Beijing Nanyuan Airport poised to close its doors

China Daily
Huang Panyue
2019-09-20 08:22:21

The exterior of the arrivals hall at Beijing Nanyuan Airport. [Photo by Zou Hong/China Daily]

Throwing a "happy funeral" is a tradition in China to commemorate a person who has lived to a ripe old age and died peacefully from natural causes.

It is a time to be joyful, a celebration of life and a blessing for the surviving family members.

The case for holding such a funeral can be made for Beijing Nanyuan Airport, China's oldest, which will cease public operations before Sept 30 with the opening of Beijing Daxing International Airport.

Nanyuan has been witness to rapid developments in the nation's aviation industry over the past century.

Opened in 1910 during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), it has long served as both a military and commercial airport. In 1986, it became the main hub for China United Airlines after serving the military for decades. The airline was established under the administration of the People's Liberation Army Air Force, connecting revolutionary base areas and border cities.

Located in Fengtai district, 13 kilometers south of Tian'anmen Square, Nanyuan is much closer to downtown than is Beijing Capital International Airport. However, its outdated and even shabby facilities have turned off many passengers.

The departure hall at the airport. [Photo by Zou Hong/China Daily]

In 2016, Zheng Zhongjie, a fitness coach in Beijing, had been in the city for more than three years when he had the chance to take a flight from the airport. It proved a mixed experience.

"Winding through a series of tortuous lanes, I thought I had taken an unlicensed taxi driver who wanted to take me the long way to the airport. But the real shock came when he pulled up at the terminal building. It looked like a county-level bus or train station to me, not an airport," he said.

However, Zheng, a military enthusiast, said he welcomed the chance to see the airport, where there were soldiers on duty and some of the buildings offered a glimpse of the facility's history.

Nanyuan, which translates as "southern garden" in Chinese, used to be a hunting ground for the Qing royal family. After flooding washed away the land during the reign of Emperor Guangxu (1871-1908), the area was turned into a base for military training and parades.

China United Airlines' pilots in the 1990s.[Photo provided to China Daily]

In 1904, two French light aircraft performed aerobatics above the Nanyuan training ground-the first time aircraft had taken off and landed in China. Six years later, the Qing government built airstrips at Nanyuan and it became the nation's first airport.

Later, the Qing government began to establish air transportation in China and built a factory at Nanyuan to experiment with manufacturing aircraft.

After the Xinhai Revolution of 1911, Yuan Shikai, a key figure in Chinese politics in the early 20th century, established the Nanyuan Flying Academy in 1913-the first official flying academy in China-and bought 10 French aircraft for pilot training.

The academy struggled to survive for 15 years amid turbulent political changes and was forced to close in 1928. However, more than 150 pilots who graduated from it played important roles in China's aviation history.

Fu Qianshao, an air defense expert, said: "The academy set the bar very high for the admission of candidates and drew up specific training programs and a detailed process for the pilots, which set an example and standard for the current flight school. China's aviation industry started at Nanyuan Airport."

After the founding of New China in 1949, Nanyuan Airport continued as an aeronautical school and Air Force training base for nearly three decades. With rapid economic development and rising living standards, it was turned into a commercial airport in 1986 to cope with the growing demand for business and leisure travel.

China United Airlines' passengers in the 1990s.[Photo provided to China Daily]

In 2002, the central government halted commercial services at the airport for three years, as it did not allow the military to run such businesses.

Li Peibin, senior manager of China United Airlines' marketing department who has worked at the airport for nearly 15 years, said that with the expected increase in air traffic as Beijing hosted the Olympic Games in 2008, the airline relaunched commercial aviation services in 2005 with a single Boeing 737 leased from Shanghai Airlines, its largest stakeholder at the time.

"With one aircraft in 2005, we only had three routes-Dalian, Liaoning province, Harbin, Heilongjiang province, and Wuxi, Jiangsu province. We handled just six flights a day, but it took us only three years to see passenger trips increase to more than 1.3 million," he said.

To meet the surge in demand for air travel, the airport witnessed large-scale expansions and renovations in 2011 and 2016. The newly constructed terminal, together with the old one, covered a total of 200,000 squares meters and was designed to handle 6 million passenger trips annually, more than twice its former capacity.

The airport, now a wholly-owned subsidiary of China Eastern Airlines, handles 49 aircraft and more than 170 flights a day, covering a network of nearly 60 routes and 80 domestic destinations. Last year, it handled 6.5 million passenger trips.

China United Airlines' flight attendants in the 1990s. [Photo provided to China Daily]

Li said: "Compared with Beijing Capital International Airport, which handled more than 100 million passenger trips last year, Nanyuan Airport's throughput capacity is just a drop in the ocean. But China United Airlines has always served less-densely populated smaller cities where other airlines are unwilling to offer lower-priced tickets aimed at making flying affordable for the public."

Daxing International Airport, with four runways, 268 airplane parking bays and a terminal building covering 700,000 square meters, will start operating by the end of the month and is preparing to accommodate 45 million passengers a year by 2021, and 72 million by 2025. As a result, Beijing will no longer need the small military-civilian airport.

Chen Donglin, deputy general manager of China United Airlines' e-commerce department, said the carrier will become the first airline to transfer its operations to the new airport from its headquarters at Nanyuan. It will transfer all its planes and more than 4,000 employees before the new airport opens.

"The opportunities brought by the new airport will help Chinese carriers to improve their operating efficiency and increase profits. We plan to purchase six new aircraft this year, and the company's fleet size is expected to reach more than 60 by next year," he added.

No plans have been released for the future of Nanyuan Airport, but one expert has suggested turning it into a museum to showcase the development of the nation's aviation sector.

Flights prepare to leave from Beijing Nanyuan Airport. In 1920, it became the first airport in China to handle commercial flights. No plans have been released for the airport's future. [Photo/China Daily]

Ma Huidi, director of the Center for China Leisure Studies at the China Academy of Art, said Nanyuan Airport is different from others and has its own peculiarities in terms of its history and location.

"Scientific and technological 'relics' such as Nanyuan Airport should enjoy the same important status as other historical and cultural heritage" she said. "Compared with the Capital Airport and Daxing Airport, Nanyuan has a rich and special history with numerous fascinating stories to offer to the public as the first airport in China, making it the perfect site for a civil aviation-themed museum."

With many neighborhoods close by on the one hand and a scarcity of historical resources in the southern part of Beijing on the other, Nanyuan Airport should be put to good use to balance development of the capital's cultural industry, she added.

"Though the airport will come to an end, its history can be passed on in this way and show the next generation what the country has been through to achieve the level of economic progress it has," she said.


Related News