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Runway finally takes off

Next month's long delayed opening of Manchester's second runway marks the completion of a project dominated by bad weather, thousands of newts, and Swampy.

When the first commercial plane lands at Manchester airport's new runway in 10 days time, the prime beneficiaries will be seriously ill local children.

The privilege of being the first airline to use the £172M runway is being auctioned. And Childflight, an airport based charity set up to give such children an overseas holiday of their dreams, will receive the proceeds of the winning bid.

But next to benefit will be civil engineer Geoff Muirhead. As the airport's chief executive, Muirhead spearheads Manchester's aim to be 'the world's best airport' and opening Britain's first new runway in over 20 years is a key ingredient of that mission statement.

Currently third behind Heathrow and Gatwick in the airport league table, Manchester's target is to increase its current 18M/yr passenger throughput to 41M by 2015. The new runway instantly increases plane take off and landing capacity by 15% to 57 slots/hr and the fact that this 3km strip of additional concrete is being opened a year late will not, claims the chief executive, deflect from those passenger target figures.

As Muirhead and runway contracting joint venture Amec-Carillion showed the media around their completed project a few weeks ago, weather conditions were ironically appropriate. The inconvenience of the day's torrential rain brought a wry smile to several contractor's engineers as it was during such conditions - both summer and winter - that much of the runway's key construction operations were undertaken.

Laying 170,000m 3of concrete, followed by 55,000t of mastic asphalt surfacing to form the composite runway, was meant to be completed during the summer months. But late construction pushed much of this work into winter months, compounding the overall delay.

The contractor maintains that the primary cause of delay was late completion by airport consultants of crucial runway lighting duct designs. Airport engineers disagree, arguing that bad weather - which under the JV's £108M design and build contract was entirely the contractor's risk - was the main factor (NCE 14-28 December 2000).

As the two sides battle out resulting claims - totalling at least £25M - the wider construction industry will, as usual, soon forget the delay. Instead engineers will remember the four year project as providing the fronts for two more important battles; both demonstrating that the profession remains at the forefront of environmental concern over the local impact of its construction schemes.

Early invasion of the then virgin site by Swampy, Muppet Dave and 240 fellow eco-warriers brought two months of mixed publicity. What attracted fewer headlines was the JV's own £15M environmental demonstration in removing from the rural runway route virtually every living object that had a claim on the land. Thousands of newts, toads, frogs, bats, badgers and even beetles - plus several hectares of ancient woodland - have all been relocated off line in a pioneering operation now heralded by environmentalists as an unqualified success.

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