclude over the summer," the department for transport said in a statement at the time.
The government decision followed a report from the environmental audit select committee questioning whether building a third runway at Heathrow would violate environmental laws.
But the government's choice to delay the decision until after May's mayoral elections – in which ardent anti-Heathrow campaigner Zac Goldsmith is standing as the Conservative candidate – led many to believe that the choice had been made with political, rather than environmental, considerations in mind.
Transport secretary Patrick McLoughlin denied today, however, that the mayoral election caused the delay, telling MPs on the transport select committee that such speculation was "not really credible".
McLoughlin instead pointed to the work of the environmental audit committee, telling MPs that "more work" needed to be done with respect to engine exhaust and air pollution in the aftermath of the Volkswagen emissions scandal.
McLoughlin also refused to give MPs a specific date for a decision, saying that a pre-EU referendum purdah "may influence our ability to take a decision at a specific time" and that he would prefer not to take the decision when MPs are on holiday.
"I would like to see a decision by the time the House rises for the summer," McLoughlin said.