An interior view of Daxing Airport in Beijing, just prior to its opening on 25 September 2019. Photo: AFP

There was an unmistakable void on Wednesday at the opening of Daxing, Beijing’s futuristic new airport, by China’s President Xi Jinping.

Zaha Hadid, the acclaimed Iraqi-British architect who designed the $25-billion structure, destined to become the world’s busiest airport, never lived to see the building likely to become her most famous creation.

Hadid – hailed by the Guardian in London and her peers as the ‘Queen of the Curve‘ – died three and a half years ago in Miami at the age of 65. At the time of her death, Daxing was still a huge open area – 70 hectares or about 100 football pitches in size – 45km south of downtown Beijing.

A vast structure shaped like a giant starfish, Daxing stands out for its curved lines and use of natural light that filters down to the lowest levels of the terminal through openings on the roof.

Daxing’s star-shaped terminal has a gross floor area of over a million square meters. Photo: Xinhua

Zaha Hadid Architects London associate director Cristiano Ceccato said the project design itself embraced the special characteristics of China in terms of building airports.

“The project itself is very, very centralized,” Mr Ceccato said. “It’s shaped like a hand, meaning that you have a palm, and you have radiant fingers, and that means all the processing happens in the palm and then the distance to the aircraft in the fingers is actually not very long.

“So it’s a very human, very walkable terminal. Even though it is very large, it is something that still remains very accessible to the individual person, and also, very pleasant to traverse.”

Zaha Hadid died of a heart attack at the age of 65 in Miami. Photo: Brigitte Lacombe / Zaha Hadid Architects

Daxing is expected to be the world’s largest airport terminal in terms of passenger numbers.

Yet despite its size, its builders say travelers only need to walk about 600 meters to reach a boarding gate. And it takes a passenger just eight minutes to walk from the center of the terminal to the furthest departure gate.

Underneath the terminal is a train station and a metro line that will allow travelers to reach the city center in 20 minutes. There is also access from many expressways.

The giant project cost 120 billion yuan (US$17.5 billion), or 400 billion yuan if rail and road links are included. The airport is fitted with 5G facial recognization equipment that is supposed to allow seamless and swift people handling.

Showcase project

This is a showcase project that aims to impress all who use this facility and trumpet the arrival of a strong and rapidly modernizing nation. Its opening comes less than a week before the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, on October 1.

Indeed, Daxing could be seen as an embodiment of the “Chinese dream” that President Xi Jinping has offered to his fellow citizens.

As Xi told Xinhua, the state media outlet, the airport shows China’s prowess in engineering construction.

Shops sell duty-free goods inside Daxing’s departure hall. Photo: Xinhua

Daxing is expected to handle up to 72 million passengers a year by 2025. And by 2040 it is scheduled to have eight runways in operation – serving up to 100 million passengers a year.

About 50 foreign airlines, such as British Airways and Cathay Pacific, plan to move all or part of their operations to Daxing over the next few years, once it overcomes any “teething problems”.

The airport’s first commercial flight, a China Southern Airlines plane bound for the southern province of Guangdong, took off on Wednesday afternoon, state broadcaster CCTV reported. Later, flights took off for Shanghai and other destinations.

Atlanta in the US is currently the world’s busiest airport and can receive more than 100 million passengers, but those travelers are spread across two terminals.

Beijing Capital International Airport is currently the world’s second-largest, but it is struggling to cope with just over 100 million passengers annually.

Air transport has boomed in China as living standards increased along with peoples’ desire to travel. That is why Daxing is expected to surpass the US to become the world’s biggest aviation market by the mid-2020s, according to the International Air Transport Association.

The SkyTeam alliance – which includes Delta, Air France and Dutch airline KLM – is also expected to move, along with local partners Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines.

But the third-largest Chinese airline, Air China, is expected to keep flying the bulk of its flights from Beijing Capital International Airport.

With reporting by AFP

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