Can Korea's Colossal Airport Lift Off?


Korean Yoon Byung-so is miffed. He knows the next time he takes a business trip overseas, his journey to the international airport is going to take double the time and money. That's because his flight will take off from the new Inchon International Airport, an impressive state-of-the-art facility some 30 miles west of Seoul.

Set to open Mar. 29, it's among Korea's largest infrastructure projects and a showpiece of the country's technological prowess. Destined to be one of Asia's biggest airports, it will be 12 times larger than Japan's Kansai Airport and six times the size of Hong Kong's popular Chek Lap Kok when it's finally completed in 2020. For now, the first of the project's two construction phases is mostly finished. Korean planners boast that it's the world's first airport to be built for the 21st century. (For videos of its construction, check out www.airport.or.kr.)

TENUOUS LINK. However, any enthusiasm Yoon and other frequent fliers might have had for the mammoth undertaking has been tempered by more practical concerns such as getting to and from the airport, built on more than 13,800 acres of reclaimed land in the sea between Korea and China. "It's crazy that this airport is about to open, and there's no train link," laments Yoon, who claims a cab fare will set him back at least $40.

The government, however, seems to think the 25-mile, four- to six-lane expressway, built at the cost of $1.23 billion to link the airport to major highways on the outskirts of Seoul, will suffice for now. A rail link with downtown Seoul is scheduled to be operational in 2007.

That has left many scratching their heads. Airline officials worry that a heavy snowfall alone could paralyze the only route to the airport. "It's a huge concern," says one airline official. Moreover, Hyundai is in charge of the multibillion-dollar road project, and Inchon International Airport Corp., the airport authority that's overseeing construction, has conceded that the conglomerate's financial woes have caused it to fall behind schedule. And taxpayers aren't very happy about paying a hefty toll to use the expressway.

PAY UP. Another problem is a spat over user fees. International carriers are still bickering with the airport authority over proposed charges. The plan is to boost fees by 43% over the next three years, while the airlines are demanding no more than a 21% rise. And at the end of March, Seoul's old Kimpo International Airport will become the domestic hub and Inchon the international gateway. So, global carriers have no choice but to make the move to Inchon -- 48 have signed on so far.

Foreign airlines claim that IIAC is being unreasonable for jacking up fees to cover construction costs that have nearly doubled, expensive operations, and mounting interest on bank loans. Industry experts charge that it's a desperate bid to find additional money because the government's commitment to fund 40% of construction costs, is woefully inadequate.

But Seoul, which is looking to privatize the state-owned airport this year, refuses to hand over more money. It's still reeling from the Asian financial crisis, which forced it to go cap in hand to the International Monetary Fund for a record $58 billion bailout. "The government's financial position is not so good," says Lim Tong Myung, IIAC's director of external affairs. IIAC, consequently, has stepped up efforts to find foreign backers.

TAPPING TRANSIT. Meanwhile, Inchon will continue to require more cash injections for myriad projects over the next two decades. In 2002, it will need some $1 billion to build two more runways and four concourses.

Still, hopes are high that Inchon will become the hub for North East Asia as planned, and not another Asian white elephant. One of its top goals is to become a major hub for transit passengers. The plan is to increase the percentage of transit traffic to 40% of total passengers, from Kimpo's current 14%, within the next decade by targeting Chinese and Japanese travelers.

The airport's strategists want to see more of these travelers stop in Seoul on their way to Europe and North America, as they have in recent years because of restrictions on the number of direct flights to the U.S from China and Japan. They're hoping Inchon will be able to attract more travelers from some 40 cities with populations of 1 million-plus located within 3 1/2 flying hours of Inchon.

URBAN GROWTH. Within a decade, the airport also has aspirations of becoming the world's largest cargo handler. Dilapidated Kimpo is already ranked sixth in the world for cargo, and with improved facilities, planners can't see too many obstacles blocking that goal.

To lure planeloads of passengers, Inchon's architects are trying to transform the airport into a kind of small city. Housing is being built for airport workers and their families, and the government is even contemplating a free-trade zone nearby to foster more business.

This year, Inchon expects to move 27 million passengers through the airport. The number is expected to rise to an average of 100 million per year over the next two decades. If it can realize these goals, maybe all the mountain moving will be worth it. By Jennifer Veale in Seoul


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