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.”
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.
Crowded skies are only part of the problem. About four-fifths of China’s airspace is controlled by the military, which can arbitrarily cancel flights if needed. A decentralized regional air traffic control system creates additional barriers for commercial aircraft flying domestically. In 2015, more than 30 percent of China’s flight delays were a result of air traffic control restrictions.
China’s risk-averse aviation institutions also enforce a much higher standard of operation in the name of safety, which can decrease airport efficiency. In the United States or Europe, flights at major airports land every 30 seconds or so, said David Yu, the Asia executive director at IBA Group, an aircraft consultancy. In China, the gap can be three times that to minimize the chances of an accident.
“The levels of activity we’re seeing in China and the tremendous growth in air traffic has obviously made the air traffic controllers unable to catch up,” he said. “They know that they’re cautious. It’s a learning curve from their point of view.”
So far it works: China’s major airlines are widely considered safe.
The airport construction site — a muddy expanse dotted with lumbering trucks and a dizzying array of cranes — is a hive of activity. There are workers on site 24 hours a day to complete the airport in time. Much of the initial construction for the transportation hub underneath the airport is hidden from sight, but scaffolding outlines the basic contours of the main terminal.
Daxing’s first terminal is scheduled to be open by 2019. The hub underneath will connect the airport by high-speed rail and train to the neighboring cities of Hebei and Tianjin as well as to Beijing. It was designed by the French airport design firm ADPI and Zaha Hadid Architects.
The design of the terminal, with docking piers radiating out like the spokes of a wheel, has attracted its fair share of digs in China. Online, the airport is sometimes referred to as the “Patrick airport,” a reference to the pink starfish character from the cartoon series “SpongeBob SquarePants.”
“This is the most compact form you can have for an airport terminal with that capacity,” said Cristiano Ceccato, an associate at Hadid Architects who helped put together the winning bid for the design. “In the end it was simple geometry. There’s only so many ways you stack people or stack planes around to maximize contact with something at minimum distance.”
That compactness means that walking between the two farthest points in the first terminal should take no longer than eight minutes. The airport’s six piers have been designed to create additional contact areas to house more gates, thus increasing the number of flights the airport can handle each hour.
“It’s part of a new airport typology which is just emerging, but it has been taken much further in this new one,” said Henrik Rothe, a senior lecturer in airport design at Cranfield University in England.
When completed, the airport’s first terminal will be able to handle 45 million passengers a year. Two additional phases will bump up the total capacity to 100 million by 2040.
Don’t expect everything to be ready in the first phase of construction, though, planners warn. “An airport at this scale hasn’t been built before,” Mr. Rothe said. “The expectation to be working from day one is quite high.”