China Southern Airlines

Beijing's turbulent flight path

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 19 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 19 July, 2012, 12:00am


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Mainland airlines are hoping that when Beijing's second airport is finally opened, they will not be forced to schedule flights from two airfields in the city, which they say will add to their costs and curb flexibility.

The final proposal for a second airport in the capital is expected to be handed to the State Council by the end of this year and to come into operation by 2017. The delayed timetable for the stop-start project, originally slated to come into operation by 2015, means the overloaded Beijing Capital International Airport will have to cope with growth in passenger traffic to 110 million before the new airport is opened - one-third above its designed capacity.

The existing airport handled 82 million passengers last year and is poised to surpass Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport as the world's biggest airport in terms of passenger traffic.

'A two-airport configuration is very challenging for airlines, especially to the base carrier in the city,' said Shan Chuanbo, senior vice-president alliance for Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines. 'We know just how challenging it is because we have been operating for years under this situation.'

China Eastern has operated out of dual bases at Hongqiao International Airport and Pudong International Airport since 1999. Operating from two hubs in a city means an airline must duplicate ground staff and ground-handling facilities, as well as keep planes on standby at two airports. For China Eastern, the extra cost added up to hundreds of millions of yuan a year, Shan said.

In the event of technical problems with an aircraft, it could not simply put another jet into service to complete the scheduled flight as it was too costly to fly an empty jet from one airport to another. Onward flight connections were also compromised by operating out of two airports, he said.

China Eastern, for example, flies twice daily from Pudong to Wenzhou, and three times a day from Wenzhou to Hongqiao. Pudong caters for passengers from Wenzhou who need to transit to Europe or the United States, while Hongqiao is for point-to-point passengers. Were it to operate from a single airport, China Eastern could better co-ordinate its flights and reduce costs, Shan said.

But the Shanghai municipal government had decided that Pudong should serve mainly international routes and Hongqiao should largely serve domestic routes, requiring mainland carriers to operate out of both airports. China Eastern lobbied for one airline focusing on one airport, but this was turned down by the Shanghai government.

'Shanghai airport operations have proved to be a failed design that compromises airlines' daily operations,' said an executive from the Guangzhou-based China Southern Airlines. 'I hope that Beijing will learn a lesson.'

China Southern wants to beef up its market share in Beijing by tripling its fleet to 100 jets based in the city in the next five years - from fewer than 30 at present. The new airport could relieve shortage of the landing slots at the Beijing airport, it says.

It has endorsed the China Eastern proposal that one airline and its members in the same alliance operate from one airport, rather than duplicate their services and support networks. One of the options, it says, is to allow China Southern, China Eastern and other Skyteam member airlines to operate from the new airport. Air China and Star Alliance members would stay in the old one.

The new airport, to be built on the southwestern border between Beijing and Hebei province, will be located at least 50 kilometres from the current airport, which is nearly twice the distance between Hong Kong International Airport and Shenzhen Baoan International Airport. That distance will hinder the free and easy flow of passengers needing to transfer between the airports, critics say.

Twin-airport or multiple-airport operations are common in international air hubs, including London, New York, Tokyo and Seoul. But all have had difficulties in collaborating, critics say. 'Generally speaking, connectivity and costs are optimised when a city consolidates traffic at one main airport,' a British Airways spokesman said. The London-based carrier operates out of three airports in London, including Heathrow, Gatwick and London City Airport.

BA said a two-airport configuration could work if authorities took the time to consult the industry to ensure airline operations were either consolidated at one airport or strategically split between the two. Infrastructure and transport connection between the airports was also crucial.

A paper commissioned by Cathay Pacific Airways and researched by Strategic Access in 2010 found both airlines and passengers preferred to use the old airport as its connections were better than the new one.

A review of 12 cities worldwide served by two or more airports found that synergies were nearly non-existent and airport users, including passengers and airlines, were either unaware of the potential benefits that might be achieved by twin airports, or indifferent to the possibilities of improved services.

Tony Tyler, director general of the International Air Transport Association, said Beijing should have expanded its existing airport rather than build a new one to ensure maximum connectivity of airlines. 'The best solution would be expansion on the same geographic site ... but if it is decided that a second location is necessary, then we will need a transparent and clear system for allocating operations between the two airports,' Tyler said at the China Civil Aviation Development Forum in Beijing in May.

Shu Yong, company secretary of Beijing Capital Airport, said that in theory, the advantage of operating from a single airport was that transit passengers need only move from one boarding gate to another in the same location. But some 90 per cent of traffic in Beijing is point-to-point passengers, who must go through security checks and luggage claims as well as downtown transport connections.

If Beijing's airport were to continue on its current growth trajectory, the strain on its facilities, especially on transport links from the terminals, would become too great, Shu said.

Beijing needed to build a second airport because the current airport no longer had room for further expansion. 'Neighbouring farmlands have turned into residential projects and the relocation costs would be staggeringly high if room were to be created for further expansion of the airport,' Shu said.

Tyler said he was strongly opposed to the practice of separating international and domestic traffic between the airports.

'We should be mindful that there are many examples of lost opportunities when international and domestic traffic are artificially separated. Montreal and Tokyo come to mind,' he said.

Tokyo's Haneda Airport has reopened to international traffic after being restricted to domestic flights for many years.


Beijing's existing airport handled this many passengers last year