Howard Davies has been selected by prime minister David Cameron to investigate aviation capacity in the UK.
Davies will begin work today, with a report due in 2015 outlining long-term possibilities for increasing airport space, particularly in the south-east of England.
A decision on whether to support recommendations from the report will be taken after the next general election.
The move is seen by many as a way of avoiding the controversial decision on whether to build a third runway at London Heathrow Airport.
London mayor Boris Johnson, who opposes expanding Heathrow, has said setting up the commission was a “fudge”.
The mayor has advocated a new airport in the Thames Estuary – dubbed Boris Island.
Stewart Wingate, Gatwick Airport’s chief executive, said: “We welcome today’s launch of the Airports Commission.
“The detailed work and analysis on how to maintain the UK’s status as an international aviation hub can now really begin.”
While the coalition government has ruled out further expansion at Heathrow during the current parliament, many Conservative MPs want ministers to think again as part of a wider review of the future of UK airports.