Phoenix rising: Beijing's new Daxing International Airport

1 Dec 2019 by Jackie Chen
Daxing Airport

Beijing’s hugely anticipated new Daxing International Airport has been designed with maximum passenger processing efficiency in mind

Forty-six kilometres south of Beijing’s city centre lies a golden phoenix, its wings spread as though ready to soar into the sky. This is the Chinese capital’s hugely anticipated second international airport, which finally began operations on September 25 and is poised to absorb the surging demand for air travel to and from the Chinese capital.

In 2018, the passenger volume of Beijing Capital International Airport – which since its opening in 1958 has been Beijing’s main commercial airport – reached over 100 million. Even with the benefit of three terminals and several rounds of expansion, this volume far exceeds the 83 million passengers per year for which the airport was designed. Indeed, the airport, located in Beijing’s northeast, is now the second busiest airport in the world by passenger volume, just after Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport in the United States.

“The government predicted a much longer life expectancy for the old Beijing Capital Airport, but it actually reached capacity much faster than anticipated,” says David Yu, adjunct professor of finance at New York University Shanghai and chairman of China Aviation Valuation Advisors.

Yu adds that it was not easy to decide on the location of the new airport, as there were many factors that needed to be taken into consideration. “Beijing is a pretty developed and populated city. Wherever the new airport was located, it needed to be a place a little bit farther from the city centre in order to accommodate its huge size. Also, Beijing Capital Airport will not be shut down after the new airport enters into service, so the issue of Beijing’s highly congested airspace needed to be resolved by locating Daxing sufficiently far away from Beijing Capital,” he says.

Daxing International Airport is currently designed to handle 45 million passengers per year, though by 2025, with the addition of a 200,000 sqm satellite terminal, this number is projected to rise to 72 million. By 2040, there are also plans to build a new terminal to the south of the existing facility and add two more runways (plus another one for military use). With these additions, the annual passenger capacity is expected to further increase to 100 million.

Primed for efficiency

Surprisingly for an airport of its size, Daxing airport has only one terminal for its four runways. The star-shaped terminal was designed by French consulting and engineering company ADP Ingénierie (ADPI), a wholly-owned subsidiary of international airport operator Groupe ADP. ADPI was awarded the tender to design the terminal of the new airport in 2014. The acclaimed late architect Zaha Hadid – whose works include Glasgow’s Riverside Museum, the London Aquatics Centre and Galaxy SOHO in Beijing – also worked on the project with ADPI between September 2014 and February 2015.

Jean-Charles Content, lead architect of Asia-Pacific at ADPI and one of the main architects of the Beijing Daxing project, says efficiency was ADPI’s priority when it designed the terminal. However, the ambitions for Daxing in terms of both passenger and aircraft capacity were “quite high”.

“We wanted to have a layout for the passenger terminal building that would be the most compact and efficient as possible, and one of our first concerns was the walking distances for passengers,” Content says.

This goal led ADPI to design a “very centralised system” incorporating a central area from which there are five piers, which together form the star-shaped terminal with 79 departure gates. Content says this layout was inspired by the phoenix, which has long been considered a symbol of grace in Chinese culture. This channelling of Chinese mythology can also be seen in the dragon-shaped design of Beijing Capital Airport’s Terminal 3.

Daxing Airport

Many international airports around the world split domestic and international flights between different terminals, but ADPI’s design team decided to integrate them into a single facility by stacking different passenger processing levels one above the other. As a result, there are two departure and two arrival levels designed in the same building for both domestic and international passengers. The arrival levels are Level 1 and Level 2, and the departure levels are Level 3 and Level 4. A further level, Level 5, has retail stores and restaurants.

In this centralised single-terminal building, after finishing check-in, bag drop and security check in the central area (where there are also retail and F&B outlets) passengers can proceed directly to one of the five piers where the boarding gates are located. Thus, an automated people mover train is not currently needed, since passengers are all funnelled into a single terminal. The centralised design will also reduce connecting times for transfer passengers, because they don’t need to rush from one terminal to another.

The maximum distance between the terminal centre and the farthest boarding gate is about 600 metres, which most people can traverse in about eight minutes on foot. At the end of each of the five piers is an ancient Chinese-style open-air courtyard that allows passengers to get some fresh air before boarding – or to have a smoke.

An innovative aviation hub

Daxing airport has two departure levels with different functions – a concept that Content says is the first of its kind in the world. On the upper departure level are traditional check-in and bag drop counters with staff providing assistance, while the lower departure level is equipped with automated check-in kiosks designed for frequent travellers who are more familiar with airports, as well as those who don’t have any baggage to check, although it is only available for domestic flights at the moment. There are also dedicated check-in zones for first class and business class passengers on the lower level.

Another special feature of Daxing’s design is that a railway station is constructed inside the airport, with rail lines built right below the terminal underground on Level B2, ensuring efficient connectivity between air and rail travel. Passengers who arrive at the airport by train simply go upstairs to the departure level via lifts or escalators, without the need to walk long distances or cross roads. Domestic passengers can even complete check-in, bag drop and security check within the train station itself.

The rail options include a subway line (Daxing Airport Express), high-speed rail and inter-city rail. These railways link the airport with Beijing’s city centre, as well as several neighbouring cities in Hebei province, as well as the coastal port city of Tianjin.

Going paperless

In addition to improved passenger processing efficiency, passengers departing from Daxing can also expect a self-service and paperless travel experience, thanks to the integration of smart technology.

The airport has 192 self-service check-in kiosks and 202 self-service bag drop stations. Passengers first complete flight check-in at these self-service kiosks, after which a mobile boarding pass is sent via SMS to their phones with flight details and a QR code. Passenger also receive the mobile boarding pass in advance of arriving at the airport if they check in online. A paper boarding pass is no longer necessary, although passengers can still print one out if they wish.

Those who need to check their baggage can simply go to the self-service bag drop stations and print out a baggage claim tag. Their bag will then be carried away automatically on a conveyer belt. The baggage tags employ radio-frequency identification (RFID) technology, meaning that the status of the baggage can be consulted on a real-time basis. According to the airport’s official WeChat account, passengers will be able to consult the information on the airport’s mobile app, which, however, has not been rolled out yet with no launch date mentioned.

Business Traveller reported in last February’s issue on the rise in the use of biometrics by airlines and airports. This trend is plain to see at Daxing, where both security and boarding are powered by facial recognition technology. There are 24 automated security gates at which passengers first scan their travel documents before having their identities verified by facial recognition. There are also 124 automated boarding gates covering 61 departure gates. Passengers simply need to have their faces scanned before boarding the flight, without the need to show or scan any travel documents, or even their boarding passes.

Inside Daxing Airport

Technology is also used in Daxing to help provide information to passengers. The airport is equipped with 45 self-service information terminals that passengers can use to consult information about transport options from and to the airport, get directions for the airport, and request other customer services such as hotline numbers (eg for police), lost and found, hotel services, as well as in-airport F&B and retail. There are also ten robots roaming the airport named Xiaoxing (little Xing). Travellers can interact with them via voice control or touchscreen to get information about airport facilities and departing and arriving flights. As for internet connectivity, the whole airport will be covered by a 5G network “in the near future”.

Key Daxing facts

  • IATA Code: PKX
  • 700,000 sqm single terminal
  • 5 piers
  • 4 runways
  • 79 departure gates
  • 45 million passenger volume at time of opening
  • 72 million passenger volume by 2015
  • 100 million passenger volume in the long term
  • 46km from Tiananmen Square
  • 67km from Beijing Capital Airport
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