Take Offs & Landings
hidden-in-plain-sight gem on the Pearl
Guangzhou Baiyun is a hidden-in-plain-sight gem on the Pearl. JFK gets culinary boost. DFW simplifies parking payments. Houston Hobby breaks ground on new terminal. Plus new connection news.
It’s tough to tab the planet’s 19th busiest aerodrome a‘stealth’airport. But there it is. Airports Council International (ACI) puts Guangzhou Baiyun International ahead of the likes of Shanghai Pu Dong, San Francisco International and Bush Houston Intercontinental when it comes to passenger traffic. In 2011, the last year for which full figures are available, ACI says CAN (the code derives from the days Guangzhou was known as Canton) tallied 45,040,340 passengers.
CAN is certainly not unknown to the legions of Chinese who use the airport yearly. It’s North Americans who may not be familiar with the connectivity options Guangzhou offers. That absence of awareness is driven by a couple of facts: flight frequency and location.
First, there are but two daily nonstops from this continent to CAN, both of them via Guangzhou-based China Southern. An A380 makes the 7,217-mile trans-Pacific journey from Los Angeles International, while a 777 does the duty on a shorter 6,338-mile trip from Vancouver.
Second, Guangzhou, arrayed along the northern reaches of the phenomenallypopulous Pearl River Delta, is a mere 75 miles north by northwest of Hong Kong. HKG is permanently etched on the radar screen of many an international traveler. Guangzhou, despite its position as China’s third-largest city, lies in the perceptual shadow of Hong Kong’s Special Administrative Region.
Despite its comparative dearth of air routes to North America (consider that
Hong Kong has seven nonstop routes to the United States and Canada compared to Guangzhou’s two), Guangzhou takes a rear-cabin ranking to no one when it comes to its penetration of China proper. Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines boasts the largest fleet anywhere in Asia, and the most passenger-carrying capacity of any airline in China.
The carrier lays claim to what it calls “the most extensive route network within China,”many of those domestic runs emanating from its headquarters city of Guangzhou. The roster reads like an atlas of the country: Chongquing, Dailan, Guilin, Jinan, Tianjin, Xiamen. The list of nonstop cities out of CAN on China Southern is as rich as the viscous, silty Pearl River which runs through the heart of Guangzhou.
All told, China Southern serves some 193 cities arrayed among 35 countries and regions. Among them they pump out 1,930 daily flights. Guangzhou is the epicenter of the effort. See why it’s so hard to slap the ‘stealth’label on the place?
Less than ten years ago in 2004, Baiyun International replaced a comparatively smaller airfield by the same name. So fast has China Southern’s traffic grown, so increasingly important has the whole of Guangdong Province (the area in which Guangzhou is located) become, that the “new”Baiyun International is already bursting at its metaphorical seams.
There’s a third parallel runway getting built just now. It’s set to open in 2014, and is projected to increase hourly flight capacity by some 40 percent. That’s critical, because in terms of takeoffs and landings, CAN is the second-busiest airport in China. To accommodate the flyers who flock to the facility some 17 miles from city center, a second terminal is also going up, and should be ready to start handling passengers by 2016.
The Present Setup
The current single terminal is an expansive, airy affair – and increasingly crowded. It’s split into two sections: A and B. All international departures are via the A area. Security and immigration lines can be long and languid at CAN, so it’s best to build in a pad, one that allows you ample time to pass from the non-sterile“landside”part of the airport to the sterile“airside.”
Head to No. 1, East Corridor and you’ll find one of the best airport enclaves in all of Asia. China Southern is serious about catering to the people who inhabit the pointy end of the airplane, up in first and business class. The carrier’s Sky Pearl International VIP Lounge is open to frontend flyers,VIPs, Sky Pearl gold and silver card members as well as SkyTeam elites. It’s a bi-level affair, with a dining area on the first floor. No mere fruit and cheese menu here. The lounge sports oriental and western fare.You’ll find dishes such as pasta for lunch, as well as teriyaki chicken and sweet and sour fish.
Deep inside the Sky Pearl lounge there’s a massage room and sleeping area, the perfect way to work out the kinks or get a bit of shut-eye before the flight. An alternate way to refresh is a shower. This lounge sports three of them.
If you’re not flying China Southern, or don’t have a seat up front, try the Plaza Premium Lounge near Gate A05. It’s pay for play. And is open from 7:00 AM till 1:00 AM every day of the week.
Free, but a bit entailed to access, is the airport’s complimentary WiFi. To get to it you need your mobile phone number or your Sina Weibo account. Weibo is the Chinese microblog.
If you’re in search of a place to charge up, there are some 63 multi-functional booths throughout Baiyun. They have countryspecific powerports and USB plugs.
Somewhat easier to access than WiFi is the airport hotel. The Hotel Pullman Guangzhou Baiyun Airport is stylish, savvy and five-star. Reached via a threeminute walk from the Departure Hall of CAN, the rooms meet a tired traveler’s first requirement: they’re legitimately soundproofed. The 460-room hotel boasts five restaurants and bars, a spa, swimming pool and fitness center. If you’ve got an early morning flight to catch from the airport you might want to consider checking out of your city center hotel the evening before and transferring to the Pullman. Saves lots of angst, and tons of time battling morning traffic.
You can avoid vehicular traffic, if not the press of the crowd, by taking metro line 3 from city center out to the airport. Central Business District to CAN is about a 30-minute train ride. Many Guangzhou travelers, however, opt instead to take the airport shuttle from the CBD.
If you’re willing to make the 40-minute drive to downtown and still want a five-star stay consider the Crowne Plaza Guangzhou Huadu, ten minutes from the airport. It’s a 299-room property replete with 24-hour room service and free WiFi. The requisite swimming pool and fitness center come along with the deal and there’s plenty of meeting space.
Just Passing Through
Want to see where Cantonese cooking got its name, perhaps explore the nooks and crannies of old Canton? If you can extend your trip, are a foreign national from one of 45 counties – including the United States and Canada – hold a third-country visa replete with onward airline ticket, then you can break away from the airport for as many as 72 hours sans visa and see the city. It’s worth it. The deal doesn’t work if you’re just making a round-trip. That means your destination and point of departure cannot be the same.
Guangzhou the city, like Baiyun the airport, is one of those mistakenly underestimated‘Point Bs’people pass through en route to their way to their ultimate objective. Today, that final destination is apt to be among the ubiquitous million-person cities that dot China’s landscape. If one of those is where you’re headed, likely the boarding pass waiting for you will have CAN on it.
You can all but count on it. BT
Above: Sky Pearl International VIP Lounge