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3 For China

Published: 02/09/2014 - Filed under: Home » Archive » 2014 » September 2014 » Destinations »

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As the West turns East to make its fortune, fliers – both international and domestic – are flowing through Chinese airports in unprecedented numbers. For the past four years, Beijing’s Capital International Airport has been nipping at the heels of Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International to take the title as the busiest airport on the planet. However, if Capital’s growth doesn’t eclipse Atlanta soon, it stands to lose much of its luster by the end of this decade to the megaport the Chinese are building at nearby Daxing.  

Mimicking the growth of China’s economy itself, the country’s Civil Aviation Administration (CAA) has set its sights on building a startling 82 new airports across this vast land. The goal: to give nine-tenths of the nation’s populace access to air service by 2020. 

However, perhaps more instructive than trying to peer into the murky future for Chinese aviation is to take a quick glance back. A mere 10 years ago, in 2004, Beijing Capital didn’t even make Airport Council International’s list of the top 50 busiest airports in the world; now it’s Number Two. The airports serving the country’s other most populous cities, Shanghai and Guangzhou, wouldn’t make that list until four years later in 2008.

The meteoric spiral in China’s passenger traffic has given rise to the equally dizzying rise in the number, and size, of the country’s airport construction projects. The transformation in the aviation infrastructure is unprecedented – and, some contend, ultimately unsustainable.

We shall see. What’s important now is the airports themselves, and the access they afford Chinese citizens and Western business travelers alike.

Here then are five of the country’s main players, four operational and one waiting in the wings:


Shanghai Pudong & Hongqiao

Since ancient times, Shanghai has been China’s gateway to global financial investments and economic development. It’s the most populous city in China and one of the largest in the world.

As befits its status as a global city, Shanghai enjoys the services of two international airports. Opened in October 1999, Pudong is an expansive affair, with a pair of terminals flanked by a trio of runways. While Beijing Capital may be the busiest airport in China, Shanghai’s PVG is actually the busiest field in terms of international traffic. This begets a lot of interesting intra-Asian connections. 

PVG’s main players are China Eastern Airlines and Shanghai Airlines, and a major international hub for Air China. In addition to China Eastern, the airport’s first terminal, opened in 1999, hosts 13 other carriers, including the likes of KLM, Air France, Korean Air and Hainan. Larger and newer, Terminal 2 houses over 40 carriers; in addition to the aforementioned Air China, you’ll find all three US network carriers, American, Delta and United, plus Gulf carriers Qatar, Etihad and Emirates, and the city’s namesake, Shanghai Air.

Connectivity isn’t confined to the air. Located a bit distant 19 miles from city center, the airport is linked to Shanghai’s metro system by its vaunted Maglev train. Trains depart frequently for the Longyang Road Metro Station. The ride takes a breathtaking eight minutes. More prosaically, Shanghai Metro Line 2 will take you from Pudong to Longyang Road, Lujiazui, People’s Square or Hongqiao Airport. 

Hongqiao, which today is the city’s prime domestic airport, was at one time Shanghai’s only aerodrome, and the location dates back to 1907, almost as old as heavier-than-air flight. In 2013, ACI ranked it 36 in the world, welcoming over 35 million passengers.

The growth in traffic meant that, as the city prepared to welcome the world to the 2010 Shanghai Expo, Hongqiao needed to grow. So it undertook a five-year $2.5 billion expansion project, adding a second runway and the new Terminal 2, four times the size of Terminal 1. The new runway gave Shanghai the distinction of being the first city in China to have five runways between the two airports for civilian use.


Beijing Capital & Daxing

Shanghai may be the country’s prime international gateway, but just now it’s Beijing Capital that’s getting the aviation world’s attention. It’s far and away the busiest airport in China and its double-digit growth over the last decade has brought it into second place among ACI’s top airports worldwide. 

But even as Beijing closes in on top dog Atlanta’s long-standing crown, PEK’s 84 million passengers in 2013 is a number that also zooms past the airport’s design capacity, raising the question of how it’s going to handle any more.

It’s not as if Capital hasn’t tried to keep pace with demand. In 2008 it opened Terminal 3, a huge affair that helped relieve the strain for a while. The problem is, everything in China is writ large. PEK – the IATA code comes from an earlier time when the city was called Peking – is saturated, and then some. It’s the airportal of choice if you’re going to connect with Star Alliance member Air China’s vast international route system.

Not inclined to let any grass grow, the Chinese government has launched construction of a new international airport to serve the capital city. Beijing Daxing International Airport is an $11.26 billion behemoth, poised to supplement – or perhaps supplant – bursting-at-the-seams Beijing Capital by 2017 or 2018. Initially the new airport will have four runways and will handle up to 45 million passengers annually. Future plans call for an additional two runways, a total of six in all, and capacity of up to 72 million. 

Latest reports have demolition work at Daxing commencing sometime in the second half of this year. Lots of decisions remain up in the air. For one thing, the new airport has yet to be officially named; Daxing is the name of the district where it’s located, and thus has become the de facto and familiar moniker.

But a more salient question is: How many carriers will actually move to Daxing as opposed to staying at Capital? Sited in a district 29 miles south of Tiananmen Square, the new field is some 15 miles farther distant from the heart of Beijing. That fact alone is likely to keep Beijing Capital Airport as a more convenient favorite for O&D (origin and destination) business travelers headed to the Chinese capital itself. 


Guangzhou Baiyun

Rounding out China’s Big Three is Guangzhou Baiyun International, in terms of aircraft movements the second busiest aerodrome in the country. CAN is the code here, reminiscent of the days when the sprawling city it serves was called Canton. 

Today’s Baiyun opened in 2004, replacing a similarly-named pocketport of a field. The new Baiyun is a two-runway airport, although a third one is under construction, due to open soon. Also on tap is a second terminal, scheduled to bow in 2016. When both are complete, officials project CAN will be able to accommodate 75 million passengers per year. Right now, the capacity is 45 million. 

China Southern Airlines is Guangzhou’s main player, with elaborate intra-China, regional and international connections arriving and departing out of its home airport. The carrier, China’s largest airline by fleet size, has just launched non-stop flights between Guangzhou and New York’s JFK, adding to its popular Guangzhou-Los Angeles service.

And as far as being business-friendly, Baiyun shines. Pullman Guangzhou Baiyun Airport Hotel boasts 460 rooms, a quartet of restaurants and ample meeting space. This in-airport hotel is a great place for one- or two-day conferences, where business travelers fly in for a short while, get down to work, and fly back out. 

Face time is particularly important for doing business in China. In many instances there’s no socially acceptable substitute – especially in the initial stages of negotiation. That’s why what’s planned for Chinese airports is so critical to business travelers.  

By Jerome Greer Chandler


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