The coalition Government was initially against a third runway at Heathrow - an expansion which was supported by the last Labour administration.
But leading Tories have, of late, called for a third runway, while London Mayor Boris Johnson and architect Lord Foster have proposed new estuary airports.
The Heathrow debate dominated Prime Minister David Cameron's Government reshuffle this week, with an anti-Heathrow expansion minister, Justine Greening, being removed from her post as Transport Secretary.
Announcing the Davies Commission in a written Parliamentary statement , Ms Greening's successor Mr McLoughlin said the commission would identify and recommend to Government "options for maintaining this country's status as an international hub for aviation".
There will be no firm decisions on UK airport expansion before the next general election, the Government has confirmed.
A future airport policy independent commission, to be chaired by former Financial Services Authority chairman Sir Howard Davies, will not publish its final report until the summer of 2015, the Government said.
A decision on whether to back any of the recommendations in the commission's last report will be taken by the next government, Transport Secretary Patrick McLoughlin said.
So the row over whether Heathrow should be extended or whether a new airport should be built in the Thames Estuary will drag on.
Mr Johnson said he feared there was a "stealthy U-turn" under way and vowed to fight the party leadership if it backed a third runway.
He told BBC Radio 4's World at One:
"What I worry about is that we are now seeing a stealthy U-turn being carried out which I don't think is in the interests of London or indeed of the country as a whole because in the end you can expand Heathrow and you can put in a runway...
"Actually it will be a short runway but you have to come back in 10 years time and do another."
Asked if he would campaign against Heathrow expansion he said: "You bet I will, yes."
He said the possibility of a third runway was "being left open" and claimed the commission would not resolve the issue.
Speaking at Prime Minister's Questions, Mr Cameron appeared to seek a consensus on boosting airport capacity in the south east and said he would be revealing more details later this week.
He told the Commons:
Let me be very frank about this: very large infrastructure projects are extremely difficult for individual governments to take and to deliver.
What we need to do is build a process that hopefully has cross-party support so we can look carefully at this issue and deliver changes that will address the problems of capacity we will have in future years and address the issue of the hub status of the UK.
I'm hoping to make an announcement about this over the coming days...I think it's important we work across party lines because this won't happen unless parties sign up to a process they can deliver.
David Cameron has reached out to political opponents as he tried to defuse the row over a third runway at Heathrow Airport.
Mr Cameron said he would not renege on his vow to block a new runway during this Parliament but did not rule out such a measure after the next general election in May 2015.
Labour MP John McDonnell (Hayes and Harlington), who has campaigned against a new runway, asked him to block a new runway while he led the Conservative Party.
The Prime Minister said: "While I do believe we need to establish a form of review that will bring parties together and make a decision about airport capacity, I will not be breaking my manifesto pledge."
Zac Goldsmith, Conservative MP and environmental campaigner who has threatened to quit over a third runway at Heathrow, told BBC Radio 4's Today programme:
"We haven't just lost Justine Greening from this department, we have also seen Theresa Villiers moved out, both of whom were absolutely rock-solid on this issue in terms of defending what is still the Government's line officially.
"I think their movement out of the Department of Transport shows the Government is at least trying to open the door to the possibility of a third runway."
When pressed on speculation that moving Justine Greening meant the Government was paving the way to look again at plans for a third runway at Heathrow, the newly named co-chairman of the Conservative Party Grant Shapps said "all options" would be examined in a forthcoming transport consultation.
"I think if we're going to remain a great trading nation in the future, you need to have ports. Airports are particularly important these days and there are a lack of slots in the South East around London and it must be addressed, otherwise we're dooming ourselves to economic failure in the future.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "I think you want to have a good look around at all the various different options and, let's face it, there are a lot of them on the table.
"We certainly want to take evidence from everybody on this."
London Mayor Boris Johnson said: "We've all been elected on a manifesto to stop Heathrow expansion and say no to a third runway and it may be that the reshuffle had absolutely nothing to do with Heathrow.
"I'm perfectly prepared to accept that, if the government will now end the uncertainty and rule out a third runway both now and in the future."
The Cabinet reshuffle has put Boris Johnson on a collision course with the government over Heathrow Airport.
MP Justine Greening is out as Transport Secretary and the London Mayor believes that means the government is intent on what he calls the "simply mad" policy of a new runway at Heathrow.
He says he will fight "all the way". We have this report from our Political Correspondent Simon Harris.
Even if a third runway was built, it would not do the job of meeting Britain's needs.
If we are to remain Europe's premier business hub we need a new four runway airport, preferably to the East of London, that addresses the problem of aviation capacity before it is too late, and business is driven into the arms of our European competitors.
– London mayor Boris Johnson
It is time for Patrick McLoughlin to look at all the options, including bolder solutions that would deliver massive benefits in jobs and growth.
And it is time for the government to level with Londoners
Are they in favour of a third runway at Heathrow or not?