China in a Flurry of Airport Construction

Country spends billions to build facilities at a whirlwind pace.

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.

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