43 new airports in four years? In China, that’s possible

Hardly any other country is building new airports as fast as China, satellite images show. In the past four years alone, 43 airports have been built. But the government still sees a need to catch up, especially in smaller cities.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article (written in German by Jörn Petring). Access the original article here.

The central Chinese city of Chengdu is about to join a very special club: The capital of Sichuan province is the third city in China, along with Shanghai and Beijing, to now have not one but two international airports. The two terminals of the new Tianfu Airport, which have a combined area of 600,000 square meters, have been ready since the end of March, as exclusive satellite images from LiveEO show. The official opening was celebrated recently: The first flight took off on June 28.

Tianfu is not the only airport in China currently under construction or in the planning stage. According to the new five-year plan adopted by the Beijing People’s Congress in the spring, more than 30 new civil airports are to be opened in the next five years alone. Civil aviation capacity is to be increased by 43 percent to two billion passengers per year.

The corona pandemic had little impact on the government’s plans. In fact, passenger traffic on Chinese domestic flights has already returned to pre-Corona levels, China’s National Aviation Administration recently announced. Demand for air travel will continue to rise.

Already, 43 new airports had been built during the period of the previous five-year plan. This includes Beijing’s new Daxing Airport. Work began in September 2015 – less than four years later, the “starfish” with its six characteristic side arms leading to the planes was ready. This is what the satellite images show. The companies involved used 200,000 cubic meters of steel and 100,000 cubic meters of concrete for the new airport.

The fact that China is so fast in building new airports is partly due to a lot of experience. After all, with 241 certified airports, the People’s Republic now has more airports than anywhere else in the world. Often, the same state-owned companies are responsible for the construction. The planners remove obstacles more rigorously – this would hardly be possible in most Western democracies. Even before work began on the airport in Beijing, bulldozers arrived to make room. Dozens of villages were razed to the ground. The residents were compensated. But they had no choice. But the construction of a new airport is not always associated with forced resettlement.

In the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, for example, construction companies built an area in the sea using polders. This resulted in a massive new terminal and runway in 2013, as satellite images show.

Whereas in the past decade the main focus was on meeting the sharp rise in demand for air travel as quickly as possible, the aim now is to refine the airline network. In the future, the growth rate of large airports will decrease, while the construction of smaller feeder airports will increase, as reported by the state-owned Global Times.

For example, regional airports are planned in medium-sized cities such as Shuzhou in Shanxi province, Jiaxing (Zhejiang), Ruijin (Jiangxi) and Aral (Xinjiang). According to the China Aviation Administration (CAAC), airlines are to offer more short-haul flights to remote regions where ground transportation proves difficult. This applies, for example, to mountainous areas where fast train routes are difficult to implement.

To make it easier for people in such regions to fly in the future, regional airlines that offer flights between small and medium-sized airports with passenger volumes of less than two million are to receive higher subsidies. But investment is also continuing on China’s already well-developed east coast.

Major hubs, including Shanghai Pudong International Airport, Guangzhou Baiyun International Airport and Shenzhen Bao’an International Airport, are also to be expanded. New airports will be seen in Xiamen, eastern China’s Fujian province, and Hohhot in northern China’s Inner Mongolia autonomous region. Some 40 airports in China are expected to be able to handle international flights in the next five years.

But this will be far from the end of the expansion of China’s air network, as a draft of a new national infrastructure plan for the next 15 years published in February makes clear.

According to the plan, there will be as many as 400 airports in China by 2035. This means that construction companies would have to build an average of ten new airports per year. The government also wants to massively expand other transport routes.

Beijing is also aiming to expand the national high-speed train network to 70,000 kilometers by 2035 – a further 84 percent increase on the estimated 38,000 kilometers at the end of last year. The length of the country’s entire rail network is expected to increase to 200,000 kilometers in 15 years, 37 percent more than at present. The national network of expressways is expected to grow to 460,000 kilometers.