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Originally published Saturday, March 1, 2008 at 12:00 AM

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Beijing airport sets Olympian tone

It's a huge building, bigger than the Pentagon and a whole lot less clunky. It's expected to handle more passengers than any air terminal...

BEIJING — It's a huge building, bigger than the Pentagon and a whole lot less clunky. It's expected to handle more passengers than any air terminal in the world. It was built fast.

Beijing's new international air terminal, which opened Friday in time for the Summer Olympics surge, embodies the new China, a country racing headlong into the future fueled by an economy on fire.

The airy glass-and-steel structure raced from design to takeoff in four years with a compressed timetable to ensure it was ready for the Aug. 8-24 Olympics, a source of immense pride for China.

Most airport projects take a decade or more to complete and usually involve lengthy reviews, detailed assessments, planning committees, public hearings and environmental-impact statements.

For many countries increasingly worried about how competitive and fast-moving China is, this $2.8 billion project provides one more reason to fret. China's authoritarian system can certainly move. At its peak, the construction site had 50,000 workers toiling around the clock.

Elsewhere across China, skyscrapers sprout, highways unfurl and dams appear at breakneck speed, cutting through neighborhoods and displacing millions of people. This terminal is among $40 billion worth of projects being built in Beijing alone ahead of the Olympics.

The Chinese "can react to decisions four or five times faster than we can [in the West] because China runs the way it does," said Rory McGowan, Beijing-based director of global engineering company Ove Arup & Partners, which worked on the project

China has a long history of awing visitors with structures that evoke size and power, epitomized by the Forbidden City. The new Terminal 3 at Beijing Capital International Airport is a modern counterpart, the gateway to a new China.

"This is the front door of China," said Brian Timmoney, Beijing-based partner with architect Norman Foster, who is based in London.

The new terminal will allow Beijing to negotiate more nonstop services with North American hubs, as San Francisco, Seattle, Houston and Dallas all seek a bigger share of the trans-Pacific market.

The new terminal also is expected to change the region's competitive equation by allowing China to handle more of its own passenger and freight traffic, which has overflowed its borders to the benefit of new airports in Singapore, South Korea, Japan and Hong Kong.

The terminal, designed by the Beijing Architectural Design and Research Institute and Foster, at two miles long and a half-mile wide, covers 240 acres, is the world's largest covered structure and sits astride a runway able to handle new Airbus A380 "Superjumbo" aircraft.

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It's got "barrier-free" facilities for the disabled and floor tracking to guide the blind.

The terminal has 64 restaurants, 175 escalators, 173 elevators and 437 moving sidewalks.

It's also got baby-changing facilities and 26 smoking rooms with advanced filtering systems. It even has a multidenominational prayer rooms in an officially atheist country.

Starting in April, a new light-rail system will link the airport to the city center in 20 minutes.

One of the 10 busiest airports in the world, Beijing's airport handled 53.5 million passengers last year, far above its capacity of 35 million. With the new terminal, the airport can handle 96 million passengers a year and 1,590 flights a day.

Terminal 3 is double the size of two other terminals. Even with the addition, however, China's aviation growth will make the airport suffer from overcrowding again within seven years, experts say. Reports say that a second airport may be needed.

By 2012, the airport will become one of the five busiest in the world, after London's Heathrow, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, Chicago's O'Hare and Tokyo's Haneda.

The terminal's designers put a premium on air, light, greenery and distinct Chinese characteristics. The sloping roof is meant to evoke a dragon, with triangular skylights resembling scales. Feng shui principles were incorporated into the design, while the interior is decorated in colors that hold special meaning for Chinese.

Passengers entering the terminal are met with a blaze of red, reminiscent of celebration, good luck, joy and enthusiasm. By the time they approach their gate over a mile away, preferably using an automated train, the interior has turned to yellow, a color associated with royalty, mother and Earth, to act as a calming influence for the boarding experience.

Six international and domestic airlines — Sichuan Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Qatar Airways, Qantas Airways, El Al Israel Airlines and British Airways — began operating from Terminal 3 on Friday, and 20 more will do so by March 26.

"It's a fantastic new terminal. It's spacious. It's comfortable," said Sara Janine Thorley, British Airways' manager for China. "From our check-in counter to the train for the departure terminal is only a five-minute walk."

The new terminal was built in modules with many systems prefabricated at the factory to ensure better reliability, although builders admit privately that work quality is always a concern.

The rapid expansion of China's aviation system has led to safety concerns. China has had no major accidents in the past three years, but before that suffered several attributed in part to rapid growth.

"It's a big issue," said Leithen Francis, Singapore-based deputy Asia editor with Flight International, a trade magazine. "They may have 1.3 billion workers, but when it comes to skilled maintenance engineers, air traffic controllers and pilots, they're experiencing shortages."

Compiled from Los Angeles Times, McClatchy Newspapers and The Associated Press reports.

Copyright © 2008 The Seattle Times Company

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