China’s New Chengdu Airport Facilitates Massive Air Travel Growth

Chengdu Tianfu International Airport
Credit: Xinhua News Agency

Chengdu opened Tianfu International Airport (TFU) June 27, becoming the third Chinese city to operate two major airports after Beijing and Shanghai.

With a name that, loosely translated, means a heavenly estate or residence, TFU is the largest civil transportation airport constructed as part of China’s 13th five-year plan and the most ambitious since the development of Beijing Daxing Airport (PKX). The purpose of TFU is to ease the load of Chengdu Shuangliu International Airport (CTU), which handled 55.9 million passengers in 2019, surpassing its designed capacity. Even though the pandemic reduced passenger numbers, CTU was the world’s third busiest airport in 2020, with 40.7 million passengers.

Located in Sichuan province, construction of TFU began in May 2016 under a CNY71.9 billion ($10.9 billion) first phase that saw the construction of  three runways, including two parallel ones, with a 710,000 sq. m., sunbird-shaped terminal buildings and supporting facilities, such as air traffic control, fuel supply projects, airline bases and mail processing centers. The airport will be able to handle 60 million passengers and 1.3 million tons of cargo annually. The long-term plan is to build six runways and a 1.4 million sq. m. terminal building to meet the annual passenger throughput of 120 million passengers and cargo and mail throughput of 2.8 million tons by 2045.

Starting in April, airport authorities conducted a series of day and night stress tests to trial the processes of the terminal’s air and landside, apron, cargo handling and security. The fourth and final evaluations were conducted on June 5, when 18,000 “passengers” from local universities, institutions and companies took part in the full travel process across the airport, boarding 139 “flights” with Air China, Sichuan Airlines, Eastern Airlines, Lucky Air, and Chengdu Airlines. A surge test for 40 flights in a hour was also carried out between 3 p.m.-4 p.m. to simulate real-time conditions in peak seasons. The participants also utilised the smart airport features including self check-in and boarding gates, facial recognition, and smart security systems. Upon ‘arrival’ they claimed their luggage and used the integrated transport hub.

A total of 37,000 test passengers boarded 317 ‘flights’ over the four trials.

Live test and verification flights started in January without passengers. Home provincial airline Sichuan Airlines began the trials with an Airbus A330-300 flight. This was followed by an Air China Boeing 747-8, a China Eastern Airlines Boeing 777-300ER, a Lucky Air Boeing 737-800, a Chengdu Airlines COMAC ARJ21 and finally a China Southern Airlines Airbus A380-800.

Launch carriers are Air China, China Eastern, Chengdu Airlines, Juneyao, Lucky Air, Sichuan Airlines, Spring Airlines and Xiamen Air.

Between June 30 and July 13, TFU plans to handle188 flights, most on popular business routes to both Beijing airports and both Shanghai airports, Guangzhou (CAN), Shenzhen (SZX), Hangzhou (HGH), Nanjing (NKG), Xiamen (XMN) and Wuhan (WUH), as well as tourist destinations such as Lhasa (LXA), Sanya (SYX), Diqing (DIG) and Jinggangshan (JGS).

From July 14, frequencies to Beijing Daxing, Shanghai Pudong, Hangzhou, and Nanjing will increase and add leisure routes to Lijiang, Guilin, and Beihai. The daily scheduled flight volume will increase to 271.

In phase two, from Oct. 31 to March 26, daily scheduled flights are expected to increase to 579 before climbing to 857 flights in phase three by Oct. 29, 2022. By March 25, 2023, all flight transition tasks will be completed and daily flights are expected to reach 1,138. By 2025, there will be around 700,000 take off and landings annually.

To support the massive traffic, regulators implemented China’s largest ever adjustment of its western airspace. Three control zones and seven other cities in the Sichuan province were also involved, with a total of 146 inbound and outbound procedures and 2,000 routes adjusted. The Chengdu approach control area has expanded to 42,600 square kilometres, benefiting the flow of air traffic from Chengdu to other major hubs like Beijing and Shanghai.

Air traffic control systems are supported by the AirNet automated system, which essentially crunches air and ground traffic data for the tower and ATC units to create a seamless ‘smart’ control system.

Strategically situated in China’s southwest, TFU is poised to tap into growing air travel demand between this region and the southeast China as well as to South Asia and Europe.

Air China has invested CNY6.1 billion ($958.4 million) in its new TFU base, making it the largest infrastructure project the airline has ever undertaken. The project includes a 14,290 square meter hangar, a 1,494-bed hotel for employees and a catering center that can produce 35,000 meals daily.

“From a geographical perspective, Chengdu is the hub connecting Europe, Southeast Asia, and Oceania. By 2025, Air China’s capacity in Chengdu will be doubled, with more than 160 aircraft.” Air China Tianfu general manager Li Ying said.

TFU should also boost the Chengdu-Chongqing economic circle, a densely populated area with the highest concentration of industries and the most cities in western China. In 2020, the economic circle already saw 83.8 million passenger movements. Chongqing is now planning a second airport, meaning there will be four international airports within a one hour radius, a first for China. Chongqing issued a request for proposals and information on June 24, seeking ideas for the design and planning for a new three or four runway airport targeted to be ready in 2035. First phase specifications call an airport that can handle 40 million passengers and 2 million tonnes of cargo before expanding to 70 million passengers and 3.5 million tons cargo by 2050. The recommended build site is in Bishan Zhengxi, west of the Chongqing city.

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Chen Chuanren

Chen Chuanren is the Southeast Asia and China Editor for the Aviation Week Network’s (AWN) Air Transport World (ATW) and the Asia-Pacific Defense Correspondent for AWN, joining the team in 2017.