When Mangshi opened its airport two decades ago, the small tropical city on China's border with Myanmar was served by few airlines. China's recent travel boom has changed that – seven carriers brought in more than 1 million visitors last year.
"We had a hard time attracting airlines in the early days," Li Ping, deputy chief of the airport's expansion steering committee, told Reuters. "Now we are struggling to accommodate flights."
Mangshi is one of more than 60 inland airports under expansion, with another 30 new regional airports being built. Government planners estimate China's airports will increase to 240 by 2020 from around 200 today.
Li Jiaxiang, head of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, said this week the country would invest $80 billion in aviation projects this year alone.
The aviation market is being lifted by rising business travel and a surge in outbound tourism fueled by an increasingly wealthy middle class in coastal and inland cities.
The number of leisure travelers going overseas for the first time topped 100 million in 2014, official data shows. Foreign travel is tipped to grow another 10 percent this year as the United States, France and Australia ease visa policies. That has prompted Air China, China Eastern Airlines and China Southern Airlines to fly to New York, Paris and Sydney from Nanjing, Wuhan or Chengdu, or at least with a stopover in those second-tier cities.
China's so-called Silk Road initiative is also certain to boost traffic. Under the scheme, the government aims to extend its economic and political influence to neighboring countries. A network of railways, highways and new air routes are part of the plan.
CAAC's Li said the country's airport expansion is supported by data showing rising passenger numbers.
The aviation boom is boosting sales for global suppliers Thales SA, Indra Industries, Raytheon Co, Lockheed Martin Corp and Honeywell Aerospace.
Thales has sold 40 air traffic management radars in China. It supplies ATM systems to the crucial Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou sectors, and has recently added Urumqi in Xinjiang to its client list.
"Demand for navigation systems will be on the rise as more airports are built or expanded which will also result in more demands in ATM systems as well as surveillance technologies," Xia Jinsong, deputy chief executive officer with Thales China, told Reuters. "That means more business opportunity for us."