Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Jetset: "The Terminal"

To many frequent fliers, using a new airport terminal is like dating a new partner. You have the first impression, the trials and tribulations and finally a verdict. Almost six months after its grand opening, Beijing’s Terminal 3 has – for the most part – won me over.

By now everyone should be sick and tired of hearing the term “the world’s biggest single-building terminal.” T3 is undoubtedly gargantuan – when I took the futuristic driverless train from check-in to international gates, the journey’s destination seemed to be Tianjin. Even for domestic flights, be prepared for a Long March if your plane parks at the far end of the concourse. I am a brisk walker and left the centrally located airline lounge when boarding was announced for several such flights. By the time I reached my gate, it was already final call time.

Size does matter in the case of T3 – but I think it’s the height that has enhanced the passenger experience. An airy terminal with natural light seeping through? It had been an architectural concept rarely practiced on the mainland – and, in this day of cramped flights, that makes a real difference. T3’s other positive sides ranging from transportation access to shopping options have been well documented. So a heartfelt “thank you” to Sir Norman Foster for giving road warriors another haven after HKG.

Despite this great leap forward – and if we keep the dating metaphor – T3 is like the pretty but flawed girlfriend you sometimes love to hate. And yes, the devil is in the details. My biggest complaint so far has been bad signage. It’s not the lack of signs, but how confusing they are throughout the terminal thanks to a mind-boggling gate numbering system. It’s almost like a practical joke – signs pointing you to every possible direction for adjacent gates and often sending you back to where you started.

Even the much-welcomed new Airport Express service can fall victim to signage problems. As quite a number of flights land at T3 after the last city-bound train leaves at 10:51pm, I have already had friends make the trek only to see a closed station. It is a pain in the neck to clear security, re-enter the terminal and grab a cab during these sensitive times.

Another thoughtless element is the escalator from international arrivals gates to the level where you clear immigration. The airport authority somehow chose the narrowest type, forcing deplaning passengers to line up single file, while conveniently leaving out a staircase. The result: a full load of travelers off a jumbo jet stuck on a slow-moving escalator. Many long-haul fliers would be more than happy to stretch their legs by climbing a few steps.

T3 aside, the venerable T1 – which debuted back in 1980 – re-opened in late June after applying some light makeup. Unlike the major facelift it received from 1999 to 2004, this time T1 has simply changed tenant. It now handles the domestic flights of Hainan Airline Group, while China Southern has moved to T2. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 34 of the September 2008 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

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