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2010 Jun 28 Did you Know Beijing Has a Second Airport?

Nanyuan, Beijing's secondary airport

If you’re tired of long walks, crowds, or sold out flights, Capital Airport doesn’t have to be your only option when it comes to flying out of Beijing. The little known Beijing Nanyuan Airport, sitting approximately 20km south of Tiananmen Square, serves as a very viable alternative for domestic flights. And with 113% passenger growth since 2007, the airport is becoming more and more relevant.

We were trying to head out to Baotou, Inner Mongolia this past weekend, but all daytime flights from Beijing Capital were sold out. Fortunately a search on Ctrip gave us an interesting option. It was a flight on China United Airlines (who?) out of Nanyuan (what?). The fact that we had no idea about either made us worried, but the price was good and, well…we really wanted to go to Mongolia.

The airport, however, deserves wider recognition. It was originally built in 1904 as a small runway and was China’s first airport. Later it was the site where the PLA air force was formed. Now, China United Airlines, founded in its present form in 2005, is the only airline that operates out of the airport to 22 destinations throughout the nation.

Getting There

Nanyuan's main passenger terminal

Because of Nanyuan’s location and sparse foreign patronage, public transport to the place or any information about it in English is almost non-existent. All we found online through google maps were multiple transfers on buses coupled with long walks. A cabbie told us the drive would take approximately one hour from Dongsishitiao subway station, and we weren’t prepared to spend that amount of money just to get to the airport.

So we took the subway to the southern-most point we could before jumping in a cab. Which meant line 5 to Songjiazhuang. For two passengers, our trip to the airport totaled RMB 30 (RMB 4 for the subway and RMB 26 for the cab). or RMB 15 each, comparable to taking the Airport Express bus to Beijing Capital Airport.

Additionally, for single travelers who might not mind the inconvenience and want to save a buck, there is a bus from Xidan Civil Aviation Building, 西单民航大厦, (right outside the C exit of the Xidan subway station) for RMB 16, leaving daily at 0610, 0700, 0900, 1100, 1300, 1400, and 1500. Travel time is 1 hour. Coming back to Xidan, a bus attendant informed us there was no set return schedule, but buses are available throughout the day to pick up passengers up to the last arrival.

Check-in, Security and Boarding

Because of the small number of desks, check-in does not open until 1.5 hours before departure. In the meantime, there are some shops inside the building and a cafeteria located across the street from the terminal building. There was only one restaurant inside with various noodle and dumpling options, and a shop selling snacks and drinks. The interior of the cafeteria looked slightly rundown (pictured below), but the food was decent and held us over until we got into Baotou.

The airport's cafeteria across the street

The biggest advantage to using this airport versus Capital is the sheer compactness of the terminal. From check-in to security to the gate area is quite literally five minutes. Once inside, there are various stores, including toy and book shops, as well as a decent view of the tarmac to keep you occupied until departure.

After check-in, just proceed up the escalators, and you're through security in no time

But be warned. There is virtually no pinyin or English signage after passing security, so you might need to know some characters such as 登机口 (gate) in order to navigate the terminal, although it’s pretty self explanatory. You will also need to match up your destinations’ characters with the electronic gate monitor (shown below). There are no English announcements, so keep an eye on the boards if your spoken Chinese is shaky.

Keep an eye out on the electronic gate signs when waiting for your flight

The boarding process felt more like getting on a Chinese train than a plane. Even though everyone was assigned a seat, people still found reason to push and shove to get on the plane first. One of the perks of departing from Nanyuan is that you get to board the old-fashioned way, climbing stairs from the tarmac.

Boarding from the stairs

Is China United Airlines safe?

You’ve probably never heard of China United so naturally safety might be of concern. One taxi driver we asked said that as an airline formerly owned by the PLA, the pilots are likely more skilled than those who fly out of Capital, while another said that the airline probably isn’t as safe as the international airlines.

Regardless of those comments, China United Airlines has had a flawless safety record since its establishment and flies Boeing 737s, the most popular airliner in the world. China’s aviation industry holds a category I certification from the FAA – the highest safety rating. It’s an approval the international body wouldn’t hesitate to revoke if they found anything wrong (e.g. the Philippines). In short, I wouldn’t think twice about flying China United or any other Chinese airline as far as safety is concerned.

Onboard service is about what you would expect on a short domestic sector. Ctrip representatives informed me that meals were available depending on the flight's duration and the flight's departure and arrival times. As our flight departed at 3, we missed the lunch service, but were still offered these tasty bean snacks and a bottle of water.

China United Airlines inflight snacks

China United Airlines serves 22 cities around China: Baotou, Changsha, Changzhi, Changzhou, Chengdu, Chongqing, Foshan, Fuyang, Fuzhou, Guangzhou, Hailar, Hangzhou, Hohhot, Lianyungang, Linyi, Manzhouli, Ordos, Quzhou, Sanya, Shanghai-Hongqiao, Wuxi, and Yulin.

GraniteStudio's picture
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One problem with Nanyuan is the lack of public transport/system for managing the taxis. The Xidan shuttle is pretty good but not always convenient for everyone and the Hei Che/Black Cab drivers are well aware of the lack of competition and can be positively feral. Even "legitimate" cabs prefer to play the "where are you going" game rather than use their meters.

At least this was the situation last fall, interested to know if this has changed.

1on1mandarinbj's picture
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very inside out information, good job.
As a Chinese myself, I don't know much about nanyuan airport 南苑机场。

Erb's picture
Erb
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Posts: 426
Quote:
The biggest advantage to using this airport versus Capital is the sheer compactness of the terminal.

The author of this piece should be a real estate agent. It's not small, crowded, and rundown - it's cozy and charming.

This airport is an alternative, but in reality it lacks the modern appeal of the capital airport. The shops he speaks of are the equivalent of something you might find at the wrong end of a great wall tour and, quite frankly, I would take my starbucks and burger king over that rundown restaurant (complete with foreigner tax, had to haggle with the owner over paying 10 rmb for the three rmb big bottles of Tsingtao, eventually paid three rmb)

Perhaps I am being a bit spoiled, but I wasn't a big fan of using that airport.

On the plus - it can be cheaper, if only slightly, than capital.

Overall, a good review Wink

admin's picture
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Posts: 12611
Erb wrote:
This airport is an alternative, but in reality it lacks the modern appeal of the capital airport. The shops he speaks of are the equivalent of something you might find at the wrong end of a great wall tour and, quite frankly, I would take my starbucks and burger king over that rundown restaurant (complete with foreigner tax, had to haggle with the owner over paying 10 rmb for the three rmb big bottles of Tsingtao, eventually paid three rmb)

true that, but certainly the author is not trying to argue that the Nanyuan Airport is better in all respects than the new gleaming T3.

He does have a great point about the compactness of the terminal.

Sure it's great to have what China claims is the largest airport terminal in the world in our back yard with T3, but I am rather fucking pissed off every time I enter with bags and 3-year-old daughter in tow, and proceed to ...

-- Walk 200 meters to the check-in counter
-- Walk 200 meters to the first security checkpoint
-- Walk 200 meters to the internal airport subway station
-- Take the internal subway to the farthest stop of the farthest terminal
-- Walk 600 meters to what is inevitably the very last gate in a mostly empty airport
-- and then have the airline board us onto a fucking shuttle bus so that I can be taken to a plane that's parked a kilometer away from the terminal ...

N405WN's picture
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Erb wrote:
The author of this piece should be a real estate agent. It's not small, crowded, and rundown - it's cozy and charming.

Not sure how saying the terminal is compact is exaggeration at all.

Erb wrote:
I would take my starbucks and burger king over that rundown restaurant (complete with foreigner tax, had to haggle with the owner over paying 10 rmb for the three rmb big bottles of Tsingtao, eventually paid three rmb)

Complaining about haggling down a 10RMB beer, yet you demand an airport Starbucks...interesting.

Herbz's picture
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Joined: Jan 21, 2005
Posts: 9256

Beijing has 5 airports but only 2 handle commercial passenger flights.

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