Welcome to T-3

Bejing’s airport gets an Olympic update

By: Jim Calio

Rendering of the new terminal
Rendering of the new terminal
The numbers are impressive: 10.8 million square feet, an estimated 90 million passengers a year, 73 new parking slots for planes (including the new A380), 243 elevators, 7,000 parking spaces for cars and a luggage-transfer system designed to handle 19,200 pieces per hour.

Oh, yes, and let’s not forget the indoor garden that will be designed to look like the imperial gardens of the Summer Palace. And sitting in the middle of it all, a big copper vat, or Menhai, that was used for storing water for fighting fires in the Forbidden City.

All this and much more describes the new Terminal 3 at Beijing’s Capital International Airport, which opened this month. By the time the facility is ready for full-time use in July, just a month before the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics begin, there will also be a light-rail system that can speed travelers from downtown Beijing to the terminal in just 18 minutes (or so the airport’s officials say).

The construction of Terminal 3, or T-3 as it is fondly called in airline circles is part of a $3.5 billion airport expansion of Beijing’s Capital International Airport that will be completed by 2015. Construction of T-3 itself will cost an estimated $2.8 billion.

The Norman Foster design is audacious and spectacular, with swooping glass and steel and a red roof, the traditional Chinese color for good luck. The terminal’s ceilings use white strips for decoration and to indicate directions all point in a north-south direction so passengers don’t get lost.

According to airport officials, luggage can be checked in at any of the terminal’s 292 counters and it will then be transferred at a speed of 32 feet per second. On the other end, arriving passengers will be able to retrieve their bags within 4½ minutes after their airplane is unloaded.

As with everything else in China during this Olympic year, construction on T-3 was speeded up from the beginning, with 50,000 workers on site to get things done. Normally, a project of this size takes three to five years to complete, but T-3 is set to open after only two and a half.

But even that might not be enough. Such is the speed of China’s incredible growth, especially in air travel, that another, entirely separate airport in Beijing is scheduled to start construction in 2010.