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A Flight of Fancy for Beijing
by Jasper Becker
South China Morning Post


Goodbye and good riddance to Beijing's old airport terminal. It closed on Sunday when the last international flight departed through its cracked doors.

This gateway to the new China survived 20 years of reforms virtually unchanged, a microcosm of surly service, smelly toilets and deafening announcements. Even in its dying days, it was still impossible to buy a cup of coffee or a sandwich while one waited, usually without a seat, for the inevitably delayed flight. Everything - from checking in to lining up for a toilet - was an unpleasant struggle. What is worse, it bred a desperate survival-of-the-fittest ruthlessness in all who passed through its ill-dated doors. It was the ugly queue-jumping which took place at every opportunity which could easily trigger the worst rage. Man's fundamental wickedness was made irrefutable by what happened even after you had glimpsed the light of freedom outside the exit doors. People would even steal your broken-down luggage trolley cart if you just looked the other way or take your taxi, pretending they never saw the snaking queue.

And there was no need for it all. In just 10 years, Shanghai has managed to build two new and shiny airports and Guangdong four. Well, five if you include Hong Kong's. Even impoverished Guangxi managed to find the money to build a grand and gleaming terminal just for Guilin.

Beijing's new terminal now seems a miracle of modern design, all futuristic steel and carpets. There are a dozen luggage conveyors, a surplus of trolleys, electronically operated toilets, elevators and public telephones that actually work.
 
There is little of the low-watt communism which marked the old terminal. No slogans either, just a few mosaics of the Great Wall and Tang Dynasty beauties. The staff may worry that the passengers are trying to steal the trolleys and the first passengers are confused by the escalators which only work if they detect a foot on them, but that is all.

The cadres responsible for Beijing airport hope their past crimes will be forgiven and forgotten so they can list on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. It is too early to say, however, whether their management has improved. Its reputation remains poor. Much has gone wrong during the construction and the roof is said to leak because poor-quality materials were used.

Yet there is no doubt it will be busy and operating at near its capacity, unlike Pudong Airport. It was deserted when I flew out there a few weeks ago on one of the first domestic flights. Yet it is certainly attractive. The French architects have built it around a lake and it shares Beijing's light and airy, chrome and steel look. The French designer, Paul Andreu, has also won the design competition for Beijing's new national opera house, which features a lake as well.

The biggest defect of Pudong Airport is that even from the Pudong side of the city it still takes at least 50 minutes by car, considerably more than driving to Shanghai's Hongqiao Airport. And as with so many of the new regional airports in China, stagnant or declining air passenger volumes beg the question of how long it will take for them to turn a profit.

Yet while none of them surpasses Hong Kong's Chek Lap Kok in cost or style, they are very clearly part of the same world. Until this week anyone arriving and waiting for their bags at Beijing's old terminal would immediately be reminded how different (and better) Hong Kong was from the mainland.

The new terminals in Beijing and Shanghai now convey exactly the opposite message.
 

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