The CBI is calling on the Airports Commission to recommend a single, larger hub airport for the UK, saying the move is critical for maintaining Britain's long-term economic growth.
The CBI report, released on Monday, effectively endorses Heathrow over Gatwick, just days before the commission is due to decide whether to eliminate the Thames estuary airport option from its consideration.
The call from Britain's leading business organisation attracted controversy after other airports received a press release that appeared to have been sent to Heathrow and back to the CBI before being issued to other parties, including the London mayor's office, which favours the Thames estuary option, and Gatwick.
The report argues that hub airports are best placed to act as a catalyst for new routes, serving on average nearly three times as many destinations as point-to-point airports and having a higher frequency of flights.
Katja Hall of the CBI said: "UK business wants action. There can be no more excuses – we need to see the Airports Commission deliver a strong case for new capacity and a clear schedule for delivery."
She said that while all airports could help develop UK connectivity, not all the airports played the same role. "While no one can predict the future of air travel, the track record shows that it tends to be hub airports that deliver the new connections to emerging markets that we desperately need."
Hall said Heathrow was full and research showed that when a hub became constrained airlines strengthened popular routes rather than investigating emerging markets.
"If we are to spark new connections that drive trade, we need a solution that creates spare capacity at a single-site hub," she added.
John Holland-Kaye, chief executive of Heathrow airport, said: "This recommendation by the CBI essentially shows that British business is backing Heathrow as the UK's only hub airport to connect the country to global growth."
The commission is expected to announce this week whether it will add the Thames estuary scheme, backed by London's mayor, Boris Johnson, to the shortlist for airport expansion, which at the moment consists of extra runways at either Heathrow or Gatwick.
The mayor's aviation adviser, Daniel Moylan, said the Heathrow option was too constrained and too environmentally damaging for extra growth. "A third runway there, on its own, would not offer the spare capacity the CBI rightly calls for," he said. "And a second runway at Gatwick would of course mean that Britain had given up on having a hub airport altogether. So we need to find a new site for Heathrow, where it can grow. That should be to the east of the capital."
A spokeswoman for Gatwick said the most important consideration for the commission was a solution that was both speedy and deliverable.
She said: "A new runway at Gatwick would liberate capacity for more hub traffic at Heathrow and provide UK with two world-class airports, able to address all travel markets and airline models.
"Once you take into account existing developments in aircraft technology and current aviation trends, it is clear that Gatwick is the best and obvious solution. We are surprised that in forming a view of the future of aviation policy, the CBI has chosen not to address the future of the industry itself.
"It is hard not to question the impartiality of a report that arrives in your inbox with Heathrow's email disclaimer attached to it."
Asked why some material had gone via Heathrow and back to the CBI before reaching Gatwick, the CBI said it had been an administrative error. A spokesman said the CBI decided to give five member companies "advanced sighting" and while Heathrow was first, Gatwick was sent the report a little over an hour later, when the sender copied and pasted over the information from the earlier email.
Heathrow said it first received the report on Friday morning, and had issued its own public response soon afterwards, shortly before Gatwick saw the report.
John Stewart, the chair of the Heathrow opposition group Hacan (Heathrow Association for the Control of Aircraft Noise), said: "It's clear that the CBI has plumped for Heathrow without giving any consideration whether a third runway is politically deliverable in the real world. Although branded as an independent report it would not surprise me at all if Heathrow had not used its influence within the CBI to get this result".