The global pandemic may have brought air travel to a halt over the past 18 months, but China’s plans to construct airports remain undimmed. AeroTime takes a look at airport construction in China and how the proposals are set to help it take the title of world’s largest passenger market from the United States. 

According to data from the Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC), China boasted 241 certified transport airports at the end of 2020. During that year, 114 airport projects were either started or continued.

The total number of airports at the end of 2020 was 58 more than China had just eight years earlier, in 2012. That is equivalent to around seven new airports being opened each year. 

The pace is not letting up. In fact, it is increasing. According to plans released in February 2021, China is aiming to have 400 civilian transport airports by the end of 2035, or an increase of 150 compared with the number at the end of 2020. 

As Airports Council International (ACI) pointed out to AeroTime, that means China will average around 10 new airports a year by 2035. 

The association, which represents 701 members operating 1,933 airports across 183 countries, highlights that local governments are willing to subsidise expansion of existing airports, as well as build new airports in places like Nantong of Jiangsu Province and Dalian in Liaoning Province.

Notable international airport openings this year were Chengdu Tianfu International Airport (TFU) and Qingdao Jiaodong International Airport (TAO).

TFU opened in June 2021 following a five-year construction period. It was no small project, either. With three runways and two terminals, TFU has the capacity to handle 60 million passengers annually. But it won’t stop there. The plan is to expand the airport to six runways and four terminals, which will mean it can handle approximately 90 million passengers each year.

The opening of TFU also made Chengdu the third city in China to have two airports, after Beijing and Shanghai. 

 

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TAO saw its first flights on August 12, 2021, just four years after construction started in 2017. With two runways and capacity for 35 million passengers a year, it is the largest airport in East China. It was China’s third new international airport since 2019, after TFU and Beijing Daxing (PKX), which started operations in September 2019. 

 

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DOMESTIC GROWTH

Many of the new airports in China are not mega hubs, but smaller airports designed to link remote areas. 

“The CAAC recognises the convenience brought on by short-haul air routes to the population living in remote areas and will encourage regional airlines to increase capacity and upgrade flight networks,” ACI told AeroTime. 

ACI also notes that the CAAC revised procedures in 2020 to subsidize construction of small airports, particularly in places where ground transportation is lacking. 

Examples of smaller airports opened in 2020 include Yulin Fumian Airport (YLX) which is designed to serve 740,000 passengers annually and Yutian Wanfang Airport (YTW), for 180,000 passengers. In March 2021, Wulong Fairy Mountain airport in Chongqing opened to five cities, offering links to the scenic Fairy Mountain National Forest Park. 

Dong Zhiyi, deputy director of the CAAC, said in August 2021 that of the 58 new airports opened since 2012, nearly 50% are located in poverty alleviation areas. Passenger numbers at airports in poverty alleviation areas increased from approximately 28 million in 2012 to 78 million passengers in 2019.

Domestic traffic has helped China to bounce back from the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic better than other countries in the region. In 2020, passenger numbers fell by 36.6% compared to 2019. ACI says that was the best performance in the region, with domestic traffic helping to soften the blow. 

In September 2021, China traffic was at 87% of 2019 levels — far ahead of the rest of Asia, which stood at 42% of 2019 levels, according to Cirium.

A Cirium survey released on October 22, 2021 showed that two thirds (66%) of Chinese travelers have taken a domestic flight since the start of the pandemic. Meanwhile, Cirium schedules data show domestic travel in the fourth quarter of 2021 is set to outstrip pre-pandemic levels, growing by 15% compared to the fourth quarter of 2019.

 

HOW SUSTAINABLE ARE THE PLANS?

However, ACI notes that with China set to build 10 new airports a year over the next 15 years, environmental concerns must be taken into consideration.

“Under this light, it is absolutely critical to invest into strengthening sustainability projects in the country—especially as we build back better,” ACI said. 

ACI is featuring Beijing Daxing as a case study in its Sustainability Strategy for Airports paper, to be released on October 27, 2021. The association says that during construction, the airport took an approach that involved prioritizing long-term sustainable development over short-term financial concerns. Activities to boost sustainability at the airport include rainwater harvesting, on-site energy production as well as the building design and airfield layout. 

On June 8, 2021 ACI set a goal for its airports to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2050. Airlines also agreed on a similar goal on October 4, 2021 at a meeting of the International Air Transport Association. However, the airlines’ proposal was met with some dissenting comments from Chinese carriers who wanted the target pushed back to 2060, in line with the Chinese government’s target. 

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ACI says that investing in sustainability now can help to reduce costs in the long run. It also notes that while airports have suffered financially due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it has provided a chance for their airports to incorporate sustainability efforts. 

“While COVID-19 is at the forefront of the world’s priorities, climate change and its secondary effects remain the major risk we all face.”

ACI data shows that airports which achieve carbon neutral status invest an average 12% more in capital. It explains that retro-fitting can work out significantly more expensive than early design and investment. 

“Failure to take climate action will be expensive financially, but also existentially, as climate change threatens our own existence with impacts such as flooding, drought, desertification, and massive forest fires,” ACI commented.

It remains to be seen how China will continue to manage the pandemic and climate concerns as it continues with its airport building plan. But the country’s long-term growth in passenger numbers seems set to march on.  

According to ACI World Airport Traffic Forecasts published in January 2021, China is expected to become the largest passenger market in 2031, overtaking the United States. In 2040, ACI predicts that China will dominate passenger rankings with just over 3.6 billion passengers, equivalent to an 18.3% share of the global passenger traffic market, and well ahead of an expected 2.9 billion passengers for the United States.