Most travelers view layovers like root canals: painful but necessary. But what if these temporary time-sucks could be turned into something people actually look forward to?
Incheon International Airport believes they can, and while the skeptical traveler might shake his or her jet-lagged head, the airport does have some credibility when it comes to pleasing passengers. Though it opened only in 2001, Incheon has been top-ranked airport for customer service for eight years running.
Incheon airport officials pulled out all the stops – and lots of promotional videos – during a dinner presentation in Atlanta Nov. 21 aimed at persuading travelers that Incheon is not only the best of all evils when changing planes in Asia; it’s “convenient, fast and easy” and might even be fun and culturally enriching.
To road warriors used to crashing on airport chairs or racking up miles to gain access to their preferred airline’s luxury lounge, Incheon’s free showers for transfer passengers might seem like an oasis, if not a mirage. Incheon also boasts free Wi-Fi, movie screenings and a lounge that can be accessed for just $21 with a Korean Air boarding pass ($35 for everyone else). More active travelers can visit a Korean cultural museum, ice skate or enjoy movies and musical performances, all inside the terminal.
The airport has also invested heavily in its shopping scene. Already second to Dubai’s airport in duty-free sales ($1.5 billion-plus), Incheon has its eye on the No. 1 spot. A huge indoor retail district is planned as part of a $4.6 billion second terminal that will boost the airport’s passenger capacity from 44 million to 62 million by 2017. Cargo will grow to 5.8 million tons from 4.5 million. As of last year, Incheon was No. 9 in Asia for passengers (39 million) and trailed only Hong Kong international Airport in cargo.
As utopian as the videos made the airport sound, they also made it clear that passengers with long layovers wouldn’t be trapped inside. The airport offers five free transit tours of Seoul, which include shuttle service into the capital city. Those with medical or dental needs can partake in procedures as simple as teeth whitening or as complex as ultrasounds, eyelid surgery or brain scans at the Inha International Medical Center, which caters only to international visitors and is located two minutes from the terminals.
An Asian Hub
Other than the airport area, Incheon’s pitch in Atlanta was less about Korea than other Asian countries. That might seem surprising at first, but not considering its competition: hubs like Hong Kong and Singapore’s Changi Airport, which is known for over-the-top amenities including a 40-foot slide, a playground, napping areas and a multimedia entertainment zone.
At the Atlanta event, held at the Villa Christina event center at the Perimeter, Incheon played up its role as a hub for business travelers, providing direct flights to 45 cities in China and 27 in Japan.
Korean Air operates 10 flights per week from Atlanta to Seoul, including three flights running the Airbus A380, the double-decker jumbo jet that first touched down in Atlanta in August. Hartsfield-Jackson had to extend one runway by 500 feet and retrofit two gates to accommodate the massive plane.
Unlike Atlanta’s airport, which is geared toward domestic transfers, 98 percent of passengers at Incheon are crossing international borders.
But the airports do have similarities in how they maintain their hubs: Each relies heavily on non-aeronautical revenues to keep fees for airlines low. For instance, in Atlanta, parking and concessions made up more than half the $483 million in revenues for fiscal 2013, while aviation-related sources accounted for less than one-third.
About 65 percent of Incheon’s $1.5 billion in revenues come from non-aeronautical sources, Seung-yeal Lee, director of the airport’s marketing group, told Global Atlanta.
“We can give more incentives to the airlines, so they can serve the airport more,” he said.
Both Incheon and Atlanta were recognized for their ability to do more with less in a report earlier this year by the Air Transport Research Society. Atlanta was ranked No. 1 in the world for efficiency, while Incheon was No. 2 in Asia behind Seoul Gimpo Airport, its domestically oriented counterpart.
Mr. Lee said Incheon airport was inspired by Atlanta’s experience when it was being built in the 1990s. He and his team planned to meet with Atlanta airport officials during their visit.