Beijing's Capital Airport has rapidly ascended the rankings of the world's busiest airports, and currently comes in second. Over 500'000 aircraft movements per year and some well accessible photo spots make for an easy glimpse into Chinese and Asian aviation.

Please Note: This guide is compiled only from the experiences of a single two-day visit in fall 2012. I am by no means an expert on spotting at Beijing. The only motivation for providing this guide was that I couldn't find any other when I was researching information for my own trip. So if you do have additional information or own experiences, please share them and help to make this guide better! Use the feedback function at the bottom or contact me directly!

Is Planespotting allowed in China? According to local planespotters, it is not forbidden. Of course, you can always have bad luck with police, just like at any other airport in the world. On the upside, spotting in Beijing has become quite popular and is performed on a daily basis, both by locals and international visitors. This means that police has gotten used to the sight of planespotters and has seen that we pose no threat. So far, I haven't heard of any incidents between spotters and the police. Police is known to send illegally parked drivers away quite fast (see "Safety and Security" plus Spots 1A/2A below), yet have never bothered about spotters during their interventions. This suggests that spotting is officially tolerated at Beijing's airport.

 

Runway Usage

General

This guide only deals with the northerly configuration (winds from the north), which is the predominant one during most months. And it's definitely the easier one for planespotting purposes, too.

Here's a graphic showing the fraction of time spent with various wind directions over the course of the year. As can be seen, northerly or northwesterly winds dominate especially in the time between autumn and early spring. More Beijing average weather data can be found over at weatherspark.com.

Source: Weatherspark.com

 

Runway and Terminal Usage

The three terminals are used as follows:

Terminal 1 (Domestic Chinese airlines):

  • Hainan Airlines Group
  • Capital Airlines, Grand China Air, Tianjin Airlines
  • Spring Airlines (LCC)

Terminal 2 (Skyteam):

  • China Eastern Airlines Group (including Shanghai Airlines)
  • China Southern Airlines Group (including Chongqing Airlines)
  • Xiamen Airlines
  • Other Skyteam carriers: Air France, Alitalia, Delta, KLM, Korean Air, Malaysia, Vietnam, etc.
  • "Rare" Airlines: Air Astana, Iran Air, PIA, TAAG, Turkmenistan, Philippine, Mega Maldives, etc.
  • Air Koryo

Terminal 3 (Star Alliance and OneWorld)

  • Air China Group (including Shandong Airlines and Dalian Airlines)
  • Shenzen Airlines
  • Star Alliance: ANA, Air Canada, Asiana, LH Group, Singapore, SAA, SAS, United, etc.
  • OneWold carriers: American, BA, Cathay/Dragonair, Finnair, JAL
  • Non alliance carriers: Emirates, Qatar, Etihad, El Al, MIAT
  • Some chinese carriers: Sichuan, Juneyao, Air Macau

 

The splitting of traffic between the three parallel runways doesn't seem to follow any strict system. Generally, airlines occupying terminals 1 and 2 are rather found using the western and the center runway, while airlines occupying terminal 3 use the center and the eastern runway. What's more, to me it made the impression that the outer two runways are the ones primarily used for arrivals, while the center one works as an overflow landing runway during the busy peak times. On the other hand, the center runway seems to be the busiest departure runway, getting flights from both sides of the airport. The outer two runways are very often used for departures, too, though.

The China Southern A380s always seem to operate to and from the center runway. The Emirates and Lufthansa A380 usually use the eastern runway.

Generally I had the impression that the western and center runway tend to yield the more special and exotic arriving traffic (including most cargo arrivals), while traffic onto the eastern runway is dominated by hundreds of Air China B737 and other only too well known Star Alliance carriers.

 

 

Safety and Security

The area immediately around terminal 3 (the only one I visited) made a very clean, new, inviting and friendly impression. There are usually local airport workers walking out and about, but they don't seem to care too much about planespotters.

During our two days of spotting in fall 2012, we were also tolerated by the police, even when standing on the side of the road bridge leading up to Terminal 3's departure level for several hours (no sidewalk, see picture from Spot 1A). The police was frequently driving by, and even stopped to fine several Chinese drivers who parked their cars next to us to watch the airplanes. This was taking place a mere 20 meters from us, yet no policemen ever approached us or interacted with us in any way.

This leads me to believe that planespotting is tolerated by authorities as long as you don't interfere with the road traffic. Also, as local spotters point out, planespotting is not prohibited in China. Of course, this is always subject to change, possibly during high alert times, for example during the Communist Party's National Congress. Always be careful not to raise too much suspicion, and try not to leave a bad impression (especially at Spots 1A and 2A) so the spotters coming after you will find the same friendly conditions.

 

 

Spotting Points

 

 

Terminal 3 Area Spots

Spots just outside of or within walking distance from the newly built Terminal 3 easily allow you to cover the center and the eastern runway (36R and 01) all day long.

 

 

Spot 1A/1B: Approach/Lineup Rwy 36R from outside Terminal 3

There are two easily accessable points from which arrivals onto Rwy36R and even line-ups can be photographed.

Spot 1A is located on the car ramp leading up to the departure level of terminal 3 (or more precisely, down from it again). The road is wide enough that you can walk away from the terminal along the railing to where you have an open view of arrivals. If you walk a bit further away from the terminal, you can even see aircraft lining up. Due to the long distance involved in this, heat haze can be a problem - especially if aircraft standing at a nearby gate have their APU running.

While during a whole day of spotting standing on this road bridge we didn't have *any* problems with the police (even though they drove by at 5 minute intervals on their way to/from the terminal), it remains a high risk area. Stand there at your own risk. If you feel like you're raising too much suspicion, switch to spot 1B instead and content yourself with only approach shots.  
*Confirmed by a visitor using spots 1A/2A in November 2013: Still no problems with police. Thank you for the update, Frank!*

Spot 1B is located in a beautiful park with a lake, a 10 minute walk from the terminal (ground level), next to the Langham Place Hotel. Here, standard approach shots can be taken.

Getting there Take the metro or a taxi to terminal 3. Exit at the departure level for spot 1A (5 minute walk) or at ground level for spot 1B (10-15 minute walk).
Facilities Lots of different restaurants available inside the terminal.
Focal Length 1A: 100-200mm for approach shots, 300-400mm for aircraft at the holding bays.
1B: 70-150mm for approaching aircraft.
Views Arrivals onto Rwy36R (center runway), restricted views of departures. Possibly low climbouts out of Rwy18L (not tested).
Best Time First half of the day.
Attention You're standing on the side of a busy road (no sidewalk); heat haze for ground shots.

Hanging out at spot 1A

Rwy36R arrival from 1A (100mm)

Traffic at the holding bays from 1A (130mm)

1A also allows views of Rwy01 arrivals (250mm)

Beautiful spot 1B

Rwy36R arrival from spot 1B (150mm)



Spot 1C: Rwy 36R Afternoon Spot

A small hill inside the park located south of Rwy 36R allows views of planes lining up on this runway and approaching it.

A spotter visiting Spot 1C in March 2014 reported no problems with authorities despite several people taking pictures there. 

Getting there Exit Terminal 3 at ground level, and walk as shown on the map above through the park. 1.5km/20-25 minutes.
Facilities Lots of different restaurants available inside the terminal.
Focal Length Under 100mm for approach shots, 300mm for line-ups.
Views Line-ups onto Rwy 36R from the west (Terminal 2) and east (Terminal 3), landings on Rwy 36R
Best Time Second half of the day
Attention Due to the long shooting distance involved in ground shots, heat haze can become a problem

Lined up on 36R (300mm)

Line-up from the east (300mm)

Line-up from the west (300mm)

Taxiing to 36R from the west (300mm)

Landing on 36R (190mm)



Spot 2A/2B: Approach/Lineup Rwy 01 from outside Terminal 3

There are two easily accessable points from which arrivals onto Rwy01 and even line-ups can be photographed.

Spot 2A is located on the car ramp leading up to the departure level of terminal 3. The road is wide enough that you can walk away from the terminal along the railing to where you have an open view of arrivals. If you walk a bit further away from the terminal, you can even see aircraft lining up. Due to the long distance involved in this, heat haze can be a problem - especially if aircraft standing at a nearby gate have their APU running.

While during a whole day of spotting standing on this road bridge we didn't have *any* problems with the police (even though they drove by at 5 minute intervals on their way to/from the terminal), it remains a high risk area. Stand there at your own risk. If you feel like you're raising too much suspicion, switch to spot 2B instead and content yourself with only approach shots.
**Confirmed by a visitor using spots 1A/2A in November 2013: Still no problems with police. Thank you for the update, Frank!**

Spot 2B is located at a large parking lot mainly used for busses, a 10 minute walk from the terminal (ground level). Here, standard approach shots can be taken. You can either stand in the shade of the flyover road leading up to the terminal or inside the parking lot.

A spotter visiting Spot 2B in March 2014 reported no problems with authorities despite several people taking pictures there. 

Getting there Take the metro or a taxi to terminal 3. Exit at the departure level for spot 2A (5 minute walk) or at ground level for spot 2B (10 minute walk).
Facilities Lots of different restaurants available inside the terminal.
Focal Length 2A: 100-200mm for approach shots, 250-400mm for aircraft at the holding bays.
2B: 100-200mm for approaching aircraft.
Views Arrivals onto Rwy01 (eastern runway, mostly Star Alliance), restricted views of departures. Possibly low climbouts out of Rwy19 (not tested).
Best Time Second half of the day.
Attention You're standing on the side of a busy road (no sidewalk); heat haze for ground shots.

Arrival onto Rwy01 from Spot 2A (120mm)

Aircraft holding at Rwy01 from 2A, heat haze (200mm)

Taxiing to Rwy01 from Spot 2A (275mm)

2A also allows views of 36R arrivals, 36L behind (330mm)

Rwy01 arrival from Spot 2B (100mm)



Spot 2C: Approach Rwy 01 Morning Side

Walking eastwards along the main road running behind Rwy 01 (Siwei Road), you can position yourself for approach shots during the first half of the day.

Getting there Take the metro or a taxi to terminal 3. Exit at ground level and walk as pictured in the map above (2km/25-30min).
Facilities Lots of different restaurants available inside the terminal.
Focal Length 100-200mm for approaching aircraft
Views Arrivals onto Rwy 01
Best Time First half of the day.
Attention  

Arrival onto Rwy 01 (100mm)

Arrival onto Rwy 01 (100mm)
 



Spot 3: Approach Rwy36L from the CITIC Hotel's rooms (formerly SinoSwiss)

At this good 3.5 star hotel a 10 minute drive from all terminals, the high floor rooms facing west offer a pretty decent view of Rwy36L arrivals. Unfortunately I failed to write down my room number, but over at plane-spotting-hotels.com (a good site to bookmark anyway) room #942 is reported to have good views. At least parts of the room's window can be slid open to allow unobstructed photography.

The photo angle is a *bit* steep, but manageable. Probably photos can also be had from the hotel grounds or the surroundings, however there are quite a few high trees that may block the view (not tried).

Getting there Catch the free hotel shuttle operating from Terminals 2 and 3 (stops located inside the parking garages and extremely hard to find!).
Facilities Food available at the hotel.
Focal Length 120-300mm for approach shots
Views Arrivals onto Rwy36L (western runway)
Best Time First half of the day.
Attention The receptionists' english is somewhat limited; explaining your room preferences and why you need it may take several attempts.

Cargo arrivals to 36L...

...from room at the CITIC hotel (285mm)

Passenger arrival to Rwy36L (135mm)
 

 

Spot 4: Apron/Taxiway Views from Terminal 2 airside

If you're flying from Terminal 2, check in early and proceed through security fast. Once you're airside, the windows offer views of the (sometimes interesting) aircraft parked at the gates. The southeastern "hammer head" is in a pretty good strategic position next to the main taxiway, where all planes heading from T1 and T2 to Rwy36R for takeoff must pass by.

Getting there Take the metro or a taxi to terminal 2 and proceed through security.
Facilities Lots of different restaurants available inside the terminal, mostly airside.
Focal Length 20-200mm, depending on aircraft's position
Views Aircraft at T2 gates, aircraft taxiing by T2 on the way to Rwy36R, Rwy18L/36R operations
Best Time Second half of the day (shots below were all taken in the morning though)
Attention The glass is relatively clean and appears untinted; however, it is prone to cause distortions especially in higher focal ranges

Interesting aircraft abound at the T2 gates (40mm)

Aircraft heading to/from (southern) T2 gate (65mm)

T1 traffic taxiing to Rwy36R (125mm)

View of CZ's preferred A380 stands south of T2 (85mm)

Views of Rwy36R departures are possible (65mm)

 

 

Places to stay

Of course there are several hotels around Beijing Airport; pointed out below are three that I deem most useful for planespotting purposes. You find them marked green on the map above.

 

CITIC Hotel Beijing Airport (formerly SinoSwiss): 3.5 Stars

This hotel (doubling as "Spot 3" above) is located a bit east of the approach path to Rwy36L and offers rooms with views of arriving aircraft (see pictures). This makes it a prime spot to have this runway covered (at least in the first half of the day) without having to venture into any unknown territory. The rooms were fairly large and clean and the windows could be opened. Free half hourly shuttle bus to both terminal complexes (2 and 3). Also check the information about it at plane-spotting-hotels.com . My personal recommendation especially due to the location at the "remote" runway!

Hotel WebsiteTripadvisor-Site

 

Langham Place Beijing Airport: 4.5 Stars

© plane-spotting-hotels.com

This luxurious hotel is located a short 15 minute walk south of Terminal 3, occupying the western of the two L-shaped buildings there, next to a lovely lake. This gives it the perfect location to watch traffic on the central runway, and most possibly also the eastern runway. However, as of fall 2012, the windows cannot be opened enough for photography and the double glass doesn't allow high quality photography. Either photograph through the glass, or head outside to spot 1B which is only a stone's throw from the hotel. Also check the information about it at plane-spotting-hotels.com .

Hotel WebsiteTripadvisor-Site

 

Hilton Beijing Airport: 5 Stars

I haven't personally visited this hotel nor could I find any information regarding planespotting from the rooms. It is similarly shaped and positioned as the Langham, and located just east of it. This makes it highly likely that rooms facing east should have decent views of traffic arriving to Rwy01, and maybe from rooms facing west traffic approaching 36R can be seen. In any case, it gives you quick access to Terminal 3 and spots 1 and 2. Any feedback welcome!

Hotel WebsiteTripadvisor-Site

 

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