Despite becoming the world’s second largest economy, China remains a relative backwater in terms of its airport infrastructure. To put it in perspective, the US has in the region of 17,000 airports. China, which last year recorded an all-time high of over 296 million domestic passenger journeys, currently boasts just 183. Even Brazil and South Africa have more.
It’s perhaps unsurprising, then, that the “Cities that were too small or ill-equipped ten or 20 years ago to accommodate an airport are now ready to not just house domestic but international ones also,” says Eric Potterfield, architectural consultant to the extension of Baiyun International Airport.
Also on the list is Guangzhou’s Baiyun International Airport, a hub in the process of a major extension. It’s an airport that already handles more than 45 million at a push.
With that kind of traffic airports can, of course, make a lot of money. Back in 2011 they earned RMB4.6 billion according to Li Jiaxing.
“When it comes to actually building them, aside from the government, it’s the airline carriers that have a large part in the whole construction. They’ll be the ones paying for it. For an airport like Baiyun International China Southern will have had a huge say,” explains Potterfield.
The expansion, now underway, will involve adding a second terminal. It’s a move that
will enable the airport to process and accommodate more than the 80 million passengers per year, expected by 2020.
Yet building booms can also be a huge bane to provincial administrations and operators.
Of the mainland’s 183 airports, 143 lose money, data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China shows. Statistics imply that more than 60 of the 80 new airports envisioned in the latest five-year plan to 2015 will end up in debt.
If the government decides to build an airport relatively close to an already existing one – Shanghai’s Hongqiao International Airport and Pudong International Airport for example – airlines fear they will be forced to operate out of both airports, thereby increasing costs and reducing flexibility.
Air traffic congestion has been an important driving force in the push for more airports. With around half of all Chinese airspace reserved solely for military and flights departing from Chinese airports the most frequently delayed in the world, there is a pressing need for more routes to become available.
This, it is hoped, will ease the current inefficiency, which is increasingly leading to violent confrontations between passengers and airline staff, as regularly in the local and international press.
Regardless as to whether or not they’re a viable investment, one thing is for certain: China’s airports are, for now, a booming industry.