Ambitious landings site

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2000, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 26 September, 2000, 12:00am

Fifty years ago, in Inchon bay off the west coast of Korea, General Douglas MacArthur launched a daring seaborne landing that saved South Korea from Communism.

Now, in the waters where United States marines loaded their machine guns, South Korea is putting the finishing touches to what it hopes will be one of the biggest airports in the world and the aviation hub of northeast Asia.

Under construction since 1992 on two islands and the land reclaimed between them at a cost of 7.8 trillion won (about HK$53.5 billion), the Inchon International Airport is due to open at the end of March next year, with a total area of 13.9 million square metres, slightly smaller than Chek Lap Kok and double that of Osaka's Kansai International Airport.

'Our marketing strategy is to be as competitive as possible,' said Kwon Byung-cho, director for the project at the Ministry of Construction and Transport.

'Our landing costs and fees will be lower than those at Kansai, Hong Kong and Pudong [in Shanghai]. They will be decided this month.

'We aim to attract as many airlines as possible. So far, 40, cargo and passenger, have agreed to use the new airport and we hope to have 45 by next year. Price is the most important factor for airlines.'

They aim to attract passengers by providing an international business centre, a customs-free zone, two hotels and a sea resort with two golf courses, swimming pools, horse-riding and a casino - but not the 'relaxation ladies' soon to be available at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam.

The original plan was not as ambitious. As the existing airport at Kimpo, on the outskirts of Seoul, was nearing capacity, the government started looking in the late 1980s for a replacement airport and considered 22 sites within a 100-kilometre radius of downtown Seoul.

But, with the normalisation of relations with the mainland in 1992 and the rapid growth in aviation in the northeast Asia region, it opted for a hub instead, to attract a substantial portion of traffic from the mainland and Japan.

Inchon will take over international flights from Kimpo, which will remain as a domestic airport. Kimpo already ranks as the ninth-busiest airport in the world for passengers and sixth for cargo, with Korean Air Lines (KAL) the world's second-largest cargo carrier, after Lufthansa.

The new airport will have an annual capacity of 27 million passengers, 1.7 million tonnes of cargo and, because of its remote location, will operate 24 hours a day.

Of passengers at Kimpo, 17 per cent are in transit, many of them Japanese on their way to Europe and the US escaping high domestic fares. Inchon aims to increase this to 25 per cent by 2020.

For cargo, the airport is looking at the mainland. Last year mainland goods accounted for 5.7 per cent of the cargo carried by KAL, an increase of 53.2 per cent over 1998.

'China is one of the biggest markets in the world,' Mr Kwon said.

'It is very protectionist and has restrictions against foreigners. It will not stay that way. We hope China will become more open and liberalised once it joins the World Trade Organisation.'

The airport itself is an impressive sight, like a monster rising out of the sea.

Until an expressway opens in November, the site is accessible only by ferry from Inchon, followed by a drive along one of the dykes built round the reclaimed land.

The two runways, able to handle the 500-passenger planes being built by Airbus, are ready, as is most of the passenger terminal, the biggest building in South Korea with 44 boarding gates.

Many of the workers live on the site in two-room pre-fab homes, including chief executive Kang Dong-suk.

The site is 45 km from North Korea and 25 km from the site of a sea battle last summer during which the South Korean navy sank a North Korean vessel. How will the airport defend itself against kamikaze attacks from the North?

'We will be protected by the navy, 1,000 soldiers and our own security force,' said Kwon Joon-ho, an airport official.

'In any case, north-south relations are improving and we will reunite in several years.'

In the first few years, the biggest obstacle probably will not be frogmen from the north but traffic congestion. The only link to the mainland will be a 40 km expressway linking to Seoul over a 4.4 km double-deck bridge, with a rail link not due for completion until 2007. Traffic jams have become so serious in the greater Seoul area that the expressway will have no access points other than one in downtown Seoul, because the authorities fear that drivers would use the road to go elsewhere.

Mr Kwon of the Ministry said the expressway would meet transport demand until the railway was completed. But critics say that squabbling between different ministries and companies has delayed construction of the line and that this could become a major headache.

The government has appointed UBS-Warburg as financial advisor to help it find buyers for 51 per cent of the 500 billion won in the capital of the airport company by the end of 2002, with a maximum of 15 per cent per investor.

While domestic and foreign investors can bid, the government is looking for companies with experience in running airports, such as Britain's BAA and Aeroports de Paris.