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[Weekender] Airports as cultural, commercial destinations

International passengers wait for their flight at the departure terminal at Ihcheon Airport. Incheon Airport
International passengers wait for their flight at the departure terminal at Ihcheon Airport. Incheon Airport

Kim Young-chul, 37, an engineer for a shipbuilding company, often visits Incheon International Airport, South Korea’s main gateway, with his family.

But he comes here not only for travel, but for family activities as well.

“For my two daughters, the airport is a fun and dynamic place packed with people from around the world. When we visit the airport, we often spend a few hours there, while enjoying lunch at a nice restaurant, shopping and experiencing a variety of cultural activities,” he said.

A growing number of visitors, mostly travelers and city dwellers like Kim, consider the airport as a destination to stay longer for different purposes rather than a boring space that simply handles passengers.

Oliver Wyman, a global management consultancy, underlined the trend in its report, saying today’s airports, once considered little more than infrastructure providers for airlines, have become a destination where travelers want to stop at.

“Realizing they have a significant impact on the quality of a passenger’s journey, airports are becoming more entrepreneurial and have started changing the way they operate,” it said.

As they grow, airports are in competition to differentiate themselves by offering enjoyable customer experiences. Most of them are expanding commercial facilities like restaurants and duty-free shops and adding cultural offerings to connect people to the place they are in, while upgrading their information technology systems for more efficient air traffic and immigration process management.

Industry watchers said the acceleration of global mobility had brought these changes. Asia, whose air traffic has increased more quickly than the global average, is a battleground between airports vying to be the regional hub.

Betting on significant growth in air travel, airports in the region are in competition to expand facilities and to upgrade operational systems and service quality.

Incheon International Airport, South Korea’s main international gateway, has joined the construction boom as it nears its maximum capacity.

It plans to build a second passenger terminal by 2017, investing 4.9 trillion won ($4.16 billion).

Once the second terminal is completed, the airport said it would be able to handle 62 million passengers, up from 45 million last year.

The core competiveness of the nation’s flagship airport also comes from its service excellence.

The airport, which has ranked top in the Airport Service Quality survey since 2006 thanks to its convenient and speedy immigration processes and detailed customer care, is a benchmark for other airports.

Having the world’s largest duty-free section is another reason the airport is becoming an international travel destination.

“Incheon Airport takes the lead in envisioning future of airports. The place will further evolve into a destination connecting culture, places and people,” said Park Wan-su, CEO of the Incheon International Airport Corp., the state-run airport operator.

By Seo Jee-yeon  (jyseo@heraldcorp.com)
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