OPINION: Laborious Transit Experience at Beijing International Airport

Beijing Capital International Airport (Photo provided by 颐园新居 (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons)

Back when my wife and I were booking flights for our trip from Montreal to Mumbai, we had many options to choose from. There were obviously numerous possibilities via Europe, the Middle East and USA, including:
– Air Canada / Lufthansa via Frankfurt or Munich
– British Airways via London
– Air France / KLM via Paris or Amsterdam
– Swiss Air via Zurich
– United via New Jersey (Newark)
– Qatar Airways via Doha

But, for a change, a new route via an Asian hub stood out due to its economical pricing. Air China’s newly launched route from Montreal (YUL) to Beijing (PEK) began on September 29th as a code share with Air Canada. Using the Boeing 777-300ER aircraft, the route is being flown three times a week and is the only one directly connecting Montreal with Asia. With the launch of non-stop YUL-PEK service, the Star Alliance carriers promised to offer convenient connections and seamless transfers for customers to other cities in China, Canada, and the United States via their hubs in Beijing and Montreal. Beijing can now boast of expanded connectivity to Canada with direct flights to three of its biggest cities: Vancouver, Toronto and Montreal.

China’s main international airport is located 32 km (20 mi) northeast of Beijing’s city center. The airport is owned and operated by the Beijing Capital International Airport Company Limited, a state-controlled company. It is the main hub for Air China, and the flag carrier of the People’s Republic of China, which flies to around 120 destinations (excluding cargo) from Beijing. Hainan Airlines and China Southern Airlines also use the airport as their hub. Beijing Capital has rapidly ascended in rankings of the world’s busiest airports in the past decade. It is Asia’s second busiest airport in terms of passenger traffic since 2010. Spanning over 3,700 acres (1,480 hectares) of land, the airport is well planned, designed and financed. Terminal 3 is the second largest airport terminal in the world.

Unfortunately, Beijing International Airport disappoints on several operational fronts. The gate-to-gate terminal flow for transit passengers is cumbersome and lengthy. In addition to that, the scheduling of incoming and outgoing flights is not optimally coordinated.
All international flights arrive at Terminal 3. When a transit passenger deplanes into the international terminal, they must either proceed to the International Transit Control or the Domestic Transit Control. First, Beijing Airport has signs for “72-hour visa-free transit,” but they point to an immigration desk, which is confusing as one does not expect to go through immigration at this point in their journey. Secondly, there is no pre-arrival guidance given by Air China regarding the transit procedure. In our case, the queue was long and would have taken approximately 40-50 minutes. Luckily, an airport employee was aware of some imminent international departures and escorted us to the front of the line. The immigration officer did not stamp our passports but did make a note in their file and stamped our boarding passes. This step, in my opinion, is purely for airport record-keeping purposes and is quite redundant for international transit passengers.

The next phase was a passenger and baggage security checkpoint. Due to the convergence of many passengers, both transit and non-transit, at the same terminal, a secure area for transit passengers does not exist. This adds to an already lengthy process. Security checks are commonplace in airports where transit passengers have to change terminals or change from domestic to international. However, this is a rare occurrence for passengers transiting through the same international terminal.

Furthermore, our checked-in bags did not make it to the final destination. The main reason for this was the short transit of 1.5 hours at Beijing airport coupled with the plethora of international flights arriving around the same time. Luggage gets lost pretty often in airline travel, but when half the flight is filled with international transit passengers and none of them get their bags, something is wrong at the source. Air China flights arrive at around the same time from San Francisco, Chicago, Los Angeles, Vancouver, Montreal, Washington, and New York. This is followed in quick succession by various outbound flights to Islamabad, Delhi, Mumbai and return legs of the aforementioned North American flights. The turnaround of the east-west traffic takes place between 3pm and 7pm. For most airports, a short four-hour window is sufficient time to get transit baggage sorted out, but Beijing lags behind.

Hub airports in North America and Europe thoroughly plan their layout and passenger flows to cater to transit passengers. Therefore, the entire process is merely reduced to a walk (or intra-airport shuttle) between two gates. Beijing needs to take a page out of the best practices of global hub airports by making their processes more seamless. They need to get rid of unnecessary immigration and security checks for transit passengers within the same terminal. This improvement will complement their already compact flight schedules. Finally, the addition of a centralized cargo unit for intake of arriving baggage and efficient distribution onto departing flights is required.

4.2
Network of international flights operated by Air China from Beijing Airport (Photo provided by: SRS Analyser)

Beijing International Airport has the aesthetic infrastructure and operational potential to attract millions of additional passengers per year. However, in collaboration with Air China, Beijing airport will need to improve passenger experience, scheduling efficiency, and cargo operations in order to serve more international transit passengers.

AirlineGeeks.com Staff

AirlineGeeks.com Staff

AirlineGeeks.com began in February, 2013 as a one-man (er… teenager, rather) show. Since then, we’ve grown to have 20 active team members, and yes, we’re still growing. Some of us are looking to work in the aviation industry as professionals when we grow older. Some of us are still trying to decide what we want to do. That’s okay though, because we’re all here for the same reason: we love the airlines. We’re the youngest team of airline industry journalists out there.
AirlineGeeks.com Staff
  • Hardik Shah

    THanks for posting your experience!

  • Jeff Wingo

    It’s been over a year since this article was written. Have they made improvements to the flow? I am flying IAD-PEK-SGN in April and I have heard horror stories about I-I transits at PEK. Isn’t there a dedicated security line for I-I transit passengers? Do they really go through your carry on and have you take out electronics all over again? Do they (ever) actually weigh your carry on anywhere along the way?

    • porkneckbone

      Hi Jeff, did you ever find an answer to this question? I am traveling SEA-PEK-BUS with a short two hour connection in PKK. I am concerned that I will not have ample time to make the international connection.

      • Jeff Wingo

        We had a 2 hour layover going over. It was just enough. Only 1:15 layover coming back forced us to cut to the front of all lines waving our boarding passes showing our boarding time.
        Tips:
        Save your boarding pass stub from the SEA-PEK flight. They want to see it for you to get on the next flight.
        Put all your electronics in a clear pouch so you can easily pull them out of your carry on. They will confiscate phone chargers that have a li-ion battery if it is too large.
        In our case, Air China did not allow phones to be on at all during the flight. The iPad was ok, though.