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Friday, February 29, 2008

Beijing opens massive airport terminal

Beijing's new international air terminal, which opened today in time for the Summer Olympics surge, attracts and embodies superlatives. It also embodies the new China, a country racing headlong into the future fueled by an economy on fire.

For many countries increasingly worried about how competitive and fast-moving China is, this $2.8-billion project provides one more reason to fret. China's authoritarian system can certainly move. At its peak, the construction site had 50,000 workers toiling around the clock.

"Most Western politicians wouldn't admit agreeing to that system, but they're very jealous," said Rory McGowan, Beijing-based director of global engineering firm Ove Arup & Partners, which worked on the project. The Chinese "can react to decisions four or five times faster than we can [in the West] because China runs the way it does." China has a long history of awing visitors with structures that evoke size and power, epitomized by the Forbidden City.

The terminal measures about 10.6 million square feet. By comparison, the Pentagon, often described as the largest office building in the world, is 6.5 million square feet. And the enormous terminal is astride a runway able to handle the new Airbus A380 superjumbo jets. It's got all manner of bells and whistles, including "barrier-free" facilities for the disabled, floor tracking to guide the blind, and multi-denominational prayer rooms in an officially atheist country. It also has baby-changing facilities galore and 26 smoking rooms with advanced filtering systems -- in short, a lot of stuff you probably won't see again during your stay in China.

The designers put a premium on air, light, greenery and distinct Chinese characteristics. The sloping roof is meant to evoke a dragon, with triangular skylights resembling scales. Feng shui principles were incorporated into the design, and the interior is decorated in colors that hold special meaning for Chinese.

"Feng shui has a scientific and a superstitious side," said Shao Weiping, principal architect with Beijing Architectural Design. "We used the scientific side."

Six airlines will start flying from Beijing's massive terminal today, and flag carrier Air China and others will move from the airport's two older terminals in March. Air China and United are the only airlines offering nonstop service from Beijing to LAX. United's flights will also move to the new terminal next month.

The new terminal will boost the airport's annual capacity by tens of millions of passengers to 82 million, a target planners originally expected to hit around 2015, but now believe could come years earlier. A second international airport is already under consideration.

Excerpted from LA Time.

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