Christmas cheer is in the air.
Today, December 23, is one of the two expected busiest days of the summer peak at Auckland Airport's international terminal.
Up to 41,000 passengers – around the population of Whanganui city – travelling on 178 international flights will use the terminal.
Many of those will be heading to loved ones for festive reunions.
"It's the weekend before Christmas and people are coming off work and rushing off to their families and friends. And similarly coming into New Zealand," says Anil Varma, Auckland Airport's acting general manager, aeronautical operations.
"It's the last opportunity to travel in the weekend before you hit Christmas Day."
The passenger dynamic reflects the holiday, says Todd Grace, Air New Zealand's general manager, Auckland Airport.
"It's mums and dads, it's kids. And it's elderly as well. A lot of families travelling up and down the country.
"We have additional wheelchair customers. Children travelling alone – travelling between families over Christmas. Which all require individual hands-on help.
"It's quite a different time of the year to what we'd normally see."
Around 50,000 items of baggage will be moved for the about 40,000 Air New Zealand passengers travelling through Auckland Airport's international and domestic terminals today. That's around 750 tonnes.
A growing trend was passengers taking pets with them on domestic flights, Grace says.
"At this time of the year, particularly domestically, it's not unusual for people to go on holiday with their cats and their dogs.
"We get dogs of all shapes and sizes, and some really big dogs. By the time you put it into a dog cage, it's over 50kg of weight that our guys have to carefully load into an aircraft and get secure to go on holiday with a family."
Another festive feature was the love in the air.
"Christmas tends to bring out the romantic side of people, so it's not uncommon for us to get people requesting for us to help them out with marriage proposals," Grace says.
"Sometimes we're asked to facilitate those – at the airport, and often in the lounge. We will be contacted directly from members of the public to help make it a really special moment for somebody – whether it be for arranging for a bit of privacy, or arranging for some champagne to get delivered."
It was a heart-warming experience to see families reuniting for Christmas, says Grace, who has been with Air New Zealand for 22 years.
"You just need to walk down to the arrivals area and see some of the really amazing family reunions or reconnections of people.
"It's a good reminder for us why we do this job. Bringing people together at Christmas – it's still a really special time of the year for people and they have the opportunity to reconnect with their families that they may not have seen for a period of time."
In addition to the around 41,000 passengers at Auckland Airport's international terminal today, there will be about 26,000 at the domestic terminal for 316 flights.
The key to keeping things running efficiently and effectively is "to ensure everything is running on time", says Varma. "That includes right from the time an aircraft lands to an aircraft taking off."
Passengers on international flights are being advised to allow an extra 30 minutes for their journey through the international terminal and to leave plenty of time to get to the airport.
Varma, who has been at the airport for 10 years, says he feels like the conductor of an orchestra – working closely with stakeholders in areas including baggage, security, food, transport and the airlines themselves.
An airport emergency plan includes contingencies for a variety of possible disruptions, and working in with airlines and first responders including fire and ambulance.
Such has been the increase in passenger numbers, the airport has invested more than $1 million every working day throughout the year to make improvements.
"That's as part of the building of the airport of the future, as a result of the growth that Auckland Airport is experiencing," Varma says.
Some 70 "passenger experience assistants" have been hired to help passengers at the airport.
Air New Zealand will have about two thirds of its just over 1500 staff on duty throughout today and the other busiest days. January 6, when passengers are returning from Christmas holidays, is expected to be the other of the two busiest summer peak days.
They will be boosted by 300 staff from the airline's head office, who volunteer their time before or after work and on weekends.
The airport runs 24 hours a day, landside and airside, catering for passengers from time zones around the world – body clocks telling some it's dawn when it's dusk, and wanting breakfast when others want dinner.
It also represents an accessible world, connecting New Zealand with countries from around the planet, and is a place of wonder for passengers and visitors.
"I still find myself watching an aircraft take off for [another] part of the world," Grace says.
"And I have a huge amount of pride in the fact that the team here at Auckland have checked a whole bunch of people in, loaded the plane up, and now it's flying away - for them either to start their holiday, see people that they love, start a new adventure, start a new life somewhere else in the world, or get people home safely that have been to visit New Zealand.
"I think we all get a bit of a kick out of that because - seeing that aircraft take off is the final piece of the job for us."