China approves $6 billion expansion of growing Urumqi airport hub

Photo: Wikimedia Commons, 罗布泊

Today, China’s state planner approved a 42.1-billion-yuan – or about US$6.1 billion – airport expansion project in Urumqi, the capital of China’s far western Xinjiang province, which will help develop the city into a key air cargo hub in the central government’s sprawling “Belt and Road” initiative.

Construction of the Urumqi Airport (URC) is scheduled to run through 2030, at which point the expanded airport is expected to handle 750,000 tonnes of cargo and 63 million passengers per year, the Chinese National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) said in a statement. In the interim, the NDRC expects throughput at the airport to reach 550,000 tonnes of cargo per year by 2025. The expansion will also include construction of two additional runways.

As China’s express industry – fueled by the country’s growing consumer market – continues to grow, western cities, like Urumqi, are poised to handle the overflow of air cargo. The investment value for the Urumqi airport is over half of what China is spending on Beijing’s new mega-airport project – Daxing International Airport – that costs 80 billion yuan and will serve 72 million passengers a year by 2025.

Although Xinjiang is the largest among China’s provinces and autonomous regions by area, its 1 trillion-yuan economy ranks the smallest. The Belt and Road initiative, which aims to reconstruct a modern, multi-modal Silk Road, is a major catalyst for the former Silk Road outpost’s revival. The NDRC said that the Urumqi Airport expansion is designed to accommodate the rapid growth and development of the city into an international aviation hub. The region has also developed other modes of transport connecting China to western countries, and began a pilot Sino-Euro cargo railway project in September to connect Urumqi to seventeen countries including five Central Asian countries like Kazakhstan, as well as European countries like Germany and Spain, China Daily reported in August.

URC already serves flights to and from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Russia, and the United Arab Emirates. The airport is currently a hub for China Southern Airlines, while SF Airlines, Baku-based Silk Way Airlines, and Silk Way West operate freighter service at the airport utilizing 737-300Fs, Ilyushin IL-76s, and 747-400Fs, respectively. ASL Airlines has also operated several chartered 747-400F flights from URC to Liège Airport (LGG), indicating the hub’s growing importance in connecting China with Europe under the Belt and Road initiative.

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