New $5.6 billion Korea airport envisioned as Asian Heathrow

Inchon is linchpin of bid to make Seoul a business and transportation hub


INCHON, South Korea - The battalions of soccer fans arriving for the World Cup will have an easier time landing here than Gen. Douglas MacArthur's Marines did more than a half-century ago to turn the tide of the Korean War.

Rising up like a rolling cloud of glass, marble and steel, the main terminal of the new $5.6 billion Inchon International Airport will clearly convey this nation's soaring economic ambitions to the 300,000 visitors expected for the monthlong championship. The passenger terminal, the largest building in Korea, is the linchpin of a wider bid to make Seoul a transportation and business hub, the Hong Kong of northeast Asia.

Inchon is in a promising spot. It is situated roughly midway between the capitals of Japan, the world's second-largest economy, and China, the fastest growing major economy. Economists say northeast Asia is the place where air traffic will grow fastest in coming years, and that by 2010, about half the world's international air passengers will involve travel to and from Pacific Asia.

The airport also has the advantage of being built on ocean landfill, with nothing but fish for neighbors, so it can operate around the clock unhampered by noise complaints. With plenty of space to grow - it covers an area two-thirds the size of Manhattan - the airport is already embarked on a $3.6 billion project to add a third and fourth runway by 2020 and to expand its passenger and cargo terminals to the size of 100 football fields apiece.

Another $1 billion project will link Inchon by high-speed rail to the airport it replaced - Kimpo, now used for domestic flights - by 2005 and downtown Seoul, 32 miles to the east, by 2007.

The grand vision is a Heathrow for East Asia. It might be a little too grand, some skeptics say, for a still-developing economy of 47 million people.

"A hub needs a hinterland," Rono J. Dutta, president of United Airlines, said on a recent visit to Tokyo. "The strength of Tokyo is its location. In Korea vs. Tokyo, Korea loses on what is behind it."

Soccer fans flying between the two World Cup host countries, South Korea and Japan, will see sharp contrasts between Inchon and Narita, the international airport serving Tokyo.

On the Narita end of the trip, they will come in 125 feet above a farmhouse onto a short runway, and then roll to the terminal on a route that detours around another farm, because two farmers out of 325 whose land was needed to expand the airport refused to budge.

It took a 30-year political struggle, and the loss of at least six lives, before Japanese authorities could finally open Narita's badly needed second runway in April. Though a quarter-mile shorter than planned, it nonetheless increased Narita's operating capacity by 50 percent, contributing to the concentration of aviation in Tokyo.

The effects of a long economic slump and the Sept. 11 terror attacks reduced the number of Japanese traveling overseas by 9 percent last year, but international travel by Koreans shot up by 10.5 percent. Still, both countries' airlines struggled last year.

Looking beyond the World Cup, planners see Inchon International Airport as the centerpiece of a new 50-square-mile special economic zone that would stretch from here to Seoul.

"Inchon Airport is a critical part of Korea's plan to become a logistical hub for Asia," said Han Duk Soo, an adviser to President Kim Dae Jung.

Or as Jin Nyum, then minister of finance, said in April: Korea must become "an international business hub within five to 10 years," or its economy would be "oppressed by China and Japan."

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