Beijing Capital Intl. Airport Spotting Guide

Beijing Capital International Airport is currently the second busiest airport in the world (2013 statistics) and the busiest in Asia. It handled 83.7 million passengers in 2013 and traffic is split on three runways, of which the last was only recently opened in 2007. But even though even arrivals are often split on all three runways, you will catch lots of movements, due to the extremely high traffic. As the airport still experienced large growth over the last years it was decided that a new airport will be constructed in Beijing Daxing, which is currently scheduled to open in 2018, so it is advised to make a visit to PEK before then.

Capital Airport is the main gateway to the Chinese capital city and a major hub for the four major Chinese airlines: Air China, China Southern, China Eastern and Hainan. There are also plenty of other Chinese airlines serving the airport like Capital, Chongqing, Juneyao, Shandong, Shanghai, Shenzhen, Sichuan or Xiamen Airlines. And of course you will see lots of international traffic from all over the world, with most major carriers flying at least once a day to PEK.

Cargo operations are not as strong as passenger traffic, but you can see a few local carriers like Donghai, SF Airlines, Yangtze River Express and some China Postal which mostly operate flights in the morning. Use the official airport website for scheduled and estimated times on these flights.

There is one major drawback to spotting in Beijing. Even though the weather is generally pretty good and the area enjoys a great deal of sunshine over the year, the city (and the airport as well) frequently suffers from extreme air pollution (smog), which makes spotting terribly difficult, as the sun can be blocked out and/or you will often only have a gray or white background in your images.

Most locations around the airport are on the south side, so when landings from the south are in progress. This is the best direction for spotting and this guide primarily deals with these ops. In general Beijing is a very spotter friendly airport and you need not worry about getting into trouble with police.

Written by Jan Seba (visited February 2015). Thanks to JRC – Bourneavia Photography for the sample pics of Spot 6.

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Airline Variety
Photo Locations
Weather
Airport Information Runways 18L/36R 18R/36L  01/19
3.810 m (12.500 ft) 3.445 m (11.302 ft)  3.810 m (12.500 ft)
Terminals Terminal 1 Terminal 2 Terminal 3
Domestic Chinese carriers, primarily Hainan, also Capital, Spring or Tianjin, located on the western side of the airport. SkyTeam, primarily China Eastern and China Southern, also most of the “rare” airlines like Iran Air, Air Koryo, etc. Star Alliance and OneWorld, primarily Air China, Shandong. Also some other carriers like Emirates or Etihad.
Spotting Information Ladder Not required
Car Not required, always use a taxi, but make sure the driver uses the taximeter. Most short drives around the airport are less than 2 Euros. It is advisable to prepare some maps at home to show to the taxi driver. Make sure the maps have the written name (in Chinese!) of the location (or streets) where you want to go. Do not expect taxi drivers to speak English. Though some of them know one or two words it will never be enough so that you can explain where you want to go.
Restrooms The terminal is close to a few locations and offers restrooms. Otherwise there is nothing at most of the locations.
Drinks/Food Take drinks and snacks with you, but you can buy things in the terminal if you are close.
Hotels There are a few hotels in the area around the airport, but some of them are in an industrial area, where you will hardly find supermarkets and restaurants. The area to the southeast (where the CITIC is located) has some good opportunities.
Season Season is a difficult topic in PEK. As the runways are in a North-South direction it is preferable to have longer days, so winter is not the best time to visit. As mentioned before you are best served with winds from the north, which are a bit rarer in summer. Furthermore the summertime from June to August records the highest amount of precipitation. That leaves spring and autumn as good periods to visit, so around March to May and from September to October. But the risk for smog seems higher in autumn, so all in all I would recommend spring.
Runway Usage  In general, all runways are used for arrivals and departures, though some carriers have preferences due to the location of their terminal, those are noted accordingly. Unfortunately with some carriers there is simply no preferred runway. For example Air Koryo is known to both land on 36R and 01, and you will need luck here. If you are after a special movements, which is only once or a few times a week, look up aviation photos online of this specific movements in PEK, sometimes the uploader wrote a comment, which RWY was used and you can get a feeling, where it will most likely land. Remember all the comments from below are based on impressions and they can be false or the system in PEK might have change over the time.
18L/36R Main departure runway, which is also used for landings in peak periods.  In the morning it is very busy with departures and handles only a handful of arrivals and gets busier with arrivals starting noon. China Southern A380 always lands here.
18R/36L Preferred runway for China Eastern, China Southern, Hainan and most SkyTeam carriers. Also often used for international arrivals, regardless of terminal location, so you can see for example United or Turkish Airlines here. This is also the main cargo runway. Usually handles more arrivals than departures.
01/19 Preferred runway for Air China, Shandong, Shenzhen and often Star Alliance carriers, but also sees lots of arrivals from China Southern. Emirates A380 also tends to land here. Seems to handle more arrivals than departures.

Spot #1 – Field – 01 Arrivals Morning
WHERE This location is relatively easy to find, the main problem might be to make your taxi driver understand. Basically you want to go to the end of the Erwei Road there bear left, to a small side street until you are driving towards a gate of some small company. The field is to your right now.
WHAT You can shoot the arrivals on RWY 01 here and you can vary your location according to your preferences for angle and distance.
TIME Light conditions are good from sunrise until 11 AM.
MISCELLANEOUS There is nothing here.
FOCAL LENGTH 110mm for a B772 and 190mm for an A320.


Spot #2 – Parking Lot – 01 Arrivals Evening
WHERE Even though it’s possible to drive directly to this location, it is probably easier to let the taxi driver drop you off at the Terminal. From there descend (inside the terminal) to ground level and walk a small pathway towards the parking lot. Stay within the grass area and do not shoot from the parking lot itself, as people have been sent away from there.

Update: Possibly the grass area is now also off limits in case you are asked to move from here just go to the walkway or closer to the RWY threshold.

WHAT You can shoot the arrivals on RWY 01. From the airport feeder ramp you could theoretically also shoot lineups, but they are very far away and pictures will be prone to heat haze. Furthermore you will have trouble shooting the aircraft without obstructions in your picture.
TIME Light conditions are good from 2:30 PM until sunset.
MISCELLANEOUS There are rubbish bins at the location and everything else is in the terminal.
FOCAL LENGTH 100mm for a B772 and 175mm for an A320.


Spot #3 – Pond – 36R Arrivals Morning
WHERE Even though it’s possible to drive directly to this location, it is probably easier to let the taxi driver drop you off at Terminal 3. From there descend (inside the terminal) to ground level and walk a couple of small pathways to the pond. Once you’re there just shoot over the water and you won’t have any obstructions.
WHAT From here you can shoot the arrivals on RWY 36, but as mentioned under Runway Usage, this runway is not very busy in the morning, but if you are hoping for a special highlight, this might be the place to be.
TIME Light conditions are good from sunrise until 11 AM.
MISCELLANEOUS Shops and restrooms are in the terminal.
FOCAL LENGTH Not tested, but should be less than 200mm for an A320.

 

Spot #4 – Park Hill – 36R Arrivals Evening, Lineups
WHERE In the small park south of the airport there is a hill, which offers a nice elevated location for you. The best way the get here is most likely by trying to show the taxi driver the crossing between Erwei and Yijing Rd. If that fails, just let him drive you to the Terminal and walk from there to the location, it’s not that far.
WHAT Good for shooting RWY 36R arrivals in the evening, when the runway gets more traffic. But the airplanes are relatively high here, so the angle is worse compared to all the other locations. As a small bonus this is probably the best location to take lineup shots on 36R, but you will also face heat haze around noon for that.
TIME Light conditions are good from 2:30 PM until sunset for arrivals and lineups can be good all day (except early morning) depending on how you like to shoot them.
MISCELLANEOUS There are benches and rubbish bins in the park.
FOCAL LENGTH Arrivals not tested, but should be around 100mm for an A320. Lineups are ~300mm for an A332.

Spot #5 – Road Intersection – 36L Arrivals Morning
WHERE You will find this location at a large intersection of the Tianbei Rd. Most taxi drivers will know this road, so it will be relatively easy to get here. You just have to tell them to stop once you are close to the spot. The best place to shoot is a small grass strip east of the intersection and behind the traffic lights, where you do not disturb anyone and the traffic and lamp posts don’t disturb you.
WHAT Good location for shooting 36L in the morning, where you can catch most of the cargo arrivals.
TIME Light conditions are good from sunrise until 11 AM.
MISCELLANEOUS It can happen that the security guard from the company next door approaches you and wants to know what you are doing, but they should be ok with you after they know that you are shooting pictures of the airplanes. Other than that, there is nothing useful at this location.
FOCAL LENGTH 130mm for a B744 and 240mm for an A320.


Spot #6 – Dike / Embankment – 18R Arrivals & Departures Evening
WHERE Probably the hardest location to get to (and from), because there is no larger street nearby and you might have trouble finding a taxi driver who knows where you want to go. Just try your best with the maps you prepared. You can shoot the aircraft from the other side of the street (closer to the runway), where you have a small embankment as an elevation. There are some spots where you can shoot over the fence from here.
WHAT Great location for 18R Arrivals and Departures. You can shoot the lineups as well, though you might have a bit of fence in your pictures for the larger heavies.
TIME Light conditions are good from 2:30 PM until sunset.
MISCELLANEOUS It will be hard to find a taxi back to your hotel from this location. You will probably have to walk a few kilometers to a main road.
FOCAL LENGTH Below 70mm for most Heavies and below 100mm for a B738.

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20 thoughts on “Beijing Capital Intl. Airport Spotting Guide

  1. Hon Kit

    Regarding spot 2, i followed your advised and stay at grass area. However the car park attendant asked me to moved back to the walk path instead as the grass area is private property. I then walked towards the runway and stayed near the fence. No problem there.

  2. Pingback: Beijing Capital Planespotting Timetables – Blog | SpotterLead.net

  3. Dennis

    Does anyone know if the Hilton Beijing Capital Airport has views of any runway or the tarmac? Company has made one night reservation there…

    1. Jan Post author

      Not sure Dennis, but I don’t believe so. But we would appreciate an info from you after your stay.
      What I can imagine that you may be able to shoot arrivals for the 01 RWY in the evening with an East-facing room.

      Cheers
      Jan

    1. Jan Post author

      Hi Joao,

      check out our extensive article under “Season”. Summer is probably not the best time for PEK, but nevertheless it will be possible and if you are lucky and have a few days with great weather it will be very rewarding!

      Best regards
      Jan

  4. Dominique Roulin

    Hello,

    I was in Beijing at the beginning of this month.
    Beijing is a nice place to go…Apart in Winter, heavy smog with zero visibility possible during some periods.
    Fortunately, the weather was beautiful. Blue sky all the day during 4 days….
    I would like give you an update to the position Nr5 and 2.

    Of my point of view, I have found better places to take the airplanes coming on the runway 36L.

    First at all, the best hotel (cheap and good quality) is the DAYS HOTEL BEIJING NEW EXHIBITION CENTER. The way to the hotel with the taxi from T3 costs approximately 20 RMB. The only problem is that the airplanes pass over the hotel. It could disturb during the night, but not so dramatic.

    To spot in the morning, a walk of 10 minutes from the hotel brings you at the place, From the hotel, turn left and walk until the 1st traffic light (150m). Then turn left and follow this road to the next crossroads (100 meters). In front of you is the Haoya Hotel. Turn left and 20 meters aways turn right. On the left is the Bulding of Poste of China and on the right is the entry of the Haoya Hotel and 7Days Hotel. This spot point is in front of the Haoya entry. The raod is quieter than spot 5.

    In the afternoon, go back to hotel. Past the front door and continue on the road. 75 meters ahead is a footbridge. The spot is on it. You could see the aiplanes arrived from far away…Nice place

    Remark on spot 2:
    No more possible at the Departure level due to the Deadly accident in SHZ airport. New walls to block the view. It’s better to go down to level B (BUS), one level above the TAXI level. Go out of the terminal and turn left. Walk along the terminal until the traffic light. Cross the road and the spot is on the sidewalk just below the terminal ramp. Advantage: you are protected from the sun. No problem with airport authorities.

    Best regards

    Dominique

  5. Richard Vandervord

    Great website, well done guys.

    I was at PEK in late October on the way home from S Korea/Japan and had no problems on the up/down appraoch roads to T2. The police were constantly moving on parked cars but took no notice of me.

    I made the big mistake of spending a morning at the 01 landing location which is in itself very good as a vantage point, but there was nothing but regular traffic, lots of Air China of course and in my case as luck would have it no special schemes). In the distance I could see all the goodies landing on 36L which is where I should have stayed considering I was at the Ibis hotel close to the approach point.

    Pics from that trip now added here: https://www.flickr.com/photos/rv-avia/albums

    Cheers, Richard V

    1. Chris

      Hi David,

      Hope I am not too late in replying? If transiting through Terminal 3 head for the most Northern point of the terminal. Dependent on the time of day, walk down to the end of the East or West(‘fingers’) of the terminal and you have an outstanding view of taxiways and runways. As it is the most outer edges of the Terminal, the windows are reasonably clean, not many folks around and some good photographic opportunities are to be had here!

      Have fun and good luck,

      Chris

    1. Jan Post author

      Hello,

      the Hotel Capital Airport International Hotel offers views of the apron and the westernmost runway. While in the past I think it wasnt possible to book it online, it seems that it is now possible and actually not too expensive. It should be possible to take pictures from the highest floor, though we can not give you detailed information if you have a view from some of the rooms or have to shoot from the hallway.

  6. Chris

    I have been informed that standing on the feeder ramps towards terminal 3 is now prohibited. This probably has to do with the car accident at Shenzhen Airport a couple of months ago.

    1. Jan Post author

      Hi Chris,

      thanks again for the update. We have already included the information in the guide and we suggest to use the parking lot for 01 in the afternoon. As for Spot #3, we will change the location and suggest to stand next to the small pond for the arrivals.

  7. Ming

    Spot 6 is not so good as appeared here – the hill where the photos were taken was temporary and now (Mar. 2015) it has totally gone. But still you can stand on the dike next to runway for pictures.

    1. Jan Post author

      Hello Ming,

      thanks for this kind of information, which really helps our guides! We have updated the guide accordingly and removed the hill as an option to shoot from.

      Regards
      Jan

  8. Chris

    Visited PEK 10th and the 11th of November during the APEC. Got sent away twice by airport police at feeder ramps for terminal 3. This probably had to do with the APEC . The last police officer I spoke to said, “today no, tomorrow good” as the APEC was coming to an end. They are very friendly but don’t push your luck. Pack up your stuff and head for another location(we did spot 2 at 01 both afternoons and didn’t get bothered).

    Did not visit spot 6 because of prevailing winds, but it was confirmed by another spotter that getting to spot 6 is a very tough task!

    I can also confirm that 36R is only used for landing in peak periods to alleviate 36L and 01. As stated above certain airlines have preferences for which runway they will want to use. But at peak periods ATC will filter them to any of the three runways.

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