Airports around New Zealand operating at full capacity as people fly to meet loved ones for Christmas

It's been one year and one week since airlines were grounded because of lockdown restrictions in Auckland.

On Saturday, airports around the country were operating at full capacity on the biggest travel day of the year.

Although a handful of flights were cancelled it couldn't dampen the promise of eventually greeting friends and family.

If receiving hugs was a foreign currency then the dollar would have peaked today.

Anxious waits soon vanished when that special arrival finally came through. No more Zooms or FaceTimes - it was the real thing. 

While the destinations were different family was at its heart.

"Going to visit my brother for Christmas," one person said.

Another said: "Off to Napier today and off to see seven great-grandchildren."

"I'm going to Napier [and] Havelock North really to visit a niece and nephew," a third said.

"I'm going to Nelson to see my family and I haven't seen them for four years because I live in London so very excited," a fourth person said.

For some, the excitement of reuniting with loved ones wore off as their plans were hampered by flight disruptions and delays.

"Left town [in] Dannevirke and got a message to say the flight was cancelled which meant that we weren't going to get a connecting flight to the Gold Coast, unless we stopped, rebooked and rushed to Napier [to] get a flight to Auckland to get an international flight," holiday-goer Stuart Perry told Newshub.

But Air New Zealand's CEO Greg Foran said his staff and the network were coping well in spite of the overwhelming demand.

"Most people are getting to where they need to and most of them are getting their bags with them," Foran said.

The anxiety of whether their luggage will arrive at the same time can add an extra layer of stress.

"I do have some Christmas presents in there so hoping for the best," one person said.

When Newshub asked: "Do you get a bit nervous waiting for your bags?" One person said: "No [I'm] quietly confident."

Almost 12,000 passengers have flown out of the country on Saturday, with the arrivals hall at Auckland Airport just as hectic - with around 6000 people returning home to be with loved ones for the holidays.

On the busiest day of travel, it was very much a numbers game with people waiting to see loved ones.

Scott Gledhill's family have been waiting to see him in the flesh for three-and-a-half long years, so what are a few more minutes to wait?

When his mum saw him she couldn't believe it. "It's actually you," she said.

Foran said he was happy Air New Zealand could help make reunions like that a reality.

"It's an important time and we're pleased to be doing our part to make it happen," he said.

A smooth landing for some as the holiday season finally takes off.