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Air travel in China takes a great leap forward

Rob Schmitz Dec 20, 2011

Adriene Hill: Now to Atlanta, where Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport holds the title of busiest airport in the world. That’s expected to change next year. The new number one? Nope… not Chicago…. not London. It’s Beijing Capital Airport in China. It’s another sign that China’s aviation industry could soon dominate the global market.

So we sent our China Correspondent Rob Schmitz to Beijing’s airport to take a look at some of the differences between flying in China and flying in the U.S.

Rob Schmitz: So, I’m outside Beijing Capital Airport. It’s 9:15 in the morning. I’m about to step through check-in and security. Let’s see how long this takes.

The first thing you notice inside Beijing’s airport is people — lots of them. This is China, after all. But the passengers aren’t standing around, waiting in line. They’re moving — fast.

So I just got out of security, and it is now 9:29. That took 14 minutes. Let me remind you that this will soon be the world’s busiest airport.

Aviation industry analyst Liz Thompson had a similar experience on a recent visit to China.

Liz Thompson: I had someone picking me up at the gate, and I was out of there in 10 minutes.

Thompson says China is taking its new role of home to the world’s busiest airport seriously. Airports throughout China have been built big and well-staffed.

Thompson: They kind of got the systems in place knowing there will be this massive influx of people, whereas the airports which have been around for 40 or 50 years, they’ve kind of been expanded from an existing base, rather than being built with this massive influx of people in mind.

And a massive influx of goods, too: Last year, Hong Kong became the world’s largest freight airport, overtaking Memphis.

As the global economic balance tilts towards China, so does the aviation industry. And it doesn’t stop at airports. Thompson says Chinese airlines are dominating orders for A380s and 787s — the world’s largest passenger airplanes.

Thompson: That’s a recognition that they are going to be expanding internationally, and that they need to provide a product that is competitive.

And that means bigger seats with more legroom and better meals than the typical Chinese airline fare of pickled vegetables and rice gruel. Thompson says once those adjustments are made, Chinese airlines, with their free meals, free pillows, and free bag check-ins won’t look so bad to Americans.

In Beijing, I’m Rob Schmitz for Marketplace.

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