Beijing's Daxing International Airport now officially open

CNN's David Culver tours the new starfish-shaped Daxing airport, boasting customer service robots and a terminal the size of 97 soccer fields.

Posted: Sep 25, 2019 11:00 PM
Updated: Sep 25, 2019 11:00 PM

Beijing's massive new Daxing International Airport is officially open for business -- just in time for celebrations marking the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China on October 1.

On Wednesday morning, press, dignitaries and airline representatives waited in place for more than four hours for the arrival of President Xi Jinping, who entered the main concourse of the glistening gold and glass mega terminal just before noon, where he was greeted by airport officials.

Xi sat through a brief highlight reel of the airport's design and construction followed by speeches filled with praise for the president. The Chinese leader was the last to speak, offering a brief, formal baptism.

"I declare Beijing Daxing International Airport open," he said.

Later that day, the crowd watched as the airport's maiden flight took off from one of the airport's four runways -- an honor that fell to Daxing's main tenant, China Southern, which deployed an Airbus A380, the world's biggest airliner.

Flights from other airlines due to move to the airport, with a three-letter code PKX, were also scheduled for later in the day. Initially, the only flights making use of the airport are domestic. Customs and immigration are not yet operational, their booths currently empty and free of computer screens.

Flights from Daxing will cover 112 destinations around the globe by next spring.

An airport built for the future

Daxing's official opening caps a long design and building process. Construction for the $11.5 billion project began in 2014, with more than 40,000 workers on site at its peak.

Designed by the late architect Zaha Hadid and her Chinese partners, the airport is built for the future, boasting a terminal the size of 97 soccer pitches -- as well as customer-service robots that provide travelers with flight updates and airport information.

Nicknamed "starfish" by Chinese media for its shape of five concourses connected to a main hall, Daxing aims to reduce walking for passengers, long a complaint about many new mega-hubs.

The airport authority has promised a distance of no more than 600 meters (650 yards) -- about eight minutes of walking -- between security checkpoints and the remotest gates.

The sleek, modern interior design is striking, thanks in part to the 8,000 distinct rooftop windows that allow in the sun's rays. Many high-end stores and restaurants sit ready to serve passengers; it's high-tech, high-end mall meets air travel.

As part of the opening ceremony, journalists were given a tour of some of the facilities including a massive "China Garden" in the international concourse, a serene tradition-inspired courtyard based around a pond of koi carp.

Security and measures were also on display. Travelers will be scanned on cameras using facial recognition. Counters will be fully automated to capture face photos and relay them each part of the journey through the airport, including security and the departure gate.

World's fastest growing air travel market

The greatly anticipated airport ushers in a new era for air travel to and from the Chinese capital, which has been in desperate need of a second global gateway.

The existing Beijing Capital International Airport (PEK) is the world's second-busiest aviation hub and hitting full capacity, making it nearly impossible for airlines to add flights at desirable times.

In 2018, more than 100 million travelers passed through its three terminals -- making it only the second airport in the world to cross that passenger traffic milestone, after Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta.

China is projected to overtake the United States as the world's biggest air travel market by 2022.

The "modest" initial operational target at Daxing is to accommodate 72 million passengers and 2 million tons of cargo annually by 2025.

The ambitious master plan calls for the building of a total of seven runways, and moving at least 100 million passengers and 4 million tons of cargo a year through the airport.

Daxing's location, however, is cause for concern. It's in the far south of Beijing, a city notorious for traffic jams.

The new airport is some 50 kilometers (30 miles) from Tiananmen Square in the city center -- and even farther away from the main business districts in the east and north.

Brushing aside such worries, officials say they have built more than just an airport -- but rather a truly integrated transportation hub that will eventually see high-speed rail, inter-city services and downtown-to-airport express trains all stopping right beneath the terminal.

The airport express trains, traveling at a top speed of 160 kilometers an hour (100 mph), promise to whisk arriving passengers to the city in less than 20 minutes.

Yet others say a new mammoth aviation hub will only worsen flight delays in Beijing, already ranked near the bottom of on-time performance lists among airports worldwide.

There is no indication that the Chinese military, which controls most of the country's airspace, will loosen its grip to give airliners more maneuver room.

But aviation officials and airline executives predict reduced delays at Daxing thanks to its multi-directional runway design that improves operational efficiency in the air, as well as its location south of Beijing -- eliminating many flight detours aimed at avoiding the city's large "no-fly" zone.

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