China Builds Out the Air as Frustrations Mount Below

Frequent visitors to Beijing may get a feeling they have seen this before. Less than a decade ago, the newly built international terminal at the city’s old airport became a widely lauded symbol of China’s industrial might and political willpower. But last year, the old airport handled nearly 90 million passengers — 10 million more than it was built for.

“It’s not a question of whether there will be enough passengers,” said Jia Zhiguo, an assistant general manager for the airport construction project. “It’s whether we will be able to handle all of the passengers.”

China has unleashed a huge spending spree to prop up its slowing economy, raising concerns about its growing debt and its surplus of such things as steel factories and coal plants. But Daxing shows that despite China’s economic ascension, decades of major construction projects and worries about overcapacity, the fast-growing and increasingly affluent country still has basic infrastructure needs it has to meet.

“Infrastructure investment in China is often misallocated because of the inadequacies of strategic planning, the availability of essentially free credit, and the lack of consequences for the builders and local governments when investments do not yield sufficient returns,” said Scott Kennedy, the deputy director of the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

As Chinese pockets have deepened and leisure time has grown, so has the flood of air traffic in China. Chinese airlines ferried 440 million passengers in 2015, with that number expected to grow to 1.19 billion by 2034.

That has led to frustrating delays. Airports in Shanghai, Hangzhou and Nanjing ranked at the bottom for on-time departures among 100 major airports in November, according to FlightStats, a flight information provider. Airports in Xiamen, Guangzhou, Kunming and Beijing were not much better. This year, China’s aviation regulators banned airports in Beijing, Shanghai and Nanjing from adding more flights until they could improve their on-time flight record.

“I travel around China frequently, and there’s always a problem,” said Paul Adkins, managing director of AZ China Ltd., a consulting firm. Once, his short flight from Shanghai to Beijing became a 24-hour gantlet that included sleeping over at a college dormitory and being locked in a bus without air-conditioning for an hour. Another time, he and fellow passengers were ordered to run through the airport for a plane that had already left.

“How many times have we sat in the plane at the gate waiting for clearance?” Mr. Adkins said in an email. “The best way to manage hundreds of passengers is to bottle them up inside the airplane.”


Construction of the new Beijing airport in the Daxing district, in October. The first terminal is expected to be open by 2019.

Thomas Peter/Reuters

Stories and videos of passengers losing their cool have become staples of the Chinese internet. One video, which went viral three years ago, shows an airline employee who has to be restrained from attacking a passenger who beaned him on the head with a water bottle.

“It was by far the wildest thing I ever saw at an airport anywhere,” said Matthew Sheehan, a journalist who shot the video.