Friday, September 25, 2009

Jetset: "Old vs. New"

As China reflects on its transformation over the past six decades, it’s a perfect time to marvel at the changes in the country’s air travel industry – at least in relations to our fair capital.

It’s hard to imagine but as recently as ten years ago, Terminal 1 was the only passenger building at Capital International Airport. Yes, that tiny facility, which now handles only Hainan Air’s domestic flights, was once the gateway to China. Terminal 2, a glass-and-steel structure featuring arched rooftops that have since become ubiquitous in Chinese airport designs, opened its doors in November 1999. Thanks to the 2008 Olympics, PEK now boasts the world’s second-biggest single-building terminal aka Terminal 3 (it surrendered the crown to Dubai’s even newer T3 last October).

During the first half of 2009, almost 31 million fliers passed through PEK, making it Asia’s busiest airport and No. 2 in the world. The airport authority has projected a passenger volume of 95 million by 2015 – and already drawn the blueprint for a second international airport to the south of the city. (Note to the planners: Please learn a lesson from Shanghai, and build fast and convenient transportation links between the two airports.)

Although we may whine about huge crowds at check-in counters and long walks to boarding gates, T3 is not only the ultimate testament to the breakneck growth of air travel in China but also a great leap forward for the airport – in terms of both facilities and services.

Although both China Southern and Hainan run hub operations at PEK, Air China (CA) remains the true hometown carrier. Few of us experienced the flag carrier – or its previous incarnation, CAAC – when it was flying Soviet jets with flight attendants performing revolutionary songs as in-flight entertainment. It has come a long way since then. In addition to a modern fleet and a decent global network, CA has raised its overall service, in part thanks to its cross-ownership (hence cross-training) with Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific.

Not everything is so rosy though, especially during these lean times. Spoiled domestic fliers have noticed cutbacks in food services during non-meal hours (my personal peeve: no more Diet Coke for economy class passengers). CA’s Phoenix Miles, the country’s oldest and largest frequent flier program, has also suffered some recent setbacks. In an effort to curb selling of miles, CA now limits each member to redeeming award tickets for up to eight pre-designated beneficiaries. After the initial signup, CA will deduct 300 kilometers from your account any time you need to add or change names on the list – and the revision will only become valid after 60 days. Not customer-friendly, however you slice it. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 90 of the October 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.