It might seem strange for a city all the way across the world, but Seoul has emerged as Atlanta’s top aviation partner measured by origin and destination traffic, the number travelers beginning or ending their journeys between the two cities.
Passenger exchange with Atlanta skyrocketed by 525.5 percent between 2003 and 2011, giving the Korean capital just enough lift to take the top spot from London at 188,207 passengers to 185,587, according to the Global Gateways: International Aviation in Metropolitan America study released in October.
Adie Tomer, an associate fellow in the Brookings Metropolitan Policy Program, presented the findings during a roundtable on airport economic development at the Atlanta launch of this year’s Global Cities Initiative.
Bruce Katz, who heads up the Brookings metro program, said the surprising Seoul statistic is an example of why it’s important to evaluate a city’s international ties and act on the information, as the Global Cities Initiative will do in the crafting of a specific Atlanta export plan over the coming year.
But who are all those travelers? And why has Korea grown so rapidly as an Atlanta partner?
Mr. Tomer’s research doesn’t provide a demographic breakdown, but he believes Kia Motors has played a huge role since announcing its West Point plant in 2006, with executives increasingly using Atlanta as their U.S. gateway.
But it’s not just the top-tier employees, says Randy Jackson, vice president of human resources for Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia. More than 1,700 of Kia’s Georgia employees have been sent to Korea for training, while some Korean technicians come to West Point. Out of some 3,500 employees at the site, he estimated only 30-40 are Korean.
Still, the Korean community around Columbus, Ga., and the already strong community in Atlanta are growing as a result of suppliers coming to support Kia, which Mr. Jackson believes has led to more family visits and business trips.
“I would have to believe that suppliers are traveling over for business purposes like ourselves,” said Mr. Jackson, who was slated to take another trip in early May.
Business has certainly driven Korean Air’s growth in Atlanta. After starting with three flights weekly via Chicago in 1994, it has graduated to 10 weekly nonstop flights. The A380 is scheduled to begin service three times per week in August and move to daily flights in November.
“Korean companies are aggressively expanding in the U.S. and elsewhere which has led to an increase in travel,” said John Jackson, the airline’s vice president of marketing for the Americas. “But, the ‘Korean Wave’ has finally hit the U.S. as well, with musical acts like Psy, Korean dramas on television, and the increasing popularity of Samsung mobile phones and tablets.”
Korean Air’s A380s will cater to the business traveler, focusing on space and amenities rather than packing in the most seats. The Korean Air version will have just 407 seats, compared with a 650-passenger capacity on competing carriers, John Jackson said.
“Because Atlanta is so important to us for business travel demand, we felt it was a great market to operate the world’s most luxurious aircraft, with the entire upper deck dedicated to business class, three bars, an onboard duty free shop, and the most spacious economy class cabin anywhere,” he said.
Atlanta-based Delta Air Lines has taken a different tack toward Korea from Atlanta after suspending its nonstop route from Atlanta to Seoul in 2009.
Delta can sell seats on Korean Air’s nonstop route through their partnership, but it makes more sense to serve Seoul nonstop from Detroit, according to Delta spokesman Anthony Black.
It’s partially about cargo from Motor City manufacturers, since filling up the belly of the jet is a key element of a profitable route, but it’s also about tapping the larger source of connecting passengers from the Northeast, Mr. Black said.
“We’ve got Atlanta covered direct if we need to from a seating perspective, but we also have a larger catchment area using the Northeast from Detroit directionally,” he told Global Atlanta.
No one really knows the full demographic picture of the Atlanta-Seoul travelers, but surveys from the U.S. International Trade Administration‘s Office of Travel and Tourism Industries indicate most of them are likely tourists.
Leisure was the top reason Korean visitors gave for traveling to the United States in 2011, with 44 percent calling it their main purpose, followed by business (25 percent), visiting friends and relatives (16 percent) and study or teaching (7 percent).
There was also evidence that business travelers are tacking on some extra time to take in the sights or see family members. When looking at all purposes of each trip, the business rate didn’t change much, while leisure shot up to 59 percent and visiting relatives increased to 25 percent.
Tim Hur, a Korean-American international business consultant and real estate agent, said it’s always a mix of faces, including U.S. Army personnel and students when he flies to Seoul about once a year on business.
“There’s always going to be a big subset of college students going back and forth,” he said, adding that the flights are “always full.”
Korea sent 72,295 students to the United States in 2011-12, putting it at No. 3 behind China and India as a place of origin for foreign students. Georgia tracks the national statistics in this regard. Koreans make up 14.2 percent of the state’s international student population, behind Chinese (23.1 percent) and Indians (17.1 percent).
All these factors bear out anecdotal evidence from Mr. Tomer’s Brookings research, that business traffic seems to follow vibrant exchanges in other areas.
But he says it’s less important to figure out demographic specifics and more vital to put the general knowledge to use. He urged the city to look for ways to increase exchange of “tradeable services,” which make up a larger proportion of Atlanta’s exports than goods, Tourism is the top export sector, accounting for 18.9 percent of Atlanta’s export and contributing $20 billion to Atlanta’s in 2010, according to the Brookings Export Nation report.
“It’s now on the community to figure out how can we better leverage theses connections plus what we have on the ground as an economic development community,” he said, commending a newly emerged Atlanta Aerotropolis Alliance for its efforts to spur such discussions.
Rounding out the top five air travel partners for Atlanta are Toronto; Cancun, Mexico and Montego Bay, Jamaica.