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Battling the Bottleneck

Standing calmly in a shuffling queue at Incheon Airport, the words “emergency status” hardly jump to mind. Yet for Seoul’s primary airport, these are precisely the words used by its president and CEO, Il-Young Chung, as the airport attempts to process millions more passengers than it has the capacity to handle.

While provocative, Chung’s words were a fair assessment of the status of the airport prior to its recent expansion. In the 16 years since it opened, Incheon has managed to hit its 54 million-passenger capacity and then some. Last year it processed a total of 62.2 million travelers, and this year’s figure looks like it will be even higher.

It’s little wonder that the development of the airport’s new Terminal 2 building which opened in January was at the forefront of Incheon International Airport Corporation’s list of priorities. Recent spikes in numbers at Incheon Airport have hastened this need.

In 2016, the airport’s passenger traffic jumped a massive 17 percent compared to the previous year (by comparison, Beijing Capital International Airport, the busiest in Asia-Pacific, grew just 2.6 percent), and in 2017 Incheon saw another 7.5 percent added to the passenger count.  The airport’s growth has been such that Airports Council International ranked it the world’s 19th busiest airport in 2017 – up from 29th in 2012, just five years ago. “We didn’t expect such a fast increase in passenger numbers in the past,” says Chung.

Now that it’s open, Terminal 2 will relieve some of the pressure – for the foreseeable future.  The new facility is designed to add 18 million passengers to the airport’s overall handling capacity, bringing the total to 72 million.

Overcapacity is not an issue faced by Incheon Airport alone. Speaking about airports throughout the region, Association of Asia Pacific Airlines director general, Andrew Herdman, notes that despite far-sighted investment by major airports, passenger growth projections that were once seen as “optimistic” have turned out to be true.

“Generally speaking, the infrastructure capacity has just about kept pace, but you can point to areas where it’s been late,” he says. “The problem is that once congestion becomes apparent, you see degraded service levels, on-time performance suffers, and flights can’t operate at peak times of day, so they get pushed to less convenient times. If you’re not careful, then it’s the traveling public that’s paying the price.”

According to Chung, the growth of passengers at Incheon is being driven by a number of factors. “We’re seeing an increase in travel from Korean citizens, and as our economy develops we expect more business passengers from abroad, as well as within Korea. A lot of LCCs are also serving new routes – they’re very active in doing so – and we are attracting more foreign carriers to serve our airport.”

In particular, Incheon has developed a close relationship with Delta Air Lines, which has been focusing on Seoul as an Asia-Pacific destination. Last year, Delta announced it would be deploying its new A350 on two Seoul routes, Detroit and Atlanta. More recently the US carrier and Korean Air announced the launch of a new joint venture that the airlines say will create one of the most comprehensive route networks in the transpacific market, with more than 290 destinations in the Americas and more than 80 in Asia.

The deal will optimize schedules, improve loyalty program benefits, integrate IT systems and offer co-location at key hubs. Earlier this year, Delta and Korean Air co-located into the new Terminal 2 at Seoul’s Incheon International Airport, substantially reducing connecting times.

“With this agreement, we will reinforce Incheon Airport’s position as a major international hub in Northeast Asia and support the growth of Korea’s aviation industry,” Delta’s CEO, Ed Bastian, said at the time of the agreement.

Terminal 2: Take a Look

The new terminal is at the heart of the airport’s “Three Phase Construction Project,” including a new passenger terminal, a passenger and cargo apron, as well as connecting transport facilities. To date, the airport has poured approximately ?5 trillion ($4.4 billion) into the third phase project since 2009 – it’s getting no funding from the government – with a further ?4 trillion ($3.5 billion) expected for additional expansion plans.

With the second terminal on line, the airport is dividing airlines across the terminals according to alliance. Star Alliance airlines remain in Terminal 1, as will check-in desks for low-cost carriers flying from the Concourse. Skyteam member airlines – including flag carrier Korean Air, Air France, KLM and Delta Air Lines – are shifting their operations over to the new terminal. Transport between the two main terminals is provided by a shuttle, along with road access directly to the second terminal.

One of the key features is the focus on leading information and communications technology (ICT), with modern systems such as automated passport control systems. “We’re utilizing big data,” Chung says. “We need to have an intelligent system in order to run the airport more efficiently. In terms of the check-in process and immigration at departure and arrival, we have to make sure the passengers are distributed evenly to reduce congestion.”

Meanwhile, passengers are getting to know guide and cleaning robots, and virtual and augmented reality experiences are being introduced in the transit regions of the new terminal. “What’s really at the core is the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’,” says Chung. “Utilizing these technologies, we want to build an airport that is convenient, efficient and safe, and where passengers can be the owners of the airport.” However, the cutting-edge biometric screening technologies that are increasingly being introduced at other airports – such as facial recognition software – will not be employed yet.  

Terminal 2 is also getting consumer-focused features such as a variety of F&B outlets offering Korean cuisine from different regions across the country, and even a cosmetic surgery facility.

Transit amenities are designed to be “green and ecofriendly,” and Incheon Airport’s duty free, which readers of Business Traveler consistently vote the “Best Duty Free in the World” in our annual Best in Business Travel Awards, will also see further improvements at the new terminal.

Planning for the Future

Yet even with the completion of its third phase project, Incheon Airport’s capacity issues won’t be over. Terminal 2’s space for the additional 18 million customers will provide breathing room for three years, but passenger levels are again expected to outstrip existing infrastructure by 2020.

This is what the additional ?4 million expansion plan aims to tackle. Planning and design for this fourth phase, which will encompass the northeasternmost part of the H-shaped terminal building, began in 2017 and construction is expected to begin at the end of 2018. These enhancements are scheduled for completion by 2023, by which point the airport will be able to handle 100 million passengers annually.

Aside from meeting immediate capacity demands, the plan also encompasses entertainment and leisure facilities. Last year, the new Paradise City integrated resort and casino opened its doors close to the Terminal 1 building. A new project, the Inspire Integrated Resort, is also on the way, part of a collaboration with US resort casino company Mohegan Sun and Korean chemicals manufacturer KCC. Being built at a cost of $5 billion, the resort will be located on Yeongjong Island near the airport and is due to open in 2020. A new golf course – the airport’s second on site – is also in the pipeline and similarly has a 2020 opening date.

“What’s more important for us is to expand further and actually build an ‘Air City’ with the airport at its center,” says Chung. “It will include hotels, resorts, casinos and even catering, and we have plans for that up to 2030.” Chung adds that the main goal of the airport is to make it fun for passengers as well as convenient, so transit passengers could spend four hours or up to a whole day at the airport.

As for further expansions or even a third terminal, Chung says these could also be in the cards, though that depends on how growth projections play out. Despite the airport’s booming growth, current levels aren’t expected to continue at quite the same rate over the long term. “We will think about the fifth phase, or perhaps a new terminal,” he says, “but that would have to depend on whether we actually need to expand further and what our demand projections are.”