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Beijing's starfish airport lifts city to No. 2 hub after London

Daxing to overtake New York and Tokyo in passengers by 2025

The newly opened Daxing Airport is a crucial piece in the plan to turn Beijing into a major aviation hub.   © Getty Images

BEIJING -- Beijing's new Daxing International Airport opened to much fanfare on Wednesday, advancing China's effort to create a major air travel hub on the mainland.

Combined with the existing Beijing Capital International Airport, the Chinese capital is expected to be able to service 150 million passengers a year by 2025, an increase of about 50%. That would push it ahead of New York and Tokyo, to make it the world's second-busiest hub after London.

The first planes took off from the new facility on Wednesday afternoon, local media reported, following an opening ceremony attended by Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Daxing Airport is located about 45 km south of central Beijing and can be reached by a 20-minute train ride. The 80 billion yuan ($11.2 billion) complex is shaped like a giant starfish, with gates extending radially from a central terminal housing the check-in counters.

The farthest gate is located 600 meters, or a roughly 8-minute walk, from the central terminal. Artificial-intelligence startup SenseTime's facial-recognition system and other cutting-edge technologies have been used to ensure smooth transfers between flights.

Daxing Airport is shaped like a starfish, with gates located along the "legs" extending out of the central terminal.   © Getty Images

The capital's other main gateway, Beijing Capital International Airport, is about half as far from the city center. But space constraints have limited the number of flights there and caused frequent delays.

The new airport is designed to alleviate some of the congestion and turn Beijing into a more competitive aviation center.  Xi has expressed hopes of turning Daxing into a new driver of national growth.

Daxing aims to serve 72 million passengers in 2025, according to the Civil Aviation Administration of China. Plans call for eventually increasing the number of runways to seven from four so the airport can accommodate 100 million passengers.

At the same time, certain flights now flying in and out of Beijing Capital International will be moved to Daxing, bringing down traffic at the older gateway to 82 million in 2025 from the current 100 million.

Airline staff walk through the new Daxing Airport.   © Getty Images

Mainland China's airports so far have not achieved the same status as Asia's biggest international hubs. Beijing Capital International serves about 23.29 million overseas travelers, compared with 65 million to 75 million at Hong Kong International Airport, Seoul's Incheon International Airport, and Singapore Changi Airport.

"Transfers at Chinese airports are complicated, so I don't like flying through them," said a 30-something office worker in Tokyo, who added that he would sometimes have to go through immigration before boarding a connecting international flight.

State-run carriers will be the main drivers behind the plan to turn Daxing into a major hub. China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines will move all of their flights from Beijing Capital International to Daxing by 2022.

China Eastern is targeting more than 650 flights a day groupwide by 2025, up from about 370 currently, with increased traffic to Chinese cities as well as Paris, Amsterdam, Detroit and Seattle. The airline looks to invest 120 billion yuan in new aircraft and other improvements.

China Southern is also expanding its fleet, with plans to boost groupwide operations to over 900 flights a day from about 290.

Roughly 40 non-mainland airlines will also launch new routes to Daxing next year, including players from Hong Kong, Africa and South America.

But it is unclear whether Daxing can achieve its full potential, given its distance from Beijing Capital International. "Beijing will become a bigger hub in terms of volume, but it still won't be as convenient as Singapore or Hong Kong," an industry insider said.

Airline response to Daxing has been divided. Star Alliance members, which include Air China and All Nippon Airways, will keep their operations at Beijing Capital International, while the SkyTeam alliance is leaving the decision up to each member.

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