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The newest, biggest, bestest airport: Aren't they all?


Market hall at Frankfurt's Terminal 3, now under construction.

There seems to be a wave of airport building and airport expansion across the globe these days, and all of them boast of the wonderful future and wonderful facilities to come. Promises of passenger amenities and comfort are thick and fast, but only a few are talking seriously about reducing the long hikes from gate to gate or gate to exit.

Quite a few of them claim to be the world’s largest, and none of them are lying. It’s just that some are measuring traffic, some count size, some count terminal space, and some hold the title for a little while and then lose it to the next contender.

Some of the expansion comes in places where there was hardly any business 25 years ago, in other cases, established hubs have simply outgrown their once-huge seeming airports. And in one case, an airport that was supposed to close in 2012 keeps getting busier because its replacement has turned into a disaster.

As I prowl press releases and the media looking for Gumbo travel news pieces, I’ve been following some of the airport expansion plans; in this report we’ll look at a number of them, some already under construction and some just hitting the first stages of construction. Of course, there are many more—and we’re even missing some significant ones by excluding the recently-completed, such as the one Qatar opened just last year.


Surprised to see Beijing on the list? We’re not talking about the huge one opened in time for the Olympics; we’re talking about the new one now under construction because, evidently, having the world’s largest (at the time) airport was not enough. The new one will also hold (at least for a while) the title of world’s largest.


Picture: Zaha Hadid Architects

Terminal 1 at the new Beijing International Airport (also called Daxing) will be more than twice the size of Heathrow’s T5. Six radial hubs surrounding a central courtyard are intended to reduce distances for passengers. Designed by Iraqi-British architect Zada Hadid, it’s planned for expansion up to 72 million passengers a year; after that, additional terminals would be needed. There will be six civilian runways.

Why another airport so soon after Beijing Capital International opened in 2008? That airport was planned to accommodate 50 million passengers a year and is now handling 86 million! That places it second only to Atlanta-Hartsfield. The new airport, about 30 miles from the city center, will have a high-speed rail link. Opening is scheduled for 2018.


Frankfurt, already Germany’s busiest airport and its largest single employer, is bursting at the seams; its 64 million passengers are more than it can comfortably handle. Fortunately for Frankfurt, it has a place ready for its “dream terminal.” The old U.S. Rhein-Main Air Force Base occupied the south side of the airport until 2005. The old buildings have been torn down, and the new terminal will be built there.

Frankfurt’s emphasis will be on green and open; Fraport, the airport authority, plans to operate the terminal with no fossil fuels at all. The main spaces will be open and column-less, with a glass structure to let in natural light, and completely automated check-in and bag drops. There will also be an expanded baggage conveyor system for the whole airport, as well as an automated shuttle train among the terminals. You’ll have to wait a while for this one: Construction has just started and will take seven years.


Philadelphia’s need for expansion becomes clear when you look at FAA reports: Philadelphia’s cramped airport, a busy international and national gateway, accounts for over 8% of all airline delays in the country (4th highest in U.S.) and much of the delay is caused by not enough runway, and crowded gate assignments.

The airport’s had a plan for that for several years, but it was held up the need to negotiate agreements with the towns that surround the airport. Now that that’s cleared, Philadelphia can begin construction. Among the projects will be a 1500-foot runway expansion that will allow more and larger planes, terminal renovations and expansion, a new car-rental facility and an upgraded “people-mover.”  This will happen in phases over the next dozen years, as funds become available.

Mexico City

Just getting ready for take-off, Mexico City’s plan for a new airport was announced by Pres. Enrique Peña Nieto last September. It will completely replace the current Benito Juarez airport whose expansion is blocked by mountains and city.

The new airport will be located northeast of the city, on the dry lakebed of Lake Texcoco, east of the current airport. The $13 billion project will start some operations in 2018 and be completed by 2018. There will be three runways at first, with three more to be added later. The main terminal is a collaboration between Mexican architect Fernando Romero and Foster and Partners.

Fernando Romero, with the terminal design        Photo: Wikimedia / Lizette de la Garza

The terminal is shaped like an X, representing Mexico, and will be lightweight glass and steel, with open spans of up to 170 meters. The light weight is intended for Mexico’s “challenging” soil conditions, but it also allows the huge spans and for pre-fabricated no-scaffolding construction. The designers claim it will be “the world’s most sustainable airport.

Originally, the government plan was for two terminals, but the architects were able to come up with a satisfactory one-terminal plan that eliminated the need for a train. The terminal will take advantage of the city’s high elevation to draw in fresh air in lieu of air-conditioning most of the time. The terminal will also treat and recycle its water supply.


Istanbul’s new airport, now under construction northwest of the city, is a true mega-project. Despite recent expansion at Ataturk airport on the European side and Sabiha Kokcen on the Asian side, there’s just no room for all the increasing traffic, especially since Turkish Airways is one of the world’s fastest growing, and has made Istanbul a hub in competition with the Gulf hubs.

The new airport, on the Black Sea shore, is being built in an area of former open-pit coal mines that have to be filled. When the first phase opens (planned for 2017), it will be able to serve about 90 million passengers with 88 gates and three runways—not to mention a hospital, hotels, convention center, indoor parking for 12,000 cars and more.

By the time all four phases are finished, over a period of years, it will have capacity for 150 million, expandable to 200 million, including parking space for 70,000 cars and 500 airplanes, with 165 gates. At present, airplane parking space at Ataurk is so limited that Turkish Airlines sometimes has to store planes at Sabiha Kokcen for flights that take off from Ataturk.


This is a tale not of two cities, but of two airports. Berlin’s current primary airport is Tegel, built 40 years ago for a city surrounded by another country, and only intended to handle about 6 million passengers a year. It handles 20 million a year now, and that number just keeps rising, as Berlin becomes a more popular destination and also now that downtown Tempelhof shut down in 2009.

Photo: Wikimedia / Hans Knips

In the deal that allowed the construction of the huge new Berlin-Brandenburg airport south of the city, Tempelhof and Tegel were to be shut down. But Berlin-Brandenburg is still not ready, and no one knows when it really will be. So crowded Tegel chugs along…and most Berlin travelers are not upset. It’s not modern, it doesn’t have huge vaulted halls—but it’s also close to the city and it’s easy to get around inside, with no long distances.

At Berlin-Brandenburg, construction started in 2006, with a 2011 opening date. Given the popular idea of German efficiency and engineering, that should have been no problem, right? But here’s what happened.

  • After the initial construction was completed, it was discovered that the fire-protection system was based on smoke being drawn down under the terminals. Apparently the draftsman—not an engineer—who designed it didn’t realize that smoke rises.
  • The cable ducts are not big enough for all the cables that need to pass through them to fit safely
  • Not enough check-in counters or baggage capacity
  • Not enough cooling for all the data systems, which could lead to shut-offs.
  • A major structure had to be rebuilt due to faulty materials
  • Flight paths were planned without checking for environmental impact.

All taken together, the latest official guess, as of last December, is that the airport can open by the end of 2017. If that’s not the longest runway delay in aviation history, I don’t know what is!


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I confess to a preference for developing world airports - small, simple, friendly places, like the towns they get us to when we choose to fly at all.  I realize that I'll likely need to go through one or 2 of these urban behemoths to get to them, and then I'm reminded I'm on the right track again when baggage claim is a few steps into the building and it's a couple of guys who just pushed a cart to an opening in the wall and I can still see the plane. 

It's a nicely researched and well-written piece, PHeymont.  Thanks.


I'm with PortMoresby, though.  Given a choice, I'd rather travel to a smaller airport, and avoid these mega-hubs if at all possible.  I know at some level you agree with this (based on some of your past comments on Heathrow for example).

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

I often find that better facilities and more relaxing just mean they've added a shopping mall and an entertainment area to extract more money between gates.

So I now have further to walk - and drag my carry-on to get to the gate. 

Maybe developers see us customers as "Lambs to the slaughter"

Squeeze us - until our pockets run dry.

I'd be happy if all those moving walkways worked.

The cartoon Jetsons never had a problem with them in the 60s.

Before they were even invented I think !


Vey informative and interesting blog Paul.

Thank you.


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