China in a Flurry of Airport Construction

Country spends billions to build facilities at a whirlwind pace.

*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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