The first rule of airline travel in China is: Don’t cut connections close. Assume your first flight will be late, and leave plenty of time than to scramble to your next gate. Fortunately, if you’re flying between major Chinese cities, you can bide your time in a gleaming new airport with plenty of shops selling tea, lattes, snacks, souvenirs, and even prestige apparel. (Only in Chinese airports have I seen stores selling “BMW Lifestyle” clothing).
In China, travel is booming, giving rise to new airports and hotels to accommodate the inbound masses. The International Air Transport Association forecasts that by 2016, China will have 415 million fliers annually, second only to the U.S. in volume of domestic passengers. Volume at the Beijing Capital Airport has tripled in the last 10 years; the city’s second major airport will open by 2018. In all, the current Five Year Plan calls for 55 new civil airports by 2015, bringing China’s total to 230.
The build-out is good news for the obvious suspects, including travelers, hotels, and retailers that profit from travel. In a recent report, the Virginia-based Global Business Travel Association estimated that spending related to business travel in China will increase 14.7 percent in 2013, to $224 billion. (GBTA estimates comparable spending in the U.S. in 2013 will be $268.5 billion.)
For many of the Chinese cities caught up in the airport-construction boom, it’s been a mixed blessing. In 2011, China’s Civil Aviation Administration recorded that 75 percent of its civil airports were operating at a loss, according to the China Daily. High levels of debt assumed by local governments to finance airports and other large infrastructure projects are a growing worry for China. Last month Fitch downgraded China’s credit rating, expressing concerns especially about local debt. In its assessment, the credit rating agency noted: “Fitch believes total credit in the economy including various forms of ‘shadow banking‘ activity may have reached 198 percent of GDP at end-2012, up from 125 percent at end-2008.”
One component of the mismatch is that Chinese airline carriers have focused on connecting major hubs, with far fewer flights to secondary destinations. As a result, while small regional airports are often eerily quiet, industry analysts believe Beijing’s Capital Airport is on track to overtake Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport as the world’s busiest.