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A Tale of Two Terminals

BEIJING – Ever since it opened recently, Terminal 5 of London’s Heathrow Airport has been plagued with failures. On the other side of the globe, Terminal 3 in Beijing, which opened for full operations just one day before Terminal 5, has been operating almost without a glitch. The media, unsurprisingly, have feasted upon the failures of T5 in London, while neglecting the successes of T3 in Beijing.

By all measures, Beijing’s T3 surpasses London’s T5. Whereas T5 can handle only 12,000 bags an hour (when it handles them at all) and 30 million passengers per year, T3 can handle 20,000 bags an hour and 50 million passengers. While T5 will mostly service British Airways, T3 will service Air China and two dozen other airlines. 

At one million square meters, T3 in Beijing is the largest terminal in the world, but was much less costly to build than T5 in London. Using the most recent exchange rates, T3 cost only $3.86 billion compared with $8.6 billion for London’s T5. Furthermore, T3 took less than four years to complete, whereas T5 took almost 20 years.

But to call T3 a success for socialism and T5 a failure of capitalism would be to miss a fundamental point. After all, if China’s political system can still be called socialism, it is at best “socialism with Chinese characteristics,” which embodies an increasing amount of market-oriented economic activity and greater economic openness and transparency.