One of the biggest questions surrounding the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games is whether China’s fast-growing but seriously stretched aviation system will be up to the task of handling the 2 million visitors expected to pack the Chinese capital for the Games this summer.
The answer seems to be: Yes. China in general and Beijing in particular are hurrying to finish a far-reaching overhaul and expansion of the aviation system in time for the Games, which run from Aug. 8 through Aug. 24. To date, China has held closely to a schedule announced several years ago for bringing into modern times a system that might have served the Last Emperor tolerably well.
China’s Olympics aviation agenda is nothing if not ambitious. The nation — whose passenger traffic has grown 17 percent annually for the past five years — is, among other things, poised to open in March the world’s largest air passenger terminal at Beijing Capital International Airport. This is the airport most Olympics fans will use, especially international travelers.
In recent months, China has upgraded its aviation system by:
- Opening a newly built third runway at the Beijing airport. The runway, which became operational Oct. 29, is expected to boost capacity to 1,600 daily arrivals and departures, from 1,100, helping to reduce flight delays.
- Reducing by 9 percent the number of domestic flights between Beijing and Shanghai, China’s business capital and most populous city, to help ease the Beijing airport’s chronic congestion. The order by the General Administration of Civil Aviation of China is set to remain in effect until Beijing’s gargantuan new Terminal 3 opens in March.
- Expanding to 13 from seven the number of levels in Chinese airspace between 28,000 and 41,000 feet open to civil aviation, doubling the number of aircraft that can fly in Chinese airspace at the same time.
In the months ahead, China is planning to:
- Open a new subway line to link the airport to central Beijing, about 12 miles away. The line is set to open June 30, a month before the Games.
- Expand secondary airports within 50 miles of Beijing to handle any Olympic overflow.
- Open another new Beijing subway line that will run between the city center and the Olympic Green, the park-like complex where the new National Stadium and other prime Olympic venues are located. The subway is expected to be up and running in by summer.
Outside Beijing, China has made other aviation moves:
- In 2005, China built a new airport from the ground up in Guangzhou (formerly Canton), a southern manufacturing and high-tech center not far from Hong Kong — which itself opened its built-from-scratch Chek Lap Kok Hong Kong International Airport in 1998.
- Scheduled to open in March is a new second passenger terminal at Shanghai Pudong International Airport. The sparkling Pudong airport opened in 1999 in a section of town that just 15 years ago was home to cabbage farms and warehouses. It is now a forest of look-at-me, futuristic high-rises. Shanghai will host the preliminary football (soccer) matches of the 2008 Olympics. Air travelers can ride the world’s first commercial magnetic levitation train (round-trip fare: about $8) from the airport to Shanghai’s Pudong district on their way to the Games. The train, which reaches top speeds of nearly 300 miles per hour, can thrill even the most jaded tourist when it surges along long curves on the track into town.
Most infrastructure upgrades, though, are happening in Beijing.
Beijing Capital airport had but one small, shabby passenger terminal until 1999, when a second terminal was built — and it was inadequate virtually from opening day. Built to handle 35 million annual visitors, Beijing Capital last year saw 48.7 million fliers, and was on pace in 2007 to surpass that record total easily. Crowds, queues and flight delays have been the norm.
With some five months to get the bugs out before the Games, Terminal 3 should help streamline the Olympics experience. Designed by British ‘starchitect’ Norman Foster, the terminal’s curving red roof is intended to evoke the splendid architecture of Beijing’s imperial past. However, the skylights and floor-to-ceiling glass walls are strictly modern, borrowed from Hong Kong airport, which Foster’s firm designed, too.
Opening officially on Feb. 29, Terminal 3 is set to be broadly operational on March 26, when the 19 Star Alliance carriers — including national flag carrier Air China plus Lufthansa, United Airlines, Singapore Airlines, All Nippon Airways and Air Canada — move into the new structure. The idea is to make it quicker and easier to change planes on member airlines for travelers going beyond Beijing.
The new terminal will also feature a $250 million baggage system designed by German firm Siemens and a sleek fleet of light rail cars to shuttle air passengers between terminals.
As always, it remains to be seen whether everyday reality will match blue-sky conceptualizing. But China’s preparations to date have been smartly executed, giving the Middle Kingdom a chance to win transportation gold at the 2008 Games.