Gently rolling pastures beside the Manukau Harbour will soon be transformed into a second runway for Auckland Airport after being blessed yesterday by Maori elders.
Transport Minister Annette King joined Manukau Mayor Sir Barry Curtis and airport company chiefs in turning the first soil on a $32 million project to build the first stage of the northern runway by early 2011, in time for New Zealand to host the rugby World Cup.
Although only non-jet aircraft will be able to use the 1200m first stage, the company expects it to take pressure off the airport's main runway, and provide extra room for waves of rugby fans arriving on provincial charter flights.
Small aircraft now face delays of up to 45 minutes at peak times as the main runway approaches capacity of about 45 movements an hour, and they have to wait for larger jets to get well ahead of them, in case of getting caught in dangerous air turbulence.
Airport company chairman John Maasland said at yesterday's ceremony that once the new runway was extended to 2150m in about 10 years, it would cater for international flights to Australia and Pacific destinations as well as full domestic services.
The full runway is expected to cost about $120 million, not counting hefty associated investment on a new domestic passenger terminal and air traffic control tower to be developed between it and the airport's international terminal.
It will run parallel to the main runway, almost 2km to the north, but with twin taxiways linking the two, and will be a useful standby for emergencies.
Mr Maasland said the developments would allow the airport to handle a doubling of overall passenger numbers to 24 million a year by 2025, contributing to the growth of the Auckland and national economies.
Ms King said that although carbon pollution from international aviation was growing annually by 3.4 per cent, having two runways would lessen emissions by reducing delays.
She praised the airport company for environmental initiatives such as crushing old concrete for reuse in new runway surfaces.
Airport chief executive Don Huse said the company still held drawings from the 1950s envisaging a two-runway system with a passenger terminal precinct in the middle.
"So we are actually delivering a vision of the mothers and fathers of Auckland going back 50 or 60 years."
Makaurau Marae kaumatua Maurice Wilson said that when he was a schoolboy in the early 1940s, just one passenger flight a day left the airport, 3km to the south of his ancestral home.
"When the engine was warming you could hear it - it meant it was time for us to go to school."
Although the new runway will cut the separation distance between the airport and marae by more than half, Mr Wilson said changes were a fact of life.
Sir Barry said the role of Mr Wilson's Tainui people in allowing for the creation of the airport could not be underestimated, given their cultural and spiritual association "with this magnificent area of land".
He recalled his own involvement as chairman of the old Auckland Regional Authority's planning committee in the 1970s in complex negotiations with farmers "to provide an enormous land reservoir to safeguard the future growth of Auckland International Airport".
He was "immensely proud" that, unlike other Auckland councils which sold their airport shares for far less than today's value, Manukau had increased its stake to 10.05 per cent.
Sir Barry also referred to his three years of mediating between supporters and opponents of a second runway, to confirm the suitability of building it to the north of the existing facility instead of on land reclaimed from the harbour, as some advocated.
The Environment Court eventually confirmed a consent order including requirements for the airport company to contribute $250,000 a year to a community trust and to provide grants to seven schools and hundreds of households for sound insulation and ventilation systems to alleviate aircraft noise.