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.
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.