China plans to build 48 new airports over the next five years in an aviation spending splurge that will delight architects and plane makers but heighten concerns among environmentalists.

With the economy booming, hundreds of millions more journeys are being made by air every year, prompting a rush to buy planes that has made China the most important customer for Boeing and Airbus. But the boom is also set to benefit international design firms and construction companies, including British names such as Norman Foster and Arup.

According to the domestic media, China will spend 140bn yuan (£9.4bn) on airport development between 2006 and 2010 - more than the total for the previous 15 years. Zhao Hongyuan, of the Civil Aviation Administration of China, told the China Daily that the number of airports would rise in that time from 142 to 190. Work is already under way to expand the three biggest international hubs: Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

Last year a mega-terminal opened in Guangzhou, part of work to double capacity to 27 million passengers by 2009. A second runway opened last year at Pudong airport, near Shanghai, which can handle 35 million passengers a year. And the terminal building under construction at Beijing Capital international airport, designed by Norman Foster, is expected to be the world's biggest airport building. Even after the new facilities are built the country's 1.3 billion people will be served by fewer than 200 airports, compared with more than 10,000 in the US, which has a quarter of the population. To expand services to less developed areas the government plans to turn airports in Chengdu, Kunming, Xi'an, Wuhan and Shenyang into regional hubs. Yunnan - one of the most beautiful provinces in China - is hoping to cash in on an expected tourism boom by building five new airports, Xinhua news agency reported.