Flights delayed

Chengdu’s new airport must wait to go global


Aerial shot of Tianfu in January

Airport terminals can have short shelf lives, despite their weighty construction costs. Blame the new fleets of larger planes, perhaps, which demand a new scale of handling. Stiffer security requirements since 9-11 have also swallowed up space and airport bosses now have to plan for virus-proof travel and all the challenges that health screening entails.

The architects who designed Chengdu’s Tianfu International Airport, which opened for business on Sunday morning with a flight from Sichuan Airlines to Beijing, couldn’t have envisaged how the pandemic would pulverise the aviation world. Their focus for the $11.6 billion hub was more in reducing the pressure on Chengdu’s existing airport at Shuangliu. The fourth busiest in China, it processed 55 million passengers in 2019 or about five million more than its design capacity.

Two years ago WiC reported on the debut of another massive hub in Daxing outside Beijing, where the plan was to take some of the strain off the incumbent airport in the capital, which handled more than 100 million passengers in the same year. Tianfu will do something similar in Sichuan, with annual capacity for 60 million passengers and plans to double that in the years ahead. In the process Chengdu joins Beijing and Shanghai with bragging rights as one of only three Chinese cities offering international flights from two locations. It will be hoping that its dual-airport designation cements its status as the gateway for southwestern China, rivalling other hubs in the east (Shanghai), the north (Beijing) and the south (Guangzhou).

In fact Tianfu has been tasked with taking over most of the international flights, with Shuangliu focusing on mainland routes, as well as flights to Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan. Yet that separation of duties won’t have much meaning at first because China is pretty much closed to international flights. OAG, the travel data specialist, reported that they were accounting for less than 1% of seat capacity at the start of June.

Domestic traffic has taken up the baton for the last 12 months, moving back towards pre-pandemic levels relatively quickly and allowing the Chinese to surpass the United States as the world’s largest aviation market in April last year.

The ranking has ricocheted back and forth between the two markets since then with the Americans regaining their crown after a dreadful Lunar New Year for the Chinese airlines in February, when the government discouraged people from travelling.

Traffic then rebounded in the weeks that followed, pushing the Chinese back to the summit but they dropped back again a few weeks ago when a flurry of Covid infections in Guangdong saw the cancellation of hundreds of flights from airports in Shenzhen and Guangzhou.

The fresh curbs contributed to a drop of almost 10% in seat capacity on a national basis in June on a month earlier, says OAG, with the Americans grabbing the top spot in seat numbers once more.

Most commentators expect the Chinese to take pole position on a permanent basis within five years and they take a similarly bullish view on the build-out of China’s airports, arguing that the construction effort will struggle to keep pace with new demand for travel.

Higher incomes for hundreds of millions of would-be tourists make a compelling case for the rollout of runways and passenger terminals: the blueprint is for more than 30 new civil airports before 2025, underpinning a 43% increase to two billion passenger trips per annum, the ministry of transport says.

In the shorter term the picture is different for international travel, with restrictions likely to last longer in Asia-Pacific than in North America and Europe because of slower vaccination rates. More infectious strains of Covid are making governments cautious about opening their borders, with similar concerns set to have a dampening effect on international passenger numbers in China. Although China’s vaccination programme is now much more advanced than a few months ago, some health experts have queried whether herd immunity is going to be achieved by the end of the year. If it isn’t, the likelihood of a fuller opening to international flights recedes, especially prior to the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February next year.

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