What are the next steps for China’s airports?

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Max Hirsh, professor at the University of Hong Kong, explores the future potential of airports in China and how the country can upgrade its offering.

The construction of Beijing’s second airport hub, Daxing International — which will open in 2019 — offers us an opportunity to reflect on what Chinese airports have achieved so far and how they can do better in the future. What are the next steps that China’s airports need to take in order to become world-leading aviation hubs? To answer that question, let’s look at three current challenges: how to improve the customer experience, how to integrate aviation with high-speed rail, and how to promote urban development around the airport.

Focus on the customer experience
Chinese airports have a reputation for technical competence and architectural ambition. But they’re also tone-deaf to the needs of travelers. China’s next generation airports will need to focus on those customer desires. The first step? Identify what types of passenger segments your airport hosts, and develop tailored strategies for each of them.

In an ageing society like China’s, it’s critical to ensure that elderly travelers can easily navigate the terminal. And as China goes global, it’s essential to provide support for passengers who don’t speak Mandarin. Above all, if Chinese airports want to become major international transfer hubs, they’ll need to cut down on delays — which are far too common.

Integrate aviation and high-speed rail
As the examples of Hongqiao (Shanghai) and Daxing (Beijing) reveal, China is becoming a leader in the integration of aviation and high-speed rail. But Chinese airports need to do more if they want these intermodal hubs to reach their full potential.

One way is to create an online platform where customers can combine air and rail journeys within a single purchase. Another way is to introduce bag-drop facilities in train stations. Overall, this air-rail integration will be good for Chinese airports, who can increase their throughput and grow their catchment area. Successful airports will pilot programs that promote new forms of cooperation, cross-investment, and profit-sharing across these transport sectors.

Build new districts around the airport
Many Chinese cities are building new districts around the airport — some more than 100km² (38 square miles) in size — in order to advance broader urban development goals.

However, these projects will only succeed if they attract a mix of public and private investment, and a mix of new residents to the airport area.

Successful airport development zones identify what their city is currently lacking and what the local business community needs to grow. They then translate those insights into a development plan that responds to those unmet demands.

Looking ahead
As China transitions from a developing aviation market into a mature one, successful decision makers will shift their emphasis from quantity to quality. The days of impressing the flying public (or your superiors) with gargantuan structures are over. Economic and environmental sustainability are the new priorities. It’s better to build a compact, commercially viable airport/airport economic zone rather than one that is oversized and mediocre.

These projects will be designed to meet the needs of passengers, airport employees, and local residents. That people-focused approach empowers us to see more clearly how Chinese airports can improve their business model—and, in so doing, establish themselves at the forefront of global innovation.

Read the full-length article on airporturbanism.com.

Max Hirsh is a professor at the University of Hong Kong and an expert on airports and urban development. He provides thought leadership for the aviation industry through his website airporturbanism.com.

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