A lesson for Heathrow in building an airport

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The Independent Online

Viewed from the air, Beijing's new £3.7bn airport terminal looks like a dragon in the middle of the northern Chinese brush – a startling structure of sweeping glass and steel.

The shiny Terminal Three building at Beijing Capital international airport, designed by the British architect Lord Foster, will be the world's biggest. It covers 10 million square feet (929,000 square metres) and will give visitors to next year's Olympic Games a spectacular first impression of the city.

The terminal's golden roof slopes gently above the main glass and steel structure, while skylights along the top of the building let in natural heat and light and look like the raised scales on a dragon's back.

It is the largest covered structure ever built, yet will have taken less than five years to construct when it opens. Throughout, traditional symbols, such as red pillars and gold roofs suggestive of ancient temples, are interwoven with contemporary technology and design. "The airport will give an excellent impression when visitors arrive," said Zhang Zhizhong, general manager of the state-run holding company which runs the airport. It was a "very important non-competition venue" for the Games that would illustrate the "advantages of socialism" to visitors, he added.

Terminal Three will open for testing in February and has a £125m baggage-handling system, built by the German engineering company Siemens, with 60km (37 miles) of conveyor belts capable of carrying 20,000 pieces of luggage an hour. It has twice as many boarding gates as the airport's two older terminals and nearly 300 check-in desks. A light-railway link will whisk visitors to Tiananmen Square in the city centre, 15.5 miles away, in just under 15 minutes.

As the media got its first look at the new terminal yesterday, Mr Zhang admitted Beijing Capital still had a long way to go to compare favourably with the likes of Hong Kong or Seoul's award-winning airports, and Japan's new and expanded ones. "We are behind Tokyo, Hong Kong, Singapore and airports like them when it comes to becoming a hub but, sooner or later, we will become the hub for east Asia," he insisted.

He may have his work cut out. Beijing Capital was ranked only 62nd last year in a global survey of passenger satisfaction levels, despite being the ninth-busiest airport in terms of passengers handled. Terminal Three will let it handle 60 million passengers a year by 2015 – 25 per cent more than last year.

By then, Beijing should have another new airport to share the burden of soaring demand for international flights on the back of China's economic boom.