Incheon Airport update: Battling the bottleneck

1 Nov 2017 by Craig Bright
Incheon Airport Terminal 2

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 are a fair assessment of the current status of the airport. 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 57.7 million travellers, and this year’s figure looks set to be even higher. It’s little wonder that the development of the airport’s new Terminal 2 building (scheduled to open before the end of the year) is at the forefront of Incheon International Airport Corporation’s list of priorities.

Recent spikes in numbers at Incheon Airport have hastened this need – even prompting a “national call” for the opening date to be brought forward. In 2016, the airport’s passenger traffic jumped a massive 17 per cent compared to the previous year (Beijing Capital International Airport, the busiest in Asia-Pacific, grew just 2.6 per cent by comparison), and from January to March this year Incheon saw 13 per cent more passengers than it had in the same period in 2015. The airport’s growth has been such that Airports Council International ranked it the world’s 19th busiest airport in 2016 – up from 22nd in 2015.

“We’re expecting a total of 62 million passengers in 2017 and these passengers are having to be handled with just the Terminal 1 and the concourse,” says Chung. “As we’ve already exceeded our capacity, we’re very busy handling all those passengers and a lot of
the staff are working under emergency status. We didn’t expect such a fast increase in passenger numbers in the past, so we’re hurrying to open Terminal 2 as
fast as we can.”

Once it opens, Terminal 2 is expected 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 travelling 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 US carrier Delta, which has been focusing on Seoul as an Asia-Pacific destination. In August, Delta announced it would be deploying its new A350 on two Seoul routes, starting with Detroit this month and Atlanta (which it only launched in June) next March. Korean Air and Delta also agreed in March of this year to enter into a joint venture to expand their transpacific network, sharing costs and revenue on flights across a combined network of 290 destinations.

“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.

Incheon Airport T2


The new terminal is at the heart of the airport’s “3 Phase Construction Project”, which will include a new passenger terminal, a passenger and cargo apron, as well as connecting transport facilities. To date, the airport has poured approximately 5 trillion won (US$4.4 billion) into the third phase project since 2009 – it’s getting no funding from the government – with a further 4 trillion won (US$3.5 billion) expected for additional expansion plans.

Once the second terminal is functioning, the airport plans to divide airlines across the terminals according to alliance. Star Alliance airlines will 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 – will shift their operations over to the new terminal. Transport between the two main terminals will take the form of a shuttle, with roads directly to the second terminal also due to be opened.

One of the key features will be a focus on leading information and communications technology (ICT), with modern systems such as automated passport control systems. “We’re utilising 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, from a consumer-focused standpoint, guide and cleaning robots have been going through test runs, and virtual and augmented reality experiences will be introduced in the transit regions of the new terminal. “What’s really at the core is the ‘Fourth Industrial Revolution’,” says Chung. “Utilising these technologies, we want to build an airport that is convenient, efficient and safe, and where passengers can be the owners of the airport.”

Incheon Airport T2

However, cutting-edge biometric screening technologies that are increasingly being introduced – such as the facial recognition software being implemented at Changi International Airport’s new Terminal 4 – will not be employed as yet.

Terminal 2 will also be 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 being designed to be “green and ecofriendly”, and duty free, which Chung notes is “the number one duty free in the world”, will also be further improved at the new terminal. (Business Traveller readers voted Incheon Airport the “Best Duty Free in the World” at the 2017 Business Traveller Asia-Pacific Awards.)


Yet even with the completion of its third phase project, Incheon Airport’s passenger handling troubles won’t be over. The additional 18 million capacity 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 won expansion plan aims to tackle. Planning and design for this fourth phase, which will comprise the northeasternmost part of the H-shaped terminal building, began in May and will continue through to early next year, with construction 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.

Incheon Airport T2

Aside from meeting immediate capacity demands, the plan also encompasses entertainment and leisure facilities. Back in April, 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 US$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 centre,” 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, such that 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 on 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.”

Loading comments...

Search Flight

See a whole year of Reward Seat Availability on one page at SeatSpy.com

The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
The cover of the Business Traveller June 2024 edition
Be up-to-date
Magazine Subscription
To see our latest subscription offers for Business Traveller editions worldwide, click on the Subscribe & Save link below