Beijing's New Airport Terminal Welcomes the World

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It's cliché to say that big airports are cities in themselves, but with Beijing airport's two-month-old terminal 3, it's also not far from the truth.

Terminal 3 -- actually a main building and two close-by satellite structures -- is nearly two miles long, covers 14 million square feet, houses 64 restaurants and 90 retail shops, and cost $3.8 billion to construct. It is twice the size of the Pentagon, and could hold all the terminals of London Heathrow Airport (including Heathrow's beautiful but trouble-plagued new terminal 5) put together.

In contrast with Heathrow, Beijing's new terminal opened without drama. The building had a soft opening on Feb. 29, adding more carriers at the end of March. Today, three months before the crush of visitors expected for the Summer Olympics, Beijing airport seems to be ready, structurally and psychologically.

And while China means to dazzle with this huge new terminal, it also means to charm.

Arriving on a Dragonair flight from Hong Kong, I lined up at Chinese Customs and Immigration, expecting cursory, bureaucratic treatment. But this was not to be. The immigration officer didn't offer a hug, but he smiled slightly, acted promptly and was consistently courteous.

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On the front of the immigration desks are drawings of four faces whose expressions range from a frown to a grin. Next to each face is a button.

"You are welcome to comment on how I am doing my job,'' reads the legend, printed in Chinese and English, beneath the row of buttons and faces.

Whether you're arriving or departing at terminal 3, the experience is likely to be pleasant, well-organized and, surprisingly, almost relaxing.

For one thing, the terminal is well-staffed and its sheer size allows some 300 airport check-in desks to fit into the space, so lines are relatively short. High overhead, the red, sloping roof is illuminated with a skylight; floor to ceiling windows admit calming natural light. The architect, Britain's Norman Foster, also designed Hong Kong's superb Check Lap Kok airport, which displays some of the same features in miniature; here, Foster has allowed the principles of space and light to play out to the maximum.

Arriving passengers take a light-rail shuttle called the Passenger Express from T3C -- one of the two satellite buildings -- through T3B, which is still under construction, to TC1, the main building; the ride takes three minutes.

On the way to the customs and immigration queue, you pass classical Chinese artworks such as calligraphy, sculpture and landscape painting in display cases. State-of-the-art the terminal may be, but it also conveys a sense of place and feeling for the past.

Whether you are arriving or departing, be prepared to build in some time, thanks to the yawning expanse of the terminal. But at least it's a journey on polished marble floors, surrounded by upscale shops.

Travelers can move between central Beijing and the new terminal on a tree-lined airport expressway, which takes anywhere from 30 to 75 minutes, depending on traffic. Beijing taxis are cheap, even on the airport run; expect to pay $10-$15, sans tip, which is not expected in China. A dedicated Airport Express train, arriving and departing from terminal 3's level 2, will soon link the airport and the central city with a 15-minute ride. It is supposed to be operational by early July, in time to handle visitors to the Olympics, which run from Aug. 8 through Aug. 24.

Lots of space, improved organization, sleek transit links and staff courtesy upgrades are making it much easier to use Beijing airport, where poor service in crowded, dimly lit terminals 1 and 2 was until recently the norm. Also useful are terminal 3's numerous and well-placed signs, written in Chinese and English, and the recorded announcements on the rail shuttle within the terminal, also in Chinese and English. "Perfect Trip. Happy Departures.'' reads one sign.

If you are staying at a high-end hotel, such as Shangri-la Hotels and Resorts' China World Hotel or Shangri-la Beijing, you may also get the added benefit of an airport butler, who whisks hotel guests to airline check-in, through security and on to the departure gate or lounge. The service costs 550 RMB, about $70. I made it from city hotel to departure gate, in light, early-morning traffic, in 58 minutes.

If you don't have access to a passenger lounge -- most are clustered on level 3 -- or just want to look around, as I did, there are a number of options for working, eating or keeping yourself entertained.

For eating, there are, as mentioned, 64 restaurants, concentrated on level 3. Most departure gates are also within walking range of casual café/bars, which set out tables and chairs near panoramic airport windows braced inside with burnt-orange supports resembling bamboo sticks and outside with tapered red metal "candlesticks'.

On a mezzanine level, accessible by escalator, is an attractive business center; roofless and bordered by glass walls, it, too, exudes the transparency that Foster brought to the gleaming new building. The business center offers about 10 PCs, printers and work stations.

Travelers in search of retail therapy are in luck. Shiseido, Longines, Swatch and Bulgari are among many international brands with their own shops, staffed by smiling local workers garbed in the traditional dress of China's national minorities.

It's all in keeping with another of those cheerleading airport signs: "Welcome the Olympics, Improve Manners and F

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