I’ve lost count of how many times I have flown into and out of Beijing’s Capital Airport. Terminal 3 – which was opened in time for the 2008 Olympics – is still a pleasure to pass through, whereas T2 (and to a lesser extent, T1) feel old and decrepit. All were desperately overcrowded, reflecting the fact that it served just over 100 million passengers in 2018, against a theoretical capacity of 85 million.
But with just days to go before China’s 70th Anniversary celebrations in September 2019, the new Daxing Airport, to the south of the city, started operations. Daxing will be able to handle 45 million passengers by 2021, with plans for 72 million by 2025 and 100 million by 2040, along with four tonnes of cargo. It began with four civilian runways, though there are plans for seven to be in operation eventually. A military airfield will co-exist in Daxing, as was the case in the now-closed Nanyuan Airport.
The entire airport takes up 47 sq km, which is more than half the size of Hong Kong Island, or the size of 98 football fields, if you can picture that! The main terminal takes up 695,000 sq m, making it the world's second-largest single-building airport terminal, after Istanbul Airport's main terminal. Construction for the $11.5 billion project began in 2014, and at peak times saw more than 40,000 workers on site. The entire project cost 80 billion RMB (US$11 bn). Compare that with the design and construction of Heathrow Airport’s Terminal 5 which took 20 years from start to finish!
The new airport is 44 kilometres from Tiananmen Square in the city centre, but there are plenty of ways to get there by train, subway and buses, with new routes being added. At the start of operations, the easiest route was via the new dedicated Daxing Airport Express subway line, which starts at Caoqiao station on Line 10.
Initially, only the Caoqiao-to-airport segment was opened, but there are plans for a northern extension to the Lize Business District due for completion in 2021, as well as a southern extension to Xiong'an West railway station which is already under construction. Eventually, Line 20 (otherwise known as R4) of the Beijing Subway is also planned to terminate at the new airport, linking it with Beijing Railway Station and the old Capital Airport.
The transfer corridor and ticket hall at Caoqiao is simply enormous. The planners have obviously taken future needs into their calculations.
The platform area itself is also huge, and one wonders how busy this will become in the future that such a large area is deemed necessary.
The trains themselves are luxurious in comparison to the Capital Airport Express. Lessons were obviously taken on board from the many deficiencies of that design, albeit that it was put together as a rush job to serve the visitors to the 2008 Olympics.
The train reaches a maximum speed of 149 kph — relatively slow compared to the Maglev train that connects Shanghai's Pudong Airport to the city at 430 kph – though it still feels fast. The carriages themselves are spacious and there is plenty of space for passenger luggage – something for which the old BCIA Express was heavily criticised. The Daxing Line also provides free WiFi, which doesn't exist on other Beijing metro lines.
Even the space between seat rows is large, allowing people to take their luggage with them, rather than leaving their cases in the luggage areas, if that’s what they prefer.
In addition, each seat has a USB charging port – a nice touch, especially for passengers who find their mobile phones have used up their charge on the flight over.
On arrival at Daxing Airport, there is a pleasant spacious feeling, and you don’t get a feeling of claustrophobia that can get to you at the old BCIA.
This ground transportation centre was constructed beneath the terminal building, where eventually two underground railway stations (for Beijing–Xiong'an intercity railway and Intercity Railway Connector) and three subway stations (Daxing Airport Express, Line 20 (R4) and another planned metro line) are situated. Included in the construction are more than 1,000 rubber anti-shock cushions to reduce vibrations. At the time of writing, only the Daxing Airport Express and the Beijing–Xiong'an intercity railway are in operation. The airport is also served by a highway system connecting the airport and Beijing city.
Compared with some of the other artwork on Beijing’s extensive subway system, the art found here is somewhat uninspiring, but pleasant nonetheless.
At the entrance to the ground transportation hub is a peculiar piece of artwork, made entirely of paper origami swans, which spell out "The motherland is strong, and the nation is rejuvenated." The two red characters say "Da" and "Xing" — the name of the airport.
Daxing’s initial capacity is around 300 take-offs and landings per hour, though this will increase over time. There are extensive numbers of check-in desks as well as plenty of self serve terminals…
There are even customer-service robots that provide travellers with flight updates and airport information, though whether these are really any improvement on the old TV-screen info boards, or simply a gimmick, is open to debate.
The terminal building has an area of more than 1,000,000 sq m. It has been widely described as a giant six-armed alien starfish squatting over the landscape. The design aims to reduce walking for passengers, long a complaint about many new mega-hubs, with a journey of just 600 metres from security to the furthest gate. Daxing was the first airport designed by the late Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid, who was renowned for her monumental, curvilinear work. She died in 2016 before she was able to see the project to fruition.
The central atrium is supported by eight giant C-shaped columns, each with a 106-metre wide skylight at the top – filling the terminal with natural light. In fact this obsession with allowing natural light to flood in is found throughout the terminal, whose massive openings in the ceiling let natural sunlight flow in while at the same time blocking out heat.
Signage at the airport is a lot better than that found in many of China’s airports, and you get the impression that a lot of attention to detail has been given…
… though there are still quaint ‘Chinglish’ signs to be found.
On the top floor, you can get to survey the entire airport, and to appreciate the symmetry of Zaha Hadid’s design.
Here, some of the ceiling apertures are beautiful, not least in the way their shapes are reflected by the highly polished tiled floors.
Further light is brought into the building by linear skylights. There are, apparently, some 8,000 distinct rooftop windows that allow in the sun's rays.
On the top floor there is also a sculpture, which is particularly popular with visitors. The fact that the airport lies on Beijing’s central axis (the Chinese characters in the middle read "Beijing, central axis") mean everyone wants to have their selfies taken with their feet on either side of the line.
In front of it, along the floor, is a series of copper plates showing the distance between Daxing and famous historical buildings in Beijing.
Time to head on back to Beijing city. Once again, there is a paucity of artwork to be found, but perhaps after Hadid’s beautiful terminal design, that might have been seen as over-egging the pudding.
Another huge platform uses projectors to highlight up-to-date information about the capital on a long screen running above the platform doors.
Inside the Airport Express, many people love to stand behind a small barrier that is the only thing separating them from the driver of the train. Somehow there is a fascination in watching endless tunnel walls flashing by…
And back in Caoqiao, the terminal platform is not just wide but beautifully lit.
The entire trip out to the airport is memorable, and I can see many visitors making the effort to go to Daxing just for the experience.
The fare from Caoqiao to the airport costs 35RMB and takes just 19 minutes.