Home' Asian Aviation : AAV February 2019 Contents 30 AsianAviation | February 2019
China marches ahead
China is always expanding an airport somewhere. The economy keeps growing and the
country’s civil aviation market already ranks as world No. 2 after the United States. But the
latest commitment won’t touch commercial hubs such as Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.
Ralph Jennings explains.
IN NOVEMBER, the Chinese government’s National Development
and Reform Commission approved a US$6.1 billion airport expansion
in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang region in relatively poor north-
western China. That funding will build two runways and a terminal on
500,000 square metres at the Urumqi Diwopu International Airport.
The expanded airport will be able to handle 63 million passengers
and 750,000 tonnes of freight by 2030.
Urumqi’s expansion, coupled with all-new airports in more remote
parts of Xinjiang, will stimulate domestic tourism and economic
development in a region that lags the pro-business transport in-
frastructure of eastern China, aviation analysts say. Capital inflows
might also ease periodic unrest among ethnic Uighurs. The Central
Asian natives of Xinjiang sometimes resent China’s annexation of
the land 70 years ago.
“Some of these airports are one of the only ways to open these
areas to economic development,” said Jeffrey Lowe, managing di-
rector of Asian Sky Group, an aviation services firm in Hong Kong.
“ Where some of these regions are not mainstream mainland China,
they ’re places where government is trying help the locals.”
Airports matter, particularly to Xinjiang, not because the region cov-
ers 1.6 million square kilometres but because of size and topography,
travel is tough without planes. Steep snowcaps fill the north, while
deserts dominate much of the south. Xinjiang is landlocked and the
high-speed railway lines of eastern China have not reached it. The
Chinese aviation authority operates 21 airports in the region now.
Officials in Beijing hope to develop the Xinjiang economy as a way
of easing on-again, off-again political unrest. As many as 1 million
potentially restive Uighurs and other Muslims may have been de-
tained in Xinjiang last year for so-called “re-education”, international
media reported in August 2018. China has muted dissent elsewhere
by raising people’s income levels.
Xinjiang is rich in fossil fuels and minerals but has one of China’s
smallest local-level GDPs. It also sits on China’s Belt-and-Road
corridor through Central Asia into Europe. The six-year-old Belt-and-
Road initiative calls for opening foreign trade routes by helping other
countries build infrastructure, in turn giving Chinese contractors
work outside the competitive domestic market.
Tourism is already on the move. Xinjiang received a record high 107
million tourists in 2017, up 32.4 percent year-on-year, official figures
showed. For Chinese travellers, Xinjiang represents an “unbeaten
path” that’s just “outside their back door,” Lowe added. A flight from
Beijing to Urumqi takes about four hours. The Urumqi airport received
21.5 million passengers in 2017, up from just under 15.4 million in 2013,
according to Airports Council International data. Cargo volumes
changed little over the period. Chinese airports overall logged a re-
cord high of about 100,000 flights in 2018, state-run China Daily says.
Xinjiang struggles to attract foreign tourists because of its distance
from more commonly visited parts of China, the risk of political
unrest and fear of Muslim extremists.
Urumqi Airlines, a five-year-old joint budget carrier owned mostly
by China-based Hainan Airlines, is leading flight growth in Urumqi
in terms of capacity and destinations, said John Grant, director of JG
Aviation Consultants in the United Kingdom. It flies, for example, to
the African nation Burundi. Capacity to and from Urumqi has grown
about 40 percent in the past five years, Grant added.
“Much of that increased activity is related to the oil, gas and min-
eral extraction industries and of course the strategic position of the
region in the longer term is extremely valuable,” Grant said. “ This is
a really interesting market where the recent levels of growth have
potential to expand rapidly in the coming years.”
Elsewhere in Xinjiang, a military-backed organisation opened the
region’s 21st airport in December, linking Urumqi with the remote
agricultural city Tumxuk.
▲ China is spending US$6.1 billion to build runways and a terminal at
Urumqi Diwopu International Airport.
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