Why China doesn’t need more airports – interesting insights by a Chinese academic

In a fascinating piece for the Guardian a Chinese academic sets out reasons why China does not need to build more airports. The country has a large and rapidly growing high speed rail network, which enables lower carbon travel – and electricity can be generated without imported oil needed for planes. Already some three-quarters of Chinese airports are running at a deficit, and rail is cheaper than air travel. Existing airports already struggle to compete. China already had (2011) 43 airports handling more than 2 million passengers per year, compared to 62 in America (with a poorly developed rail network) against which it compares itself.  In the USA many smaller US airports have been running increasing deficits since 2002. Part of the reason for local government pushing for more Chinese airports is that local officials like to maintain their political profile through investing in building projects like airports to stimulate short-term local economic growth – so they can claim credit but not be accountable for paying back the debt afterwards when the airport is not profitable.


Why China doesn’t need more airports

China’s transportation development plans call for huge numbers of new airports, but building them is economically and environmentally untenable

3.4.2013  (Guardian)

Guest post by Tao Wang, resident scholar in the Energy and Climate Program at Carnegie Tsinghua Center for Global Policy

The 12th Five-Year Plan’s goal of building 82 new airports by 2015 will increase China’s airport network by nearly 50%. The majority of these airports will fly shuttles for passengers located in remote cities of China to hubs that connect to other major destinations.

But as Chinese airlines are forced to cut prices to compete with the rapidly growing high-speed railway network, the answer is not more airports, but better-developed transportation networks.

With more than three-quarters of China’s existing airports already running a deficit, the focus on airport construction is misguided. The high-speed railway construction boom since 2002 has intensified pressure on existing airports. After the opening of the Beijing-Guangzhou line in December 2012, China’s 9,000- kilometre high-speed rail network is now the world’s longest. China’s goal is to extend it to16,000 kilometres by 2020.

Existing airports already struggle to compete; some coastal cities now even request government officials fly rather than travel by train for business trips in order to boost local airport use. Opening even more airports will only make the problem worse.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) is the government body that oversees the expansion of China’s airport network. It argues that China needs to expand its airport network to catch up with the United States and other economies, comparing China’s 180 airports to the 700 in Brazil and 19,000 in the United States.

But the CAAC is looking at the wrong numbers. For example, it compares the number of commercial airports in China to the number of flight facilities in other countries, a broad category that includes helipads in the United States. While Brazil may have more than 700 airports, only 28 served over one million passengers in 2011 — China had 53. In fact, the number of China’s large airports is much closer to that of the United States. In 2012, only 62 US airports handled more than two million passengers boarding annually. In 2011 (the last year for which data are available), 43 Chinese airports reached the same level.

In addition, Beijing, the largest Chinese air hub, boards almost twice as many passengers as Atlanta, the largest US hub. China’s airport network therefore comes close to equalling that of the United States in terms of major airport hubs. And it is important to understand the broader context: the US passenger railway network is undeveloped compared to China’s extensive railway network, which also includes a growing number of high-speed lines.

The Chinese authorities should take note of the financial struggles smaller US airports currently face. Beyond the 62 major airport hubs mentioned above, many US airports have been running increasing deficits since 2002. The overall level of debt reached almost US$800 million in 2012. There is no sign of recovery for these smaller airports and this is a dilemma that China can avoid.

If there is little profit to be made from the construction of new airports, why is China in such a rush to build them?

It is partly due to the fact that while railway expansion is coordinated at the national level by China’s Ministry of Railways, it is local government that pushes for airport construction.

Airport expansion often also fits neatly into local government officials’ desires to maintain their political profile through investing in projects to stimulate short-term local economic growth. The cycle of political promotions makes it possible for officials to claim credit for airport construction but not be accountable for paying back the debt afterwards.

Airport construction is not only a bad economic investment — it also has adverse impacts as China struggles to reduce carbon emissions and pollution. High-speed rail, the main competition to air travel, emits less carbon dioxide per passenger. Requiring electricity rather than kerosene, high-speed rail travel can also help China decrease dependency on foreign oil and the associated susceptibility to price fluctuations and supply disruptions.

High-speed rail is already edging out regional flights and airports, with Shanghai starting to offer combined flight and rail tickets for onward travel to nearby cities. If other major cities follow suit, regional small airports will be further marginalised.

This sort of integration between air and ground transportation is actually an efficient way for China to expand its transportation networks while reducing carbon emissions.

Air travel between China’s main hubs continues to remain profitable for the airports and operators. More high-speed rail links between provincial capitals would maximise China’s transportation structure while minimising unnecessary flights with low passenger flow.

Most importantly, it would reduce the carbon footprint of medium-range inter-city transportation.

What China needs is not more airports but smarter integration of its different transportation networks.





Comments from AirportWatch members:

This is probably good advice for the EU as a whole, since China is more than twice as big as the EU, geographically, and has almost three times its population.

China has one saving grace with regard to air travel – or at least, did have a few years ago when I was, for several years, a regular customer on internal flights in China. In my experience no passenger flight was ever allowed to depart until it was completely full. This was no inconvenience whatsoever to Western business passengers, who were given priority because we paid ‘top dollar’ for our seats. It was, however, a little inconvenient for the ‘masses’, who had to wait in line at the airport until there were seats available on a flight to the destination they wanted. But it cannot be denied that a 100% load factor goes some way towards mitigating the worst environmental impacts of air travel. And it is also worth reflecting that, despite the oft-repeated claim that Heathrow is completely full, there were 23 million empty seats on flights to and from Heathrow last year.
So is the UK really a leader in tackling climate change and is China really the villain? I think the most recent figures show that, per capita, we Brits are still responsible for producing three times as much CO2 as the average Chinese, and this is despite the fact that China now has half the world’s manufacturing output.
What China needs is not more airports but smarter integration of its different transportation networks.   So do we!


See earlier:

China to build 82 new airports and expand 101 existing ones by 2015 – whether needed or not

2.7.2013The director of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, has announced his country will build 82 new airports and expand 101 existing ones during the current five-year plan, , which ends in 2015.  By then, China will have 230 airports, up from the current 182. The number was 175 in 2011.  In 2011 some 130 of China’s 175 airports lost money but Beijing will support them to boost local economic growth. At the end of 2006, the number of  Chinese airports was 147, and it was expected that there would be 192 airports by 2010. That rate of airport building appears not to have happened.   https://www.airportwatch.org.uk/?p=429.and


China plans to build world’s largest airport with 9 runways near Beijing

26 February 2012 (The Siasat Daily, India)China plans to replace one of its Beijing airports with a new airport, with 9 runways, that will be the largest and busiest in the world, overtaking Atlanta. It will cost around $5 billion or more, and may open by October 2017.  It will have the capacity to deal with 130 million passengers and 5,500,000 tonnes of cargo annually.  By comparison the whole of the UK had around 222 million passengers in 2011.  Beijing Nanyuan Airport nearby may close once the new airport in Daxing commences operations. There are reports that many airports in central and western China are losing money, though those in the east are doing better.  The Chinese believe there is huge economic benefit from building, or enlarging airports, and even if the airport itself  makes a loss, there is a gain of some $130 per passenger and some 2,500 jobs created per million passengers (Chinese figures – different in the UK).https://www.airportwatch.org.uk/?p=1240.



China’s Airport Binge is Bad Environmental News

22.10.2008   (Wired.com)As China grows so does its aviation sector, and its insatiable need for airports.The country will by one estimate invest as much as $64 billion during the next 12 years expanding existing airports and building 97 more. That may not sound like much in a country of 1.3 billion people, but all those airports will create a huge amount of pollution.The building boom is fueled by skyrocketing passenger travel and cargo shipping.
Diao Yonghai, Deputy Director of Aviation for the Civil Aviation Administration
of China, attributed the growth to rising international trade and tourism and
China’s per capita GDP. He called it an “unprecedented opportunity” to bolster
the country’s airport infrastructure. But that growth poses a significant threat to the environment.https://www.airportwatch.org.uk/?p=2311