Airport seen as pie in the sky without management

LI Peng was in heaven. There is nothing the Moscow-trained technician loves more than playing with models of large-scale engineering projects and on Saturday he got chance to play with a really big one.

The new model for Beijing's huge airport expansion project had been laid out for the edification of Mr Li and his politburo colleague President Jiang Zemin, and both looked more than impressed with the scheme which could well end up dwarfing Chek Lap Kok.

While Mr Jiang, armed with a black pointing stick, issued his ''important instructions'' on how the project should proceed, Mr Li indulged himself with the model aircraft.

State-run television showed Mr Li running his finger down one of the new terminal buildings to demonstrate the flow of passenger traffic and re-adjusting one of the planes parked by the outer terminal.

Mr Li listened intently as airport officials explained how the current terminal building would nearly triple in size to accommodate rapidly expanding demand, occasionally asking questions and issuing ''important instructions'' himself.

But this television propaganda exercise was more than just about play time for state leaders.

Mr Jiang was not understating the fact when he said the project was a ''great and pressing matter'' deserving of the full support of the city and the state.

Capital Airport is already strained to bursting point and, as anyone who regularly flies to the city on business knows, there are simply not enough flights to satisfy demand.

If Beijing wants to maintain its rapid growth of the past few years, it has no option but to expand the airport as quickly as possible.

Neither was the timing of the model inspection by the two leaders a coincidence.

With only a few days left before the vote by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) on which city will host the 2000 Olympic Games, Beijing was eager to demonstrate to the world the ''internationally advanced'' facilities which will be in place by that date.

There is no doubt that if Beijing tried to host the Games with just its existing terminal building, the city would become an international laughing stock.

The 77,000 sq m terminal has been expanded twice in the past four years but still cannot handle the limited demands already placed on it.

The building has just two small satellite boarding areas, one for international flights, the other for domestic services.

Arriving and departing passengers mix freely in the satellite areas, causing confusion as well as potential security risks.

More often than not, passengers have to be bused out to their plane and many flights are forced to terminate at the old airport building, more than a kilometre from the international terminal.

In these cases, passengers are bused to the correct terminal along one of the taxi-ways, a journey often fraught with danger.

Passengers from a British Airways flight in July were being bused to the terminal when an Air China 747-400 suddenly loomed above the bus, causing the driver to swerve suddenly.

But the biggest problem affecting Capital Airport is not its minuscule size or its antiquated facilities but its management, which still seems to be trapped in the stone age.

Passengers are only occasionally informed which gate they will be leaving from or what the boarding time is.

If the flight is delayed - a not infrequent occurrence - passengers are usually the last people to know about it.

Anxious passenger inquiries are usually met with a blunt: ''Just wait a minute, okay.'' Even if the airport is expanded to meet international standards, unless the management is upgraded as well, there is no guarantee whatsoever that travelling in and out of Beijing will be any easier.