More than 50 years in concept and eight years in the making, Brisbane’s new parallel runway is now in operation. Tom Allett finds out how this billion-dollar project is set to herald new beginnings

On Sunday July 12, 2020, Brisbane’s new parallel runway officially opened for business 
The new runway was delivered under budget at AU$1.1 billion, a saving of AU$200 million on initial estimates 

The creation of a global standard runway is always a gigantic undertaking, and never more so than when you must start by reclaiming flooded land. Brisbane Airport’s new parallel runway (NPR), designated 01L/19R, which opened on July 12, has certainly been a long-term project. So long, in fact, that it pre-dates today’s airport (BNE), which opened in 1988.

The early years 

The first steps towards the development of the NPR were taken in February 1971. Back then, the city of Brisbane was still served by its original airport, Eagle Farm, but it was already apparent that both the site and its facilities were too small for a city of that size. A committee, comprising representatives of the Australian and the State of Queensland governments and Brisbane City Council, proposed that a new airport should be built approximately three miles (5km) north of Eagle Farm. That December, then Prime Minister William McMahon and Queensland Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen jointly announced that a master plan would be created to map the future Brisbane Airport. In a move that was fairly unusual for the day, the need to consider potential ecological and noise problems created by the new location were highlighted right at the start, with the report recommending that its runway orientation should avoid the need for aircraft to fly over the city; the Eagle Farm set-up had meant that building heights in the city had to be restricted.

Looking further ahead, the longterm plan envisaged a centrally placed terminal lying within two widely spaced parallel runways, one of which was to be partly built on reclaimed swamp land. In the decade that followed, much land and many properties were subject to what the UK would call a compulsory purchase order – known in Australian law as being ‘resumed’ – and more than 900 local residents had to relocate. 

The ground-breaking ceremony for the new airport took place in June 1980 and the site, located on a reclaimed section of the Brisbane River Delta, eventually evolved into the Brisbane Airport (IATA: BNE) that we know today.

A new era 

The first terminal (Domestic), plus the main 01/19 11,800 x 197ft (3,600 x 60m) and 5,774 x 98ft (1,760 x 30m) 14/32 cross runways, entered service on March 19, 1988. The very next day, an Ansett Boeing 767 chartered for the occasion, had the honour of performing the last departure from the old airport. A new era had begun. 

The second passenger building – now expanded, redeveloped and known as the International Terminal – opened in September 1995. Two years later, the Australian government decided to privatise the nation’s airports and the Brisbane Airport Corporation (BAC) acquired BNE for AU$1.4bn on a 50-year lease, with an option to extend for a further 49 years. Through this leasehold deal, BAC will own and run the airport until 2096.

Second runway 

During the 1990s and into the 21st century, BNE’s passenger figures grew in line with the global popularity in air travel. However, as is the case at so many airports, when an increase in traffic is not matched with the equivalent infrastructure, the existing facilities are soon put under pressure. 

As a result, Brisbane Airport gained a reputation for delays. In 2005, BAC began the approval process for a parallel runway that would remove the flight delays. The move was met with some public and much political opposition and a series of court battles were fought before BAC finally won permission in 2006 to build a second runway. 

Brisbane Airport’s existing runway was originally designated as 01/19, but this was to change to 01R/19L when the new northerly parallel runway opened as 01L/19R. The airport’s smaller cross runway, 14/32, was closed permanently in May 2020 

New runway in numbers

Designation: 01L/19R 

Length: 10,826ft (3,300m) 

Width: 197ft (60m) 

Surface: Asphalt 

Cost: AU$1.1bn 

Persons involved: 3,740 

Peak number on-site: 650 (Mid-2019) 

Subcontractors: 324

It was decided that the NPR would be 10,826 x 197ft (3,300 x 60m) and be staggered from the existing runway by placing it 4,430ft (1,350m) to its north while maintaining a 6,560ft (2,000m) separation between them. 

This placed the proposed runway as close as practicable to the airport’s western boundary and the adjacent stretch of water called the Kedron Brook Floodway, thereby providing vertical separation for arriving and departing aircraft while minimising the noise impact upon the airport’s neighbours. 

Despite the court victory, there were still hurdles to jump, not least the AU$1.2bn price tag associated with reclaiming and developing the allocated 890-acre (360ha) plot of land. The global financial crisis of 2007/8 had led to a significant decline in air travel and temporarily halted the runway project. 

Physical tasks – site preparation and reclamation work – resumed in July 2012 and the ground being worked on provided a huge challenge. Much of the area was waterlogged marshland and 494m cu ft (14 million m³) of sand was dredged from a nearby bay to stabilise it. The very soft soil and huge area involved determined that this aspect alone would take five years. During that period, the site was cleared and 330,000 vertical wick drains – which are described as having a strawlike action – were dug into the ground, some reaching depths of 115ft (35m). Then, with the drains and the weight of the sand forcing the water out, the site was left to settle for three years before the construction phase could begin. 

In 2017, the biggest task to get under way was the creation of the AU$120m Dryandra Road underpass. Built entirely below sea level, it allows vehicles to access both the northern and southern sides of the airport by driving underneath the aircraft taxiways. Many miles of drainage pipes had to be installed to keep the water at bay around the clock throughout its building phase. When the underpass was completed in November 2018, the first layer of crushed rock could be laid down on the runway above it. 

The airport said that 3,740 people worked on site during the life of the project, reaching a peak of 650 people in mid-2019

Another milestone achieved in 2017 was the award of the Airfield Works contract to the Skyway joint venture company. The move enabled that phase of the development to begin in November that year with the removal of some 176m cu ft (5million m³) of surplus sand.Compacting work stretched into 2018 before sample pieces of paving were laid down to test their integrity. 

At the same time, landscaping began on the areas around the new runway and associated taxiways. The airport chose to plant a type of grass that has minimal growth and wouldn’t provide an attraction for the local wildlife, thereby simultaneously reducing its maintenance needs and the risk of bird strikes.

Bright future 

After securing the contract in 2018, ADB SAFEGATE began work on the CAT I airfield ground lighting (AGL) system. Delivering around 2,000 individual units for the project, the company described it as “the most challenging AGL project in recent history in Australia”, in part due to everything having to be built in sand within an area with a high water table. Jimmy Maitland, general manager for ADB’s Southern Asia Pacific Region, explained that the huge civil engineering component of the AGL installation included the insertion of concreteencased duct banks, which had to be integrated with many other components, such as drainage, pavement construction and other ground services. He noted that rather than being a linear project– simply working from one end of the runway towards the other – it required work to be carried out concurrently in multiple locations throughout the installation. As you would expect, the project required extensive training, planning and co-ordination. The lighting project was linked to every other aspect of the build in some way, from drainage and pavements to power supplies and landscaping. This, he said, made it an “extremely unique and complex challenge compared to a typical AGL install”. 

Regarding its control and monitoring system, the complexity of the task meant that it took nearly two-and-a-half years to go from the concept/design stage through to implementation. It was delivered in a live tower environment, involving several other stakeholders, without the need for any operational downtime. BAC had identified the need for an individual lamp control and monitoring system (ILCMS) which enables each lamp to convey its status to a central monitoring system, detailing its operational state – on/off/not operating correctly – in real time. This allows the compliance status of the AGL system to be monitored at all times, maximising safety, particularly in low-visibility operations. It also means reactive maintenance is ‘tactical’ and immediate, a significant benefit to any 24-hour airport and which can minimise operational downtime. While the flexibility of any AGL system is limited by the hardware installed, which often means that traditional AGL set-ups are simply either on or off, an ILCMS circuit is managed by software rather than hardware, so each light can be controlled individually. Obviously, having the opportunity to switch off any unneeded lights as and when required adds to the energy-and money-saving aspects that LED lighting already delivers. In addition, it also allows lights to be turned on in pre-determined patterns, perhaps to illuminate the taxiway in use while leaving the others off, thereby reducing the risk of taxiway incursions. This is effectively an example of the ‘follow the green’ lighting method, where green lights are illuminated in front of a taxiing aircraft to confirm the path its crew must take. It is a technique that is becoming increasingly popular and Brisbane’s set-up is ready for any future follow-the-green operations. As an aside, while the NPR lighting project was under way, the airport also installed stop bars on the existing runway. The regulations determine that these must be controlled and monitored individually as they provide a ‘ring fence’ around the two runways to prevent accidental incursions by aircraft or vehicles. The AGL testing phase coincided with those on the paved areas, taking place in mid-2018.

The most challenging AGL project in recent history in Australia

Jimmy Maitland general manager for ADB’s Southern Asia Pacific Region

The combination of approach and airfield ground lighting meant that contractor ADB SAFEGATE had to deliver approximately 2,000 lights to the project. JEN DAINER

Much of the runway markings were painted by robot. 

The name game 

In April 2019, work began on a bridge that now forms part of the new runway’s perimeter road network. It is noteworthy because it is named after BNE’s longest serving employee, John Hansford, who is part of the airfield operations team and has completed 51 years of service. Naming infrastructure after staff members is almost unheard of, but so is five decades of service, so well done, John!

Top surfaces 

The physical make-up of the new runway comprised an 8ft (2.5m) layer of compacted sand beneath a 2ft (60cm) level of finely crushed rock. The finishing touch was the application of the new runway’s paving, some 110,230 tons (100,000 tonnes) of asphalt, which was completed in three months, ending in December 2019. As the 7.5 miles (12km) of taxiways were also finished, all that remained from a paving point of view was the line marking and associated lighting. 

By the start of this year, the building work was largely complete, but the runway centreline lights still had to be installed. That was finished in February, signalling the start of line-painting on the NPR and its taxiways. Combined, the lines of paint stretch over 75 miles (120km) and the task took around six weeks. The paint used incorporated millions of tiny glass beads to make the surface more reflective, much of it laid using a robotic vehicle. 

With those aspects complete, the project team could move on to the wide-ranging operational readiness and testing (ORAT) programme. From March, two aircraft were used to test the AGL’s status, and over a period of about two months, the crews from Airservices Australia and the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) performed occasional low-level flypasts, approaching from both ends of the runway in daylight, dusk and night conditions at a height of about 50ft (15m) to test the six different intensities that the lighting can provide. All proved satisfactory, meaning Brisbane now had the first 100% LED CAT I approach system in the southern hemisphere.

Strange beginnings 

The construction period had lasted for eight years, but by the time the building work was complete, the world’s press headlines centred around a new virus that was spreading rapidly and apparently had no antidote. Of course, we all know what happened next, but Brisbane’s new runway was essentially ready, so despite the worldwide lack of commercial passenger services, it made sense to put the NPR into service. Sadly, the Community Day and Fun Run events that were planned to coincide with the opening had to be cancelled because of the COVID-19 restrictions, but the first flight date of July 12, which BAC CEO Gert-Jan de Graaff had announced in February, was retained. The date was significant in that it marked the 73rd anniversary of the very first commercial flight between Brisbane and Tropical North Queensland.

This is a project built for the community by the community

Gert-Jan de Graaff CEO, BAC

Three million hours later… 

The official handover from the Skyway team to BAC took place on April 30 and while Mr de Graaff said that that day marked the end of the project, it was “just the beginning” for Brisbane Airport. 

The airport calculated that some 3,740 people had worked on the project, with a peak of 650 people on site in mid-2019. There were 324 different subcontractors involved, 90% of which were based in the local southeast Queensland district, putting in approximately 3.3m hours. It also noted that the facility was completed under budget at AU$1.1 bn, a saving of AU$200 million on initial estimates. Mr de Graaff said: “In many respects this runway is symbolic of the firm belief we have that aircraft will, in the not t oo distant future, return to the skies and our terminals will once again be full of people looking forward to visiting their families, taking their holidays or travelling to do business. The last few months have been difficult for the whole community, but we have never lost sight of the fact that this project has been built for the long term. It will serve us well for many decades to come.” He paid tribute to the foresight of those involved “nearly half-acentury ago” that eventually delivered an “airport with the growth capacity to meet the aspirations of the city and the state.”

Virgin Australia, BNE’s home carrier, had the honour of performing the first departure from the new runway, flying to Cairns in celebration of historic links between the two cities 

He also thanked and congratulated the partners, suppliers and contractors who had worked on the project over the decades and added: “As we reach this historic milestone, I must commend the entire New Runway team for putting their hearts and souls into this project over the last 15 years. This truly is a project built by the community for the community.” 

He concluded: “This new runway is so much more than asphalt; it is an enabler for recovery and growth across all facets of business, with an estimated 7,800 new jobs created by 2035 and an additional AU$5 bn in annual economic benefit to the region. Now more than ever, it is crucial that we have the infrastructure and mechanisms in place to allow our great city and state to recover from the COVID-19 global pandemic, and Brisbane Airport and this new runway will play a strong part in that.” 

The project director for the Skyway joint venture company, Graeme Fenemore, added: “I am extremely proud to be handing over Brisbane’s new runway ahead of programme, on budget and with an exemplary safety record of zero losttime injuries.” 

All went well on the big day and, after a water cannon salute from the airport fire service, Virgin Australia’s flight VA781, a Boeing 737, pushed back at 10.50am to launch a new era for Queensland’s primary international gateway.

The author would like to thank Leonie Vandeven and Jimmy Maitland for their considerable help with this article