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19. September 2007

A sneak preview of Beijing's giant new airport

The Americans like to say that everything's big in Texas. But as they're quickly finding out, in China it's even bigger! Just take a look at Beijing airport's new terminal.  (Source: Domaine-B.com)

It's a larger-than-life monument meant to showcase the world's most populous country when it hosts the greatest show on Earth. Its designers say it is built to resemble a dragon. Its structural plan pays homage to the architectural marvel that is Beijing's forbidden city.

Beijing airport's giant new Terminal 3, the latest part of the city's Olympic masterplan to be unveiled to the world, is another Chinese contribution to the record books, and another example of the country's overarching and world-beating ambition.

The Yuan27 billion ($3.6 billion) new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport will open its doors in February 2008, well in time for the Beijing Olympics, to be held in August.

The Chinese government contributed Yuan4.8 billion ($640 million) for the expansion project, while Beijing Capital International Airport — a Hong Kong-listed company responsible for operating both aviation and non-aviation business at the airport — paid the remaining 22.2 billion ($2.96 billion).

The 986,000 sq-metre (10.6 million sq-ft) terminal is larger than Heathrow's four terminals put together. It is a vitally necessary addition for the overstrained airport, which has a design capacity of 35 million passengers, but last year handled 48.7 million.

To be mainly used by Air China and its partners in the Star Alliance — which it is set to join this year — the new terminal will raise the airport's capacity to around 66 million passengers, making it one of the world's five busiest airports. Soaring demand is likely to continue long after the Olympics.

A team has been set up to study site options for a second airport in the capital. Beijing expects to start work on the second airport in 2010. It will be ready in 2015, by when airport authorities expect that even the gigantic new terminal will have reached its full capacity.

The new terminal has:

  • 1.8 cubic metres (64 million cubic feet) of concret
  • 500,000 tonnes of steel (the Eiffel tower weighs just 7,300 tonnes)
  • 3.8 million sq metres (41 million sq feet) of road paving
  • 354 km (220 miles) of pipelines
  • 2,977 km (1,850 miles) of cable
  • 447 elevators, escalators and moving passenger walkways

As part of the expansion, a third runway will be opened at the airport this month. Foreign companies have bagged a number of the contracts. While Siemens will put in the new baggage handling system, Bombardier is setting up the rail links to Beijing's new metro railway.

The first pile was driven just three years ago. Since then 50,000 workers operating round the clock have ensured it will be ready in around half the time it took for Heathrow's proposed new fifth terminal just to get approval from all the authorities. But of course, decisions on mega-structures like these are taken much faster in a country where government diktat prevails over consultations.

The nearly three-mile long structure was opened to the media for the first time on 12 September. When it opens in February, the new terminal will alone be bigger than any other airport in the world.

It is much bigger than Washington DC's Pentagon, the world's largest office block in terms of floor space, and a few square feet smaller than the Aalsmeer flower auction house in Amsterdam, currently the world's biggest building.

Comprising three long curved buildings connected by automatic trains, its golden roof and red columns are supposed to remind visitors of the Forbidden City. Skylights that provide natural light stick out from the modern steel-and-glass superstructure like huge spikes, making it look like a giant dragon. Out in front, looking like a turtle, is a station for a new metro line that can take passengers to and from Beijing's city centre in just 16 minutes.

It was designed by Lord Norman Foster, who earlier designed London's Stansted and then HongKong's new airport, which currently boasts of the world's single biggest terminal. And it has been constructed under the supervision of British architectural engineers Arup.

As many as 10,000 people were displaced and their homes demolished to make way for the new terminal. Altogether, a staggering 1.5 million people have been displaced to make way for Beijing's new stadiums, the metro railway, and other infrastructure for the Olympics.

The airport's second terminal was opened only in 1999. But no one then predicted the staggering economic growth that China has experienced since it joined the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001. Earlier this year, aviation authorities reduced the number of flights allowed to operate at the airport, because their sheer numbers were threatening flight safety standards.

The Chinese already boast of the world's longest sea bridge, the third-highest building, and the biggest metro system, all under construction and likely to be complete before the Olympics. But China's ambitions are even bigger.

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