Fears for environment as China plans 48 new airports

Jonathan Watts in Beijing
Wednesday May 10, 2006

China plans to build 48 new airports over the next five years in an aviation spending splurge that will delight architects and plane makers but heighten concerns among environmentalists.

With the economy booming, hundreds of millions more journeys are being made by air every year, prompting a rush to buy planes that has made China the most important customer for Boeing and Airbus. But the boom is also set to benefit international design firms and construction companies, including British names such as Norman Foster and Arup.

According to the domestic media, China will spend 140bn yuan (9.4bn) on airport development between 2006 and 2010 - more than the total for the previous 15 years. Zhao Hongyuan, of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, told the China Daily that the number of airports would rise in that time from 142 to 190. Work is already under way to expand the three biggest international hubs: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Last year a mega-terminal opened in Guangzhou, part of work to double capacity to 27 million passengers by 2009. A second runway opened last year at Pudong airport, near Shanghai, which can handle 35 million passengers a year. And the terminal building under construction at Beijing Capital international airport, designed by Norman Foster, is expected to be the world's biggest airport building.

Even after the new facilities are built the country's 1.3 billion people will be served by fewer than 200 airports, compared with more than 10,000 in the US, which has a quarter of the population. To expand services to less developed areas the government plans to turn airports in Chengdu, Kunming, Xi'an, Wuhan and Shenyang into regional hubs. Yunnan - one of the most beautiful provinces in China - is hoping to cash in on an expected tourism boom by building five new airports, Xinhua news agency reported.

In February China made itself the darling of the global aviation industry by promising to buy 100 planes and recruit 1,000 new pilots every year until 2010.

But the expected doubling of China's air traffic over the next five years worries environmental activists, who say planes are already responsible for 10% of the depletion of the ozone layer. There is also concern about air safety, with doubts that enough trained pilots and air-traffic control staff can be found.

Foreign businesses, however, are delighted at the growth of the market. During a recent visit to Beijing, Digby Jones, the director general of the CBI, said the success of Arup and Richard Norman Foster showed the benefits on offer. "You never get a complaint in Britain that China is stealing our jobs," he said. "Our idea is to get China wealthy as quickly as possible so they can pay for all the value-added goods and services we can provide."

Guardian Unlimited Guardian Newspapers Limited 2006