Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Son of the Airport that Ate Atlanta

I’ve already addressed the ever-growing creature that is Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport. It’s a very hungry critter that has devoured whole neighborhoods and communities in the name of greater efficiency. However, that size came at the price of convenience, since it can take an hour to go from your arrival gate to your parked car.

Little did I expect to find an airport that is even more voracious for space: Beijing’s Daxing Airport. At a projected 54 square kilometers (33.5 square miles, for those of you too stubborn to embrace the metric system), it will dwarf Atlanta’s 19 square kilometers (almost 12 square miles). Granted, much of that space will be taken up by the nine runways to be built there. But just think of how big the terminal will have to be in order to service the flights filling up those runways. Don’t expect to book a flight there very soon: the projected opening isn’t until 2017.

If you think you’ve heard about a new airport in Beijing recently, you’re not suffering from déjà vu. The city expanded its main airport just prior to the start of the Olympics in 2008. Designed by the famous architect, Sir Norman Foster, the enlarged Beijing Capital Airport is capable of handling 75 million passengers per year. Unfortunately, usage is already past 73 million passengers per year and it cannot be expanded easily, or at all. It currently holds the rank of second-busiest airport in the world behind Atlanta’s airport.

It’s not foreign businesspeople who are jamming China’s airports, though. Most passengers flying through Beijing are domestic, which is pretty typical. As I pointed out previously, most of Atlanta’s passengers are on domestic flights. London’s Heathrow airport is perhaps one of the more unusual, as its passengers tend to be international. Interestingly, Daxing is likely to steal the title of world’s busiest airport for international passengers from Heathrow upon opening. Given how notoriously awful Heathrow is (the British comedy group Monty Python had a memorable song about its baggage retrieval system), you have to wonder about the desirability of that title. 

Civic leaders near big airports like to boast about where they rank on the “World’s Busiest” list. Atlanta and Chicago O’Hare are forever vying for the title of the world’s busiest (counting all passengers), because it conveys the illusion of economic vitality. I say illusion because most of the passengers at these airports never set foot in their respective cities; they simply connect to another flight straight out of there. At most, they might glimpse the skyline. 

However, cities with large, busy airports do boast flights to many destinations. That can make a difference in luring new investment to a region, but only if the airport is truly usable. Chicago O’Hare is known to be busy, but hardly convenient or pleasant. It ranked 6th in a recent survey by Travel and Leisure of the worst airports in the US.  The many expansions the airport underwent over the decades resulted in terminals that are laid out like an M.C. Escher drawing. Heathrow has a comparable layout, while Atlanta’s layout recently underwent a radical change with the addition of the international terminal on the far side of the property from the old (now domestic) terminal.

China’s planners opted to put Daxing airport 50 kilometers (31 miles) south of the city. It’s so far away that planners had to justify it by saying it was intended to serve cities other than Beijing. A new expressway will have to be built to it, along with a high-speed train line.

Ironically, it’s this latter item that could end up saving Chinese travelers from the purgatory of an airport that’s too big to traverse. China’s high-speed rail infrastructure topped 10,000 kilometers (6250 miles) in 2012, which makes it a viable competitor to domestic airlines. That’s the good news. 

The bad news is that the Chinese government has not kept up with where the money went very well. A massive embezzlement scheme is being blamed for rail disaster in 2011 that killed 40 passengers. Given how widespread Chinese government corruption appears to be, you have to wonder how safe their new airport will be.

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