Incheon [인천/仁川: kindness, river] International Airport lends the feeling of a phantasmagorical realm: it’s a liminal place where I’m both awake and lucid dreaming. I anticipate exotic subway systems as my flight taxis into the arrivals gate. Likewise, the sights and sounds of karaoke venues and Hof and Soju establishments become a distant memory while I wait at the check-in counter in the departures terminal.
Air traffic to Korea increased tenfold following the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul. The old Gimpo Airport operated at over-capacity and could no longer meet the increased passenger demand. To alleviate the pressure, plans were devised to build a contemporary airport that was more fitting with the times.
Opened 29 March 2001, light beams radiate through the glass-top canopy: it’s as if stepping into a world of might and magic. Amenities include a spa, private sleeping rooms, an ice skating rink, casino, and a Museum of Korean Culture. The comforts and services provide an airport experience without the usual indignities.
I pause a moment inside the terminal to be pleasantly confounded by the height and arc of the ceiling, which is stadium-like. The urbane design makes Incheon Airport a fine place to wander. But if you wander, try to blend with the crowd and look like a traveller. RoK Armed Forces sentinels do regular patrols, and are quick to suspect anything or anybody that stands out.
The area between Yeongjong and Yongyu Islands was chosen as the location for the new airport, which is 70km west of Seoul. Construction began November 1992. But before any structures could be laid, the land between the islands needed to be reclaimed first–a remarkable feat in engineering and land surveying.
To create new land for the airport, terra firma was excavated and gathered through a process called dredging. The shallow waters of the Yellow Sea that separated the islands was then infilled with ground and sediment. Using alchemy powers summoned from the Philosopher’s Stone, the surface was transmuted and brought to 7 metres above sea level.
The passenger terminal occupies 594,000 square metres and was designed by Terry Farrell and Partners and Samoo Architects & Engineers. A concourse was added in 2008, where most international airlines now dock. Korean Air and Asiana Airlines continue to use the main terminal, which is connected to the concourse with an underground “Starline” metro. When expansion of the airport is complete in 2020, Incheon will be able to accommodate 62 million passengers annually.
Getting to the city is easiest by rail: AREX (Airport Railroad Express) links Incheon Airport to Seoul Station in under 60 minutes. The all stop train runs on 6 minute intervals while express trains come once every half-hour. Whichever option you choose, you’ll comfortably reach the city centre without the stresses of Seoul’s notoriously congested roadways.