While the West struggles with expanding its existing aviation infrastructure, the construction of new airports is proceeding at breakneck speed across the developing world. Future Airport examines whether the building work marks a sea change in how and where we fly, or if it’s just a flash in the pan.

On 11 June, Beijing Capital International Airport announced that it would be renovating one of its runways. This particular strip of asphalt had, after all, not seen any systematic repairs since 1996. The catch was that since the runway would be out of service for some time, a number of flights would have to be diverted or cancelled – around 200 of them.

These numbers make the concerns over the recommendation for a third runway at London Heathrow seem pedestrian – until you consider that construction work for new airports is under way across the developing world. With analysts at Airbus and Boeing predicting that air traffic will double within the next 15 years, the race is now on among emerging markets to transform their portfolio of national airports into global hubs.

Most of this growth can be seen in China, with 30 additional inland airports planned and another 60 undergoing expansion or comprehensive repair work. As Chinese tourists venture in greater numbers on trips at home and abroad, pressure has grown on the country’s 200 airports to service an increasing demand among its travellers to be able to conveniently reach the destination of their choice. Most investment in airports is therefore designed to curb the pressures of overcapacity afflicting many of China’s existing hubs. After years of neglect and comparative isolation from the rest of the world, inland hubs like Chongqing and Mangshi are finally defining themselves as termini for the world’s great flight paths.

Beyond China, emerging markets are now looking toward aviation as a diversifying influence in economies previously defined by stagnant growth. To that end, hubs with state-of-the-art facilities anticipating annual capacity of hundreds of millions as the new normal are currently being built in Istanbul, Cairo and Delhi. Part economic investment and part exercise in national prestige, these airports predicate a generational shift of air traffic eastwards from its previous centre in Europe and North America.

The UAE’s ‘World Central Airport’ exemplifies this attitude. With capacity that exceeds that of London’s five constellation airports combined, Abu Dhabi is gambling that its natural advantage in being located between Asia and Europe will allow the economy to diversify from the benefits of becoming a global destination as well as a thoroughfare. Amid stiff aviation competition from neighbours like Qatar and Bahrain, it appears a bold investment – a boldness that, for the moment, Western governments seemingly lack.