updated 10/21/2011 1:00:25 PM ET 2011-10-21T17:00:25

Frankfurt Airport inaugurates its long-awaited fourth runway Friday after a $1.05 billion construction project that involved building taxiways over a busy road, planting hundreds of acres of replacement trees and relocating wildlife including frogs and salamanders.

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The first user of the landings-only strip is expected to be Chancellor Angela Merkel, whose government plane is scheduled to arrive before the ceremonies.

The airport says the new runway, parallel to two existing ones but about a mile away, will boost capacity by 50 percent, from 83 takeoffs and landings per hour to a potential 126, and from the current 53 million passengers a year to 88.6 million by 2020. The airport says it now has peak demand that it can't meet of up to 100 takeoffs and landings per hour.

It says the added capacity should mean better service and fewer delayed flights for passengers.

It will also help the airport improve its growth potential in the face of international competition. It has slipped from the biggest airport in continental Europe to No. 2 behind Paris' Charles de Gaulle.

The new runway is key because the two parallel main runways, which date from the era before jets, are too close together to be used simultaneously. A third runway is takeoffs-only, leaving a logjam with landings.

The 3,065-yard fourth runway is connected to the rest of the airport by taxiways that cross a busy highway, high-speed rail line and the airport ring road.

The expansion won approval from the government of the state of Hesse despite opposition from local residents. But the airport and its biggest airline, Lufthansa AG, suffered a setback earlier this month when a court in the state of Hesse where it is located banned night flights between 11 p.m. and 5 a.m. The ban mostly affects flights by Lufthansa Cargo.

The new runway was first proposed in 1997 but construction only began in 2009 after a years-long study and permitting process. Airport operator Fraport AG agreed to a number of environmental remedies, planting 711 acres of forest to replace the 282 hectares cut down for the new runway and relocating wildlife.

The airport currently ranks 9th worldwide by passengers behind Atlanta, Beijing, Chicago O'Hare, London's Heathrow, Tokyo's Haneda, Los Angeles, Paris-Charles de Gaulle and Dallas-Fort Worth.

The airport's expansion will also eventually include a new, third terminal south of the airport at the site of a former U.S. military base. A half-mile extension from Terminal 1 to open next summer will include a shopping mall past security and more gates that can handle A-380 superjumbo jets.

Copyright 2011 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


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