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  • ANALYSIS: In Beijing Daxing, China pins 'big prosperity' hope

ANALYSIS: In Beijing Daxing, China pins 'big prosperity' hope

It is a vision in white: vast ceilings framed by stark black lines that blend seamlessly into the shiny tiled floor.

From above, it looks like a sprawling, futuristic starfish: copper-toned arms that stretch far and wide in five directions.

This is Beijing's newest hub, and when fully operational, Beijing Daxing International airport will be one of the largest in the world. The airport opened it doors five days ahead of its scheduled official opening date of 30 September.

Spanning more than 1 million sq m (10.8m sq ft) with four runways, it is dubbed the world's largest single-terminal airport building. Fully operational, it is expected to handle more than 70 million passengers a year. There are targets to increase that to 100 million a year.

The airport's name, Daxing, is indicative of the area it is in, but also reflective of smart wordplay on the authorities' part: "Daxing" in Mandarin means "big prosperity" in one of the many literal translations. Even the date of Daxing's official opening has significance, as it is the day before China's 70th National Day.

It has been a decade in the making, from when plans were first floated to open a second international airport for Beijing to cope with burgeoning passenger numbers.

BIG, BIGGER, BIGGEST

Plans for Daxing were first first drawn up in 2008, in response to growing numbers at sister airport Beijing Capital, which had just opened its third terminal.

The original plan was to build an airport to replace Beijing Capital, which would exceed its capacity in less than five years. That changed a few years later and Daxing was to be Beijing's second airport.

Construction began in 2014, with a total cost of CNY80 billion ($11.2 billion).

The airport completed its sixth and final test run in early September, amid reports that it could open ahead of schedule.

The China Daily, citing airport management, says the airport will open a few weeks before 30 September. The Civil Aviation Authority of China (CAAC) also confirmed in a monthly update that it would be awarding Daxing its operating licence on 15 September, once it has rectified areas of improvement pointed out in the final test run.

China Southern Airlines, the largest airline to be based at Daxing, has already begun drumming up demand for its first flight out of the airport. In a post on Chinese social networking site WeChat, the carrier stated that its first flight, to Guangzhou, would be on or around 20 September.

The airport finally began operations on 25 September, with the China Southern flight bound for Guangzhou.

The CAAC states that 101 domestic and 15 international routes are set to launch from the airport during the northern winter scheduling period.

DIVVYING UP DAXING

In January, the CAAC shed some light on slot allocations between the two airports, stating that foreign carriers, as well as those operating from Hong Kong and Macau, will have the option to choose which Beijing Airport they prefer to operate from.

Of the three largest Chinese carriers, China Southern and China Eastern Airlines initially opted to move their Beijing operations to Daxing. But that changed a few months later, with Air China joining the fray.

Still, it will be China Southern that will have the lion's share of slots out of the airport. It will move its entire Beijing operations in stages to Daxing. Its Beijing-based unit, Beijing Capital Airlines, will also transfer operations.

The carrier has big plans for Daxing, which it states will be part of a "dual-hub" push. It is aiming to handle 40% of all passengers through the facility, and base more than 200 aircraft there by 2025.

More recently, China Southern stated that it will be moving flights to Ho Chi Minh City from Beijing Capital to Daxing, the first international point in its network to be transferred.

China Eastern meanwhile, will take a relatively smaller proportion of slots at Daxing, at about 30%, according to media reports. Most flights from Beijing Capital will be shifted over, but the airline was allowed to keep its lucrative Shanghai Pudong shuttle at Beijing Capital.

Beijing-based Air China will take a smaller portion of flights in and out of Daxing. The airline is reported to have acquired about 10% of slots at the new hub.

While the Chinese carriers have – more or less – divvied up their share of the new international airport, international carriers have been relatively slower in doing so.

Finnair became the first international carrier to announce operations into Daxing. In June, the airline said it will operate an additional thrice-weekly service into the airport from November. This is on top of the Oneworld carrier's existing daily service to Beijing Capital.

Polish carrier LOT announced in July that it will commence four-times-weekly flights into Daxing from the end of October. This will complement its thrice-weekly flights into Beijing Capital.

A few days later, British Airways became the first international operator to fully move its Beijing operations from Beijing Capital to Daxing. On 27 October, the Oneworld carrier will transfer all of its daily services to Daxing.

The airline previously stated that it was doing so to "strengthen and develop its network through its codeshare agreement with China Southern".

While British Airways appears to be the only Oneworld carrier so far to move to Daxing, more could soon follow.

CRITICAL MASS

In February it emerged that the Oneworld alliance was in discussion with the Chinese authorities about co-locating at Daxing, saying it believed it would have a "critical mass" of member carriers at Daxing.

Most recently, Ethiopian Airlines, Malaysia Airlines and Royal Brunei became the latest international carriers to serve Daxing. Kenya Airways, meanwhile, has also told FlightGlobal it is planning to begin services to Daxing in 2020.

The CAAC said in January that both Daxing and Beijing Capital will "co-ordinate development", while competing "moderately". Both airports will serve as transit points for international destinations, the CAAC said, but will have different areas of focus.

Beijing Capital will move towards being a transit point for the Asia-Pacific region, while Daxing will support the development of the Beijing-Tianjin-Hebei region as an integrated transport hub.

In its latest half-year results, Beijing Capital International Airport Company listed the opening of Daxing as one of the "new challenges" in its outlook. The group says it will continue to invest in "high-quality development" as it aims to be competitive to its sister airport.

Sibling rivalry aside however, many expect that Beijing Daxing International's opening will nevertheless usher in a new era of "big prosperity" in the Chinese air travel sector.

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