Incheon Airport’s Winning Formula

2 August 2010 (Last Updated August 2nd, 2010 18:30)

Since opening in 2001, awards have been arriving at South Korea's Incheon Airport as frequently as aircraft. Alex Hawkes takes an exclusive look at why the airport continues to attract worldwide acclaim.

Incheon Airport’s Winning Formula

For five consecutive years, Incheon International Airport was ranked the world’s leading airport by Airport Council International’s (ACI) Airport Service Quality (ASQ) survey. The rankings are based on 250,000 questionnaires administered each year by the ACI asking passengers to rate the service quality across 34 different areas of airport services. Incheon is the first airport in the survey’s history to claim pole position five years in a row, but this marks only one of the airport’s many achievements since it began operations less than ten years ago.

Incheon Airport, which is operated by Incheon International Airport Corporation (IIAC), is located on Yeongjong-Yongyu Island to the west of the South Korean city of Incheon. The island was originally two separate landforms – Yeongjong island and Yongyu island – but as the city grew it extended across the sea and today the airport exists on the reclaimed land between the original two islands.

Taking eight years to construct, the airport was initially designed to help support the increase in air traffic at the country’s Gimpo International Airport, but Incheon’s fierce growth and popularity soon led it to become not only South Korea’s most important airport, but also that of East Asia.

To keep up with demand at the airport, IIAC has adopted a rapid expansion policy that has enabled passenger capacity at the airport to double to 30 million in 2007 from 14.5 million a year in 2001. By 2009, the airport had already reached the milestone of surpassing the 300 million mark in terms of total accumulated passengers. Its importance to the Korean economy is now such that 72.3% of all passengers arriving and leaving the country do so via Incheon, while 21.6% of the nation’s exports and imports by value pass through its cargo hub.

“Incheon is the first airport in the survey’s history to claim pole position five years in a row.”

Along the way, the awards have kept pouring in – in 2008, Incheon received the prestigious Eagle Award from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) while the market research firm Frost & Sullivan also labelled Incheon as the Best Airport in Asia Pacific in 2009 – but they pay tribute to more than just the airport’s phenomenal growth: Incheon Airport has established its reputation by carefully investing in a range of different operational capabilities and here we take a closer look at each segment.

People power

Incheon Airport employs over 500,000 people and has invested considerably in training facilities in order to ensure it retains expertise.

In 2003, the airport opened an aviation security school, which runs 35 courses in airport and aviation and security, and later, in 2008, it opened a 14,000m² Human Resources Academy close to its passenger terminal. The academy is responsible for the occupational and service training of 35,000 airport personnel working in 570 agencies within the airport.

The know-how and expertise of its airport staff has also attracted interest from overseas. An airport operations support agreement was signed between Incheon and Iraq’s Irbil International Airport for $31.5m, while the airport also received consulting requests from airports in the Philippines and Mongolia.

Since opening, more than 3,000 airport authorities, government officials and aviation personnel have visited Incheon Airport to learn more about its operations. Last year, BAA paid a visit to Incheon in order to learn more about the airport’s prolific expansion programme ahead of its own expansion at London Heathrow Airport ahead of the 2012 Olympic Games.

Centre for culture and art

In a bold and unique move, IIAC has tried to develop Incheon airport as a centre for Korean culture and art by establishing a series of museums and exhibition halls within its passenger terminal.

“Over 3,000 authorities, officials and aviation personnel have visited Incheon Airport to learn about its operations.”

In tandem with the National Museum of Korea, the airport opened the Cultural Museum of Korea, which aims to publicise traditional Korean art to passengers.

Within the passenger terminal there is also an exhibition hall of Korean artistic crafts and a “culture street” in the arrivals hall, which greets passengers with images of Korea’s geography and history.

In 2008, the airport hosted an exhibition by the late Korean-born American artist Paik Nam June. Lasting over eight weeks, the event included performances from prominent Korean musicians on the permanent stage inside the Millennium Hall of its passenger terminal.

Box clever

As one of the top five busiest airports in terms of cargo traffic in the world, Incheon has become an East Asian base for leading global logistics firms such as DHL, AMB and Shenker.

The airport has continued to attract such interest by strategically lowering fees for airlines and logistics firms alongside paying special attention to its road feeder service. Teaming up with Korea’s Ministry of Land, Transportation and Maritime Affairs, the airport has tried to develop a logistics model that connects Incheon with north-east China, including cities such as Tianjin, Dalian and Qingdoa. It is hoped the move will attract the interest of lucrative Japanese air cargo companies wishing to access the region and escape the high logistics costs in Japan.

The airport has developed an in-house cargo service performance index, which it believes has indices set at a higher level than competitors. Incheon uses ten different indices – a system used for measuring time consumed in landside services and cargo operations – in order to monitor which performance areas are meeting its standards at all times, and this has enabled the airport to achieve consistent improvements with customs clearance times.

Magnet for renewable energy

IIAC hopes to make Incheon Airport carbon neutral by 2013. A large part of this plan hinges on a new eco-friendly passenger terminal, which will incorporate solar panels that can generate 100kW of energy as well as five wind power turbines with a generating capacity of 10kW.

The airport will install a pioneering magnetic levitation train. The next-generation train, which runs using magnetic power and therefore creates less vibration and noise than normal trains, will begin service in 2013 on a 6.1km route within the airport. It means Korea will become only the second country with an operating urban magnetic levitation train next to Nagoya in Japan.

City slickers

IIAC ambitiously plans to transform Incheon Airport into what it has coined an “air city”. Using the land surrounding the airport, IIAC hopes to create six clusters that focus on other business sectors such as tourism, healthcare and sports. This will include a theme park, a giant fashion complex and a concentration of hospitals.

“IIAC hopes to make Incheon Airport carbon neutral by 2013.”

On the sporting front, a boating park will be unveiled later this year in the southern reservoir of the airport, which includes a racecourse, support facilities and viewing areas. It is hoped the 97,000m² of land and 40,000m² of water site will become an international centre for motorboats and will eventually hold prestigious competitions such as the F1 Powerboat Grand Prix.

Airport expansion hits third phase

The second phase of expansion at Incheon International Airport was only unveiled in June 2008. The $4bn move included the construction of a new 4,000m third runway, a concourse with 30 additional gates and 60 parking spots for passenger and cargo aircraft, and a new underground train service linking the passenger terminal and concourse.

Just one year on and the airport had already begun its third phase of expansion. The project is scheduled for completion in 2015 and will include the construction of a second passenger terminal, an expansion to the existing cargo terminal and an enlargement of the airport’s apron, as well as further extension of road and rail links to the second passenger terminal.

Once completed, the third stage of expansion is expected to increase Incheon International Airport’s annual passenger handling capacity to 62 million with cargo traffic also increasing to 5.8 million tons each year. A fourth and final construction phase is expected to be complete before 2020, which will raise passenger handling capacity to an astonishing 100 million and propel the airport into the top ten busiest in the world. Expect more awards to come its way in the meantime.