Take offs & Landings
The Middle Kingdom is sprouting a vast crop of
China Then, Now and Pretty Soon – New airports in the Middle Kingdom. Plus new route news.
The year was 1988, and it was December in Beijing – bleak, cold and unforgiving. It was this reporter’s first trip to the People’s Republic, a trip I started at JFK, with stops in San Francisco and Shanghai. The term“jet lag”didn’t apply. This was something far fiercer.
My first glimpse of 1958-vintage Beijing Capital Airport did nothing to dispel the doldrums. The 30-year old terminal had seen better days. Out on the tarmac a Soviet-built IL-18 was just starting its engines; a bit further out a shop-worn Iran Air 747SP squatted, semi-shrouded by the capital city’s seemingly perpetual pollution. Outside of those aircraft, the airport appeared all but empty.
What a difference a couple of decades of Chinese-style capitalism makes. In 2008 PEK (the airport code hearkens back to the days the city was called Peking) opened its massive new Terminal 3, aka‘The Dragon,’ just in time for the Olympic Games. PEK was by then Beijing Capital International Airport, a place capable of moving 80 million passengers per year. But even then it was bursting at its metaphorical seams.
Come 2019 Beijing plans to open a new megaport south of the city in Daxing. PEK will still be around, but Capital and Daxing will share the load. The latter will, according to a prepared release by Beijing Capital International Airport Co., Ltd., eventually taking care of some 100 million souls each year.
According to reports from Reuters, Li Jiaxiang, head of China’s Civil Aviation Administration, says the country will spend some $80 billion on projects in 2015 alone.“Airport building should be a bit ahead of demand. Judging from the experience of the developed world,” contends Li,“Our airport construction is far from enough.”
China remains fertile ground for airport planners, engineers and architects. Arup airport planning terms PEK’s Terminal 3 “one of the world’s more environmentally sustainable airport terminal buildings.” The Dragon“was designed to respond to Beijing’s cold winters and hot summers. Its soaring, aerodynamic roof uses skylights to make the most of the sun’s heat and light, bathing passengers in shades of red and gold,”colors for good luck and wealth.
Airport architects Foster + Partners say those skylights actually are an“aid to orientation – the color cast changing from red to yellow as passengers pass through the building.”
More prosaically, Foster + Partners contends Terminal 3 is practical.“Transport connections are fully integrated, walking distances for passengers are short, with few level changes, and transfer times between flights are minimized.”
Practical, yes – but perhaps passé by the time Daxing makes its debut some four years from now.
From the air, PEK’s prime structure mimics a dragon. Daxing’s Terminal 1 looks more like an exquisite flower, leaves unfolding to fling fliers on their way. ADP Ingéniere (ADPI), a subsidiary of Aéroports de Paris, won the design competition for the structure. Again, the idea was to blend practicality and beauty into a unique signature package.
The terminal itself is surprisingly compact. ADPI ingeniously decided to stack international and domestic levels vertically, instead of spreading them out horizontally. In a prepared release the company says,“This innovation led to designing a compact terminal with a single passenger handling center serving radial boarding piers.”
Why is that important for passengers? According to ADPI,“the distance between the terminal center and the farthest boarding gate is around 650 yards.” That’s less, asserts ADPI,“than Asian and European terminals with similar capacity.”
Then there’s the skylight effect (although perhaps dimmed a bit by the all but ubiquitous smog). Directional orientation is designed to be organic. ADPI says.
“Passengers can easily find their way within the open interior layout of the terminal, gravitating naturally to the grand skylight central area where shops and services are located, and then walking straight ahead to their gate.”
More Places Get New Public Faces
First impressions matter. And a business traveler’s initial take on a place is oft times predicated on the airport. Reuters says Chinese government planners estimate that by 2020 there will be 40 more commercial airports in China than there are today. That will bring the burgeoning tally to some 240.
The west-central city of Chengdu is on a fast track. China’s fourth-largest city is prompting Western airlines to link it nonstop with their major hubs. Case in point: United’s launch last year of 787 Dreamliner nonstops from its San Francisco hub.
The environs around CTU (that’s the city’s airport code) are the birthplace of baby Pandas, hot Sichuan cuisine, and 80 percent of this planet’s iPads. Fortune
500 companies love the place. But, as this writer can attest, the city’s Shuangliu airport is wanting in terms of amenities and ambience – not to mention the all-tooimportant room to grow.
In June we got word that the ADPI would lend its talents to construction of the city’s second airport. From on high the new airport’s terminals will take the form of sunbirds, a symbol that dates back some 3,000 years for the people of Sichuan Province. The panel which made the decision to adopt the design called the plan “fashionable, adaptable,”but also found it “functionally and economically”preferable.
With a planned debut date sometime in 2020, Chengdu’s new airport means the city will join Beijing and Shanghai as the third major Chinese city to be served by two commercial airports. As with Shanghai, when the new Chengdu airport opens the old one will be relegated to largely serving domestic fliers. In Shanghai that’s’the division of labor: Pudong gets the true international traffic and venerable Hongqiao domestic and regional flights.
Pudong’s Terminal 2 opened in 2008. As you may already know, eight is an auspicious number for the Chinese, betokening good luck. Beijing Capital opened Terminal 3 in 2008, and so on. The grand opening for Beijing’s new Daxing airport was initially to have been 2018.
PVG’s Terminal 1 and Terminal 2 come close to mirroring one another architecturally, with a few differences. Terminal 1 is the larger of the two and has more of a wave-like shape; Terminal 1’s curves more resemble a seagull.
Either way, PVG is wearing well in its short existence. Most business travelers know it as the airport which sports the maglev train. The route whisks riders from the airport to Longyang Road station in Pudong proper. From there, you transfer for the subway ride to city center.
An increasingly important Chinese air gateway is Guangzhou’s Baiyun International. The southern Chinese city is a powerhouse, and so is its airport. Hometown carrier China Southern Airlines offers nonstop service to NewYork Kennedy, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver.
For the Chinese, four is also an auspicious number. The new Baiyun replaced an older airport of the same name (Baiyun means White Cloud) back in 2004. Plans are to open a magnificent new Terminal 2 at CAN (the code derives from the days when Guangzhou was known as Canton) in 2018. A third runway for CAN was completed in 2014. Could be just coincidence, but we’re beginning to detect a pattern here.
Flying High or Slowing Down?
As things now stand, US fliers have essentially four options to fly to China nonstop: Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Chengdu. But a fifth airport could be waiting in the wings. Say hello to Kunming Changshui International, code name KMG.
Numerologically, the stage could be set for good things to come. Changshui opened at 08:00 (UTC+8) on June 28, 2012. As luck would have it – and what may be a hint of intercontinental sojourns to come – China Eastern Airlines already connects KMG nonstop to Paris Charles de Gaulle.
Arup had a hand in designing the airport, whose terminal is evocative of a golden bird. Like most new airports of recent construction in China, KMG’s design is curvilinear. That design stresses harmony, a key characteristic of Chinese culture. The terminal is also reminiscent of a traditionalYunnan Province structure, replete with a“double-slope”rooftop.
The building binge won’t last forever. Time will come when the People’s Republic of China will cease planting successive crops of new superports. But that point hasn’t come yet, and business travelers are the beneficiaries. Just ask any of them who disembarked at dowdy Beijing Capital Airport back in the eighties, deplaning into a post-Mao/pre-modern stitch in time. They’d have been hard-pressed to predict the skyquake that was about to rock the most populous country on the planet. BT
Above: Beijing Capital International Airport Below: Terminal 3
Image: Kunming Changshui International