“Will China Build 82 Unneeded Airports By 2015? You Betcha.”

This piece is by Gordon Chang, so I had to cut out a lot of prophecies calling for the certain demise of the Chinese economy, but it works well as a counterpoint to the last article. While sewer systems around the country go entirely unbuilt, China is going on a massive airport building spree:

By then, China will have 230 airports, up from the current 182, according to Huang Min, director of infrastructure at the National Development and Reform Commission. Most of the new facilities will be feeder airports in the central and western portions of the country. About 80% of the population will be within 100 kilometers of an airport by the middle of this decade. Additional building is projected to increase that percentage nine points by 2020.

Does China need all these new airports? Beijing justifies the ambitious building program on several grounds. State media, for instance, points to the aviation industry’s three decades of double-digit growth and suggests that is just the beginning. China’s aviation market, according to central government officials, has the biggest potential for expansion in the world. State media notes that, in comparison, the U.S. has 19,000 airports.

In reality, the case for more airports is not as clear as Beijing makes it out to be. For one thing, many of China’s airports are sinkholes. Last year, about 130 of them lost more than 2 billion yuan.

Chinese officials last week made the argument that these facilities were money losers because China had too few of them, not too many. “It’s like planting trees,” said CAAC’s Li. “One tree will die, but if you plant more, it will become a forest, and the trees will grow higher and higher.” The imagery does not make sense, but his concrete example was helpful. He noted all 12 regional airports in Yunnan province were profitable due to the “network effect.”

Unfortunately, China’s recent record on adding airports is mixed. Chinese airlines, for instance, are concerned about what will surely be the biggest project in the country, the plan to build a second airport in Beijing.

The new one is slated for a patch of land at least 50 kilometers away from the Capital International Airport. Airline consultants point out that the government should instead be planning to expand the existing one, instead of building a sprawling facility on the other side of town, near Hebei province.

The reason? Airlines fear they will be forced to operate from both airports, thereby increasing costs and reducing flexibility. That’s exactly what happens in Shanghai, where Shanghai-based China Eastern Airlines has had to fly out of both Hongqiao International Airport and Pudong International Airport since 1999. The original plan was to close the decrepit Hongqiao when Pudong was opened, but local officials convinced Beijing to allow them to not only keep Hongqiao but also significantly expand it as well.

I’ve seen a handful of ludicrously useless airports in China myself- the one under construction in the grasslands outside Labrang was impressive, but the entirely empty one near Kangding really took the cake. Sure this money couldn’t be better spent on some other infrastructure project?


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