Why one’s just not enough

Beijing searches for site to build a second airport

Why one’s just not enough

Big but congested

Most WiC readers probably have a complaint or two of their own about their experiences of antiquated airport infrastructure, especially those travelling regulary in Europe and the US. But few of us want to see a brand new airport built next door to our house. Just look at the series of rows provoked by the various proposals to build a third runway at London’s Heathrow airport, none of which have made it to construction phase.

Airport construction in China rarely meets with the same level of opprobrium as that experienced by Heathrow’s prospective architects, with officials usually able to green light projects without undergoing anywhere near the same level of public scrutiny.

Take, for example, the recent finding by government auditors that airport construction over the past few years has been rife with backhanders (at least Rmb159 million in bribes paid for contracts and almost Rmb2 billion of contracts not open to public bidding). The news came just days after the downfall of former railway minister Liu Zhijun on similar charges (see WiC95). But it still hasn’t stopped the talk of expansion.

The latest blueprint is for another international airport for Beijing. Surprised? Didn’t they just build a third runway and gigantic Norman Foster-designed terminal at Beijing Capital International airport shortly before the 2008 Olympics?

Yes, they did. But record passenger numbers mean that additional capacity now seems to be required – and there isn’t enough space to expand further. It will cost an estimated $15 billion, and initially serve an additional 40 million passengers.

Beijing’s officials had actually started planning for a second international airport back in 2003 but it wasn’t supposed to be needed until 2015. That’s when the existing hub was due to reach its maximum capacity of 76 million passengers.

The problem? It hit 74 million last year, and the growth spurt is showing no signs of slowing. January passenger throughput was up 14%, a trend being mirrored at all of China’s major hubs. “Since early this year,” explains Caixin magazine, “the situation has worsened significantly as delays spread nationwide.”

The current runway capacity is close to saturation, reports the Economy & Nation Weekly magazine, with a lack of airspace making delays worse. Less than 65% of the capital’s flights were on time last year, according to the magazine.

Predictably, bureaucratic missteps are said to have contributed to the problem. “During the extension of Capital International Airport in 2003… two [new] runways should have been constructed, bringing the airport’s total number of runways to four,” National Development and Reform Commission researcher Dong Yan told Economy & Nation. “But when the expansion project was formally approved, one of the planned runways was cut off.”

How big an impact did that decision have? “If four runways had been constructed in accordance with the plan,” claims Dong, “the airport’s annual passenger throughput could have been up to 100 million passengers and the approval of the second airport construction project could have been postponed a few years”.

That would have held off another problem facing city officials: where to put the new facility. The current plan has it located in south Beijing’s Daxing district, close to Nanyuan airport, 50km away. Nanyuan is mainly used by the military but also processes about two million civilian passengers annually.

Industry insiders think that might mean Nanyuan is relocated (not that the military is especially flexible on these matters, see WiC83 for how its control of national airspace is a leading contributor to flight delays).

Industry body IATA predicts 214 million new passengers will take to Chinese skies over the next three years, making new airports a priority. The head of China’s civil aviation authority yesterday said that 45 new airports would be built before 2015. By his own estimate, 500 million Chinese will fly that year.

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