BEIJING — China inaugurated the largest airport terminal in the world on Friday, a soaring golden-roofed structure evoking a flying dragon, after a race to finish it to cope with the expected deluge of visitors to the Beijing Summer Olympics.
Nearly 2 miles long, the $3.8 billion terminal, which covers 240 acres, is the world's largest covered structure.
"Our Chinese people should be very proud when they pass in and out of this airport," Aviation Minister Li Jiaxiang told a gaggle of journalists.
Employing 50,000 laborers at the peak of construction, the sky-lit terminal was built extraordinarily fast. From the groundbreaking to Friday's inauguration, only three years and nine months elapsed.
"It was incredibly fast. Even by Chinese standards, it was fast," said Rory McGowan, a director of the London-based engineering firm Arup's China operations. Arup is one of several partners on the project.
One of the 10 busiest airports in the world, Beijing's airport handled 53.5 million passengers last year, far above its capacity of 35 million. With the new terminal, the airport can handle 96 million passengers a year and 1,590 flights a day.
By 2012, the airport will become one of the five busiest in the world, after London's Heathrow, Atlanta's Hartsfield-Jackson, Chicago's O'Hare and Tokyo's Haneda, Arup said in a news release.
Terminal 3, as the new terminal is called, is double the size of two other terminals. Even with the addition, however, China's aviation growth will make the airport suffer from overcrowding again within seven years, experts say. Reports say that a second airport may be needed.
British architect Norman Foster, the terminal's designer, noted the building's scale in a statement to the Chinese news media this week: "It's so big that under a certain amount of light you can't see one end of the building from the other."
Six international and domestic airlines — Sichuan Airlines, Shandong Airlines, Qatar Airways, Qantas Airways, El Al Israel Airlines and British Airways — began operating from terminal 3 on Friday, and 20 more will do so by March 26.
"It's a fantastic new terminal. It's spacious. It's comfortable," said Sara Janine Thorley, British Airways' manager for China. "From our check-in counter to the train for the departure terminal is only a five-minute walk."
The terminal has 64 restaurants, 175 escalators, 173 elevators and 437 moving sidewalks — but no bookstore that sells foreign-language periodicals.
The Yeasun bookstore brimmed with Chinese titles but had only two English-language books — "Treasures of China" and "Things Chinese" — and no foreign magazines and newspapers in any language.
Censorship is still imposed in China, a one-party state, and average Chinese never are exposed to the kinds of critical views that are common in the media of democratic countries.
Without a critical press or political opposition, Chinese officials were able to construct the terminal in haste. They moved nine villages, containing 10,000 people, to make way for the terminal and new runway.
McGowan said the terminal was easier to build than the numerous large skyscrapers going up in Beijing.
"Unlike a skyscraper, you can work on two miles of site at one time," he said, noting that at one point 100 cranes were at work. "It was a matter of throwing labor at it for speed."
ON THE WEB
Norman Foster's design firm's Web page on the terminal.