Gatwick Airport has launched its public consultation on proposals for a second runway with record crowds for one of its exhibitions packing the first date.

The consultation on the three options being considered for the 3.4 km second runway at the UK's second biggest airport and the busiest single-runway airport in the world, opened at The Hawth in Crawley on Saturday (April 5).

The date - the first of 16 public exhibitions planned for the six-week consultation – ran from 11am to 3.30pm, but in that time, more than 800 people passed through the doors, turning out to view the display boards and to talk to and quiz the teams on hand from Gatwick and the Airports Commission.

The issue has already sparked heated arguments on both sides with the Gatwick Diamond Business forum among those vocal with support, and the Gatwick Area Conservation Campaign (GACC) among those set against.

And GACC members were vocal at the first date of the public consultation, standing outside and handing out their own information.

A Gatwick Airport spokeswoman said they believed the turn-out was the biggest yet for a Gatwick-related public exhibition, outside of invited events.

She said: “The next biggest was our Masterplan public exhibition, which was probably around 500 people at some sessions.”

After a campaign advertising the consultation, which included letters and information being sent to about 180,000 homes and businesses across Surrey, Sussex and Kent, she described the resulting attendance at the first date as “great,” with most residents she spoke to hailing from Crawley, Copthorne and Ifield.

“It was a really good turnout and I hope people were getting a lot of information about it,” she said.

“It's helpful for us to get the feedback from it.”

The next public exhibitions are due to take place at Ifield Community College, Ifield, today (Wednesday, April 9) from 4pm to 7.30pm, and at the Pavilion Suite at Lingfield Park Racecourse, Lingfield, this Friday (April 11), again between 4pm and 7.30pm.

Over the next six weeks, the same exhibition is due to be mounted in towns and villages around the Gatwick area, including Horley, Charlwood, Reigate, Horsham and East Grinstead.

Gatwick Airport Limited (GAL) has said feedback from the public consultation will help improve its second runway proposal to the Airports Commission.

The consultation will run until Friday, May 16.

Stewart Wingate, chief executive officer of London Gatwick, said: “We are keen to encourage as many local people as possible to respond to our consultation, as this feedback will have a key role in helping us to refine our runway proposals.

“The consultation is a chance for the local community to find out more about our proposals, ask questions and have their say on our plans for a second runway.” Gatwick is consulting on three options: Option 1 is a new runway 585m south of the existing runway, Option 2 would be 1,045m to the south, and Option 3 is also 1,045m to the south, but with the two runways being used independently.

Under Options 1 or 2, one runway would used for landings and the other for take-offs. Under Options 2 or 3, a new terminal would also be built between the runways.

Gatwick has established Option 3 as the preferred first choice. The Airports Commission focused on this option for last December’s Interim Report, describing it as offering “the greatest increase in capacity while still having relatively low environmental and noise impacts compared with some other potential sites.” It continued: “The Commission will, however, keep this under review as it takes forward more detailed development and appraisal. “The proposal also includes related new terminal facilities and taxiways between the new and existing runways.”

GAL stated it will use the consultation responses to conclude on the option it prefers, before asking the Airports Commission to take that option forward as part of its evaluation process and subsequent advice to the Government in the summer of 2015. GACC has slated the consultation as “plush but bogus,” branding it “misleading, because the Airports Commission has already stated that they will be focusing on the largest option, which the airport also say is their preferred option. “So the decision has, in effect, already been taken.”

The group stated: “Originally GAL said that there would be no box for people to tick if they wished to vote for no new runway.

“But now, perhaps as a result of pressure from GACC and others, they say such a box will be provided.

“GACC will be advising everyone to make it clear that they are opposed to any new runway.” GACC chairman Brendon Sewill, said: “Gatwick is inviting the public to bet on a horse that has been declared a non-runner – something that no honest bookmaker would ever do!”

Mr Sewill of Stan Hill, Charlwood, said: “GACC’s objections remain as strong as ever.

“We will campaign vigorously against any new runway because we believe that making Gatwick larger than Heathrow today would alter the character of Surrey, Sussex and west Kent forever.”

The Airports Commission published its interim report last December, finding that there was a case for an additional runway in the South-east and short-listing Gatwick as one of three options for where it could be built.

Throughout this year, a range of detailed studies will be completed for the short-listed options and the Airports Commission plans to undertake its own public consultation around the end of the year.

The Commission will then make recommendations to the Government on how to meet any need for additional airport capacity in the longer term in 2015.

People can respond, get more information and find the full details of where the public exhibitions will be held at: Gatwick Airport serves more than 200 destinations in 90 countries for around 35 million passengers a year on short and long-haul services. It is a major economic driver for the South-east, generating around 23,000 on-airport jobs and a further 13,000 jobs through related activities. It is owned by a group of international investment funds, of which Global Infrastructure Partners is the largest shareholder.