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Korean Air's main hub is ranked world's best airport

Incheon International is little known outside Asia. But results of a recent survey of 8 million fliers could change that.

June 24, 2009|Peter Pae

SEOUL — Korean Air's ambition to be one of the world's top 10 airlines is closely linked to an airport that is ranked among the world's best but little known outside Asia.

Incheon International Airport, just outside Seoul, serves as the main hub for Korean Air and its archrival Asiana Airlines. Both carriers are hoping to use the airport as an "air bridge" in which travelers from North America would make the connection at Incheon to fly to other cities in Asia.

Incheon is "the best international airport nobody knows about," said Joe Brancatelli, business travel consultant and editor of travel website JoeSentMe.com.

The airport is located about 40 miles west of Seoul near the battle of Incheon where U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur led an amphibious invasion that turned the tide in the Korean War. "Few Americans know what Incheon is, and those who do remember it for the Korean War battle."

That may soon change. Last week, Incheon International was selected as the world's best airport by Skytrax, a travel research firm that surveyed 8 million travelers. The airport for the first time topped perennial favorites Hong Kong International Airport and Singapore's Changi Airport.

The survey evaluated 190 airports on nearly 40 different criteria, including check-in facilities, ease of connecting through the airport and baggage handling.

The airport's terminals are about one-third larger than Los Angeles International Airport in terms of floor space but currently handle about half the number of passengers -- 30 million. So it has lots of room for growth, Incheon airport officials said.

It has had several close looks from LAX officials who are gathering ideas for the airport's expansion plans. Some of Incheon's design features and amenities could be incorporated in the plan, airport officials said.

In a recent tour of the airport before the survey results were released, U.S. travelers were shown amenities that few if any U.S. airports could match, including free use of showers and changing rooms similar to those found at five-star hotels. There is a $2 charge for towels and toiletries.

In one area, a dozen computers with free access to the Internet were available for passengers. In another, a dozen sleeping chairs for those with long layovers. There was also a free television news and movie viewing room, a children's playroom and a museum. The same facilities were available at the opposite end of the terminal.

Those with more than a six-hour wait for a connecting flight could also check into a full-service hotel next to the gates where a private room with bed and bath was going for $40 for six hours or $100 for 24 hours.

The airport, built in 2001, also provides one of the more useful services for connecting travelers. Bags are directly transferred to the connecting flight. They don't have to be retrieved, taken through customs and then rechecked, as required at most other international airports.

There are plenty of other distractions for passengers, such as 70 retail shops including upscale boutiques Hermes, Gucci and Chanel, as well as 70 restaurants. Incheon officials said its shops posted more duty-free sales than any other airport except for much larger London Heathrow Airport.

"U.S. international airports I've been to cannot compete with Incheon's food, entertainment options and areas set aside for rest and relaxation," said Kyle Moe, who was returning to the Seattle area with his family after serving at a U.S. military base in South Korea. His two boys, ages 3 and 1, were in the children's play area, which he called "a lifesaver" for helping his children burn off a "lot of energy" before a 10-hour flight.

"We're going to miss this airport," added his wife, Laura.

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peter.pae@latimes.com

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