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Beijing opens an airport fit for Olympics

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Pallavi Aiyar

With a head and long tail, the vents along the roof represent the Chinese dragon

Beijing: On Friday, the new terminal of Beijing Airport will make a formal debut when the first international flight touches down on its tarmac. With the opening of terminal-3, the Chinese capital will boast the world’s largest airport, home to three runways and with the capacity of handling up to 85 million passengers a year.

Designed by architectural superstar Lord Norman Foster and built by the British engineering firm Arup, the new terminal’s most remarkable feature is its gargantuan size, equal to 170 football fields. With a floor area of more than 10 million square feet, the terminal is second in size to only the Aalsmeer flower auction house in Amsterdam, the world’s biggest building.

The $2.7-billion project in fact has 17 per cent more floor space than London Heathrow’s five terminals combined.

The increased capacity that the new terminal brings, will place Beijing airport among the top five globally for total passenger numbers, along with Heathrow, Europe’s busiest airport; Atlanta, the busiest in the world, Tokyo Haneda, Asia’s busiest airport and Chicago O’Hare.

Aside from size, the other noteworthy feature of the terminal is the speed with which the project was conceived of and executed. Once it was realised a few years ago that the capacity of Beijing’s airport would soon be outpaced by the actual flow of passengers, the decision to build the new terminal was taken. Instead of long consultations and lengthy planning, construction on the building began in March 2004. It has taken less than four years in total to build it. The design of the building blends the super-modern with the traditional. With a broad head and long tail, the vents along the nearly two-mile-long aerodynamic roof are in the shape of scales making it a modern representation of the Chinese dragon.

Light-rail link

There is a light-rail terminal to take passengers to downtown Beijing in less than 15 minutes and the terminal is equipped to be able to handle even the giant double-decker Airbus A380 superjumbo.

From Friday, six airlines including British Airways and Qantas will move their operations to Terminal-3. A total of 19 airlines will do the same by the end of March.

The development of Beijing airport has been symbolic of the country’s trajectory over the last half a century. The airport’s first terminal, its smallest and shabbiest, opened in 1959, the 10-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Revolution. A second terminal was completed in 1999, an impressive, gleaming international gateway that signalled the reality of the country’s economic rise. This third and final terminal, with its world-beating scope and design, underscores China’s emergence as a global power and the world’s fourth largest economy.

Terminal-3 comes on line only a few months before Beijing plays host to the Olympic Games. It is thus also in many ways the centrepiece of the capital city’s efforts to ramp up its infrastructure to cope with the increased rush during the event.

The Olympics are however only a side-consideration in the capital airport’s expansion. The entire country is in fact on an airport building and renovation spree. Officials announced last month that 97 more airports are due to be built in China by 2020, bringing the total number to 239. Of these, 13 are projected to handle 30 million passengers a year.

According to China Civil Aviation Authority figures, the budget for expanding and improving airport infrastructure between 2006 and 2010 itself, was worth RMB 140 billion ($17.4 billion).

National passenger numbers in China have grown from seven million in the mid-1980s to some 185 million at present. Last year Beijing airport handled 48 million passengers well-over its pre-expansion capacity of 35 million passengers.

With the new terminal a short-lived respite has been won. But already Beijing is looking for a site for a new, second airport that it predicts will be needed by 2015, when even the largest airport in the world will have reached its full capacity.


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