China in a Flurry of Airport Construction

Even by Chinese standards, the new, dragon-shaped Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport has been a grand undertaking.

At one point, 35,000 workers were mixing, pouring and smoothing concrete for the edifice. Terminal 3 -- seven stories and 2.4 miles long -- will be the world's largest airport terminal when it opens to greet Olympic visitors in 2008.

China is building and expanding airports at an unprecedented pace, one that matches its roaring economy. It will spend $17.4 billion over the next five years to build 42 airports in cities stretching from the Russian border in the northeast to the high Tibetan plateau in the southwest. Chinese planners have orders to expand 73 airports and to move 11.

"The day they complete an airport is the day they start expansion" on another, says Kevin Wu, greater China marketing director for Lockheed Martin and a former air traffic controller in China.

The superstructure of the new terminal in Beijing, designed by renowned British architect Lord Norman Foster, has sprung up in a little more than two years -- "a phenomenally fast speed of construction," says Jonathan Kerry, senior structural engineer at Arup, one of the lead firms on the project.

One reason the project has sped along so quickly is the ready supply of labor. "They throw people at it," Kerry marvels.

Airport transformation

Even before the terminal opens, traffic at Beijing's airport has ballooned. Fifteen years ago, the airport felt remote and puny. It was located in farm fields northeast of the capital and served 100 flights a day. Terminals were dark, dingy, cramped and smoky. Passengers took buses from the lone terminal to airplanes on the tarmac.

Today, Beijing's airport is connected to the city by expressway. It handles a thousand flights a day.

Nationally, passenger levels have risen an average of 15.5% a year for the past five years. Last year, Chinese airlines carried 138 million passengers. U.S.-based airlines, serving a population one-quarter the size of China's, carried 739 million passengers. The difference "shows our potential to develop," says Wang Kunzhi, an official at the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC).

In five years, CAAC forecasts, loads will nearly double to 270 million passengers. China's commercial fleet is to grow, as well, from 863 to 1,580 airliners. By then, the country will have 186 civilian airports, ranking second only to the USA, which has 599 airports certified to handle aircraft seating more than nine passengers.

The spectacular growth of Chinese aviation takes place despite:

*Tight control of air corridors. Wu says China's military controls 80% of the country's airspace. Federal Aviation Administration spokeswoman Laura Brown says her agency controls all U.S. airspace but delegates control in some restricted areas to the military. "At any given moment, they're probably using about 5%," she says.

*Lack of low-cost carriers. Most Chinese airlines are wholly or partly owned by the government, which helps set fares and determines carriers' routes, access to aircraft, gate slots and other questions. The government "prevents the (rise of) the vibrant low-cost sector China needs to take aviation to the next level and even overtake the U.S. in the future," says Derek Sadubin, director of the Center for Asia Pacific Aviation.

*Difficulty buying high-tech equipment. U.S. export controls limit China's access to dual-use technology made by American companies -- products with both military and civilian applications. The restrictions cover navigation and avionics gear, as well as other products used in aviation: computers, software, security and telecom equipment, sensors and lasers.

The controls, called "overly restrictive" by the American Chamber of Commerce in China, hamper sales of Lockheed Martin and other aviation equipment companies.

*Few privately owned aircraft. There are fewer than 150 privately owned aircraft in China, says Xu Weijie, chairman of the Yueqing Flying Club and owner of a company building 11 small airstrips for small planes and helicopters in coastal Zhejiang province.

Xu says he knows of 39 new orders -- for Cessna airplanes, Robinson helicopters and other aircraft -- placed by companies and wealthy business people. "Many people can afford to buy a plane now ... but they have nowhere to fly from or can't afford the high (landing) fees charged by civilian airports. ... People are calling for airspace to be liberalized, but too many restrictions remain. The lack of radar equipment and air traffic control personnel are major hurdles," he says.

Rush to modernize

The building boom includes plans for a second Beijing airport, but most of the facilities will be built in remote western China. Kanding, a Tibetan town in Sichuan province, will get the world's second-highest-elevation airport behind Bangda Airport, also in Tibet. In western Qinghai province, a new airport in the city of Yushu will cut travel time to the provincial capital of Xining from a day-long bus ride to a one-hour flight. In Yushu and other locales, some residents will get their first glimpses of airplanes.

Bradley Mayhew, co-author of Lonely Planet: China, a backpacker's guide, says the country's new roads, rail networks and airports will make travel more convenient, "but some of the adventure is evaporating."

That's fine with business travelers such as Huang Geng, owner of the 140-outlet restaurant chain Brother Bull. "Time is money -- I can't be late," he says. The breakneck modernization in aviation is something "you couldn't do in any other country."

Huang says China's airports, once an embarrassment, now make him proud. "You have to wait longer at U.S. airports," he says.

James Kynge, who chronicled the rise of the Chinese economy in his book China Shakes the World, says it's all an improvement over the bad old days of flying in China. "I remember when CAAC was known as China Airways Always Cancels," he says. "They never took off if there was a hint of bad weather."

Kynge and other veteran fliers tell of squat toilets, passenger lines from counter to curb, lounges blanketed by curtains of cigarette smoke. Even in major cities, airports had no restaurants, not even a place to get a cup of coffee, Kynge says. "China is building a first-world infrastructure from nothing," he says.

Contributing: Barbara DeLollis and Dan Reed

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