Final call

Beijing’s second airport moves a step closer, at a cost of over $11 billion

Final call

It was a case of first the smog and then the snow for Beijing’s long-suffering air passengers last month, after hundreds 0f flights were either cancelled or delayed due to the wintry conditions.

But at least it sounds like the chances of an on-time departure for Beijing’s travellers might improve in future, after reports in the Chinese press that the capital city’s second airport is moving closer to reality.

The media coverage suggests that the Rmb70 billion ($11.24 billion) second airport will include six runways for civil aviation, plus an extra one for the military’s exclusive use. At full capacity, it will be able to handle 70 million passengers annually. There’s a 37-kilometre rail link in the master plan too, to carry passengers directly into Beijing South Railway Station.

The announcement in a newspaper linked to the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) implied that the State Council had given its blessing for the new hub to be built on land between the southern suburb of Daxing and neighbouring Hebei province. Flights should begin by 2018.

Under discussion for at least four years (WiC first mentioned it in issue 96), the proposals prompted a long struggle between interest groups desperate to win the project for their locality, as well as the inevitable flurry of real estate speculation in areas said to be shortlisted.

It also follows passenger frustration with delays at Beijing’s current airport, now the world’s second busiest after Atlanta, and handling almost 82 million passengers a year.

The Chinese media seemed unfazed by the news, with the general sense that Beijing needs more than one airport to match peer cities like New York, London, Paris and Tokyo. There is a little local rivalry too: Shanghai has two airports.

But one area of concern for HSBC’s analysts is that the new investment plan looks like costing three times as much as Beijing’s most recent flagship terminal, which was built in advance of the 2008 Olympics. Nor is there much detail on how the project will be funded by the various parties, which include the Beijing city government, the Hebei provincial government and the CAAC itself. A third query is whether the new site will be able to generate sufficient returns. One possibility, says HSBC, is higher fees for airline customers.

But policymakers will need to do more than cut the ribbons on the new facilities. Currently, runway capacity is the main bottleneck in Beijing, with the authorities even encouraging smaller airlines to fly into nearby Tianjin and Shijiazhuang instead. A particular priority is securing broader permissions for civilian traffic, with the military still restricting passenger flights into narrow air corridors. In a report on the same issue in WiC83, Zou Jianjun, a professor at the Civil Aviation Management Institute, complained that the military was holding onto the bulk of airspace for its own use. Think of it like tollgates, Zou concluded: “There are 10 lanes on the road but seven gates are closed.”

The new airport will be built close to the smaller Nanyuan air terminal, despite speculation that objections from the Central Military Commission had been holding up the plan. “The biggest obstacle to approving the airport is a dispute about distribution of airspace between civil and military use,” Zhu Wenxin, an official in charge of construction at the new site, reiterated to the China Times.

Beijing has aspirations to become much more of an international travel hub. Although passenger volumes have grown quickly, much of that has come from domestic flights. Bosses want a greater share of international traffic and starting in January this year new rules came into effect granting 72-hour visa-free stays for transit passengers from 45 countries.

But airport executives haven’t been helped by a substantial loss of Japanese business due to the current row over disputed islands (see WiC179). At least 15% of flights to and from Japan have been cut as a result, and passenger numbers on the remaining flights have fallen by almost half.

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