It is a freezing Saturday afternoon and Beijing Capital Airport has been closed for several hours. Hundreds of people are searching desperately for information on flights in and out. The electronic board gives no guidance, saying only that all flights are delayed, and the telephone number for information is permanently busy. The only option is two small windows and two harried ladies behind them. Outside the window, a scrum of people shout flight numbers. The ladies tap the number into a computer and announce that the plane is sitting in Zhengzhou, Taiyuan or Harbin. 'Come back in 30 minutes for more information,' they say. On the arrival floor, there is almost nowhere to sit, so, to keep warm, people have to shift from one foot to the other or pace up and down. On the departure floor, there are rows of blue plastic seats, all taken, and two small coffee-shops with an even smaller menu. 'This airport is still part of the plan economy,' says one lady awaiting an arrival from Hong Kong. 'There is no competition, so the service is very poor. They never tell you anything.' 'They have built new airports all over China but Beijing lags behind. Since it is the capital, it should be the number one,' she said. 'Passengers pay 50 yuan (about HK$46.50) or 90 yuan in construction tax, but where has the money gone?' For the passengers, it is even worse. After the five-hour closure order was lifted, planes land in the late afternoon but there are not enough landing bays. So the passengers have to sit in the planes on the tarmac for two to three hours. The closure affects 400 flights. Through the darkness and the snow, you can make out what is supposed to be the solution to this overcrowding, inefficiency and bad service - a new terminal costing 9.2 billion yuan (about HK$8.55 billion), due to open by October 1 next year, the 50th birthday of the Communist state. It will take over international flights while the existing terminal will handle domestic flights. Those brave enough to believe that the airport can escape from the state plan and enter the market economy may soon be able to buy a piece of it. It has applied to the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) to list shares in Hong Kong, which would make it the first mainland airport to raise money abroad. Shenzhen, Xiamen and Shanghai airports have issued shares on domestic stock markets. An official of the airports securities office said: 'Sorry, I cannot tell you anything about the application. Those are the CSRC rules. We are waiting for a decision.' An official of the stocks department of the Civil Aviation Administration of China said the purpose of the listing was two-fold: to raise money and to improve the system of management. 'Look at Schiphol airport in Holland or the airports of the British Airports Authority,' he said. 'They are very well run. If Beijing airport listed H shares, it would attract foreign capital and become a joint venture company. 'That would change its system of management.' Schiphol and the British airports have been privatised and are run at a profit by commercial companies. But to see Beijing airport run by the private firm is a leap of imagination beyond that of the conservative mandarins in charge of the capital. They see aviation as a strategic sector, with military and political dimensions, and, while welcoming foreign capital, would never allow non-state control. The other question is whether Hong Kong investors would be interested in buying such a share. In theory, they should be. The new terminal will be four times the size of the present one, with a multi-storey car park and cargo station, designed to handle 35 million passengers and 780,000 tonnes of freight a year by 2005. Mainland air traffic has been rising by 20 per cent a year since 1979. 'Two years ago probably, when China stocks were hot, people would have snapped it up,' said one Hong Kong broker who spent 12 hours getting to Beijing that Saturday. 'But not now, after all that has happened to the other China stocks. A firm headquartered in Hong Kong is better than one based in the mainland, making an H share the last choice.' She said the H issue would only account for a minority of the shares, so that investors would have no say in management. 'The company will remain a state firm and there is no guarantee its management will improve. Will we be told about the inner workings of the firm? It sounds like another case of investors being asked to give money to a state company; and once you have handed over the money, ask no more questions.'