Incheon Airport Nearly Could Not Open

An airport is one of the most important social infrastructures. As its impact on the economy and people’s lives is enormous, an airport is a large-scale project that involves many stakeholders—from construction to operation.

This post introduces the story behind how Incheon Airport, the biggest project in Korean history, was constructed and developed.

The reason why backpacking increased in 1989

Just a generation ago, not everyone could travel overseas. Trip to overseas was prohibited to the extent that no passport was issued for tourism purposes, only for business purposes. The turning point was made through an international sports event. As the government hosted the 1986 Asian Games and the 1988 Summer Olympics, there came the waves of globalization and internationalization, where the government reviewed whether to lift a ban on overseas travel and finally opened the door to the world in the same year.

As overseas travel became available for everyone in 1989, the number of outbound tourists exceeded 1 million for the first time. It was due to an increasing number of undergraduates, who went abroad to study and backpack during their vacation. A lot of travel agencies were created in response to this rising demand, giving rise to a boom in tourism. Although the Gimpo Airport made its expansion, it couldn’t keep up with the increasing number of passengers. So, the government decided to construct a new airport in the Metropolitan Area to replace Gimpo Airport.

22 regions competed for the new airport. And the winner is…?

The New Airport Construction Committee in March 1989 narrowed the new airport candidates down to 22 regions in Gyeonggi-do and Chungcheongnam-do, and to 7 regions including Yeongjongdo Island, Sihwa 1, and Sihwa 2 after the preliminary survey. In the final stage, 3 regions including Yeongjongdo Island were competing. Among them, Sihwa was expected to cause a potential noise pollution as the southern part was bordered with land.

Based on the above feasibility study, Yeongjongdo Island was selected unanimously as the final region for the new airport on June 14, 1990.

Yeongjongdo Island is Korea’s 6th largest island. Its original area was smaller, but a large-scale reclamation project connecting 4 islands was executed to construct Incheon Airport, resulting in this large island we know today. Half of this island is used by Incheon Airport.

Incheon Airport stood tall against all odds

Things seemed to go well but had never been easy.

“The airport’s area of 56 million ㎡ is twice that of O’Hare International Airport, the world’s biggest airport, and five times that of Kansai International Airport, Asia’s biggest. It is worrisome if the airport can be maintained as planned after construction.

“Instead of adhering to investing in new airport construction, the scale of the new airport project should be revised to accommodate the current economic conditions by expanding or better operating Gimpo Airport.

The construction of Incheon Airport faced many oppositions from the beginning. There were negative opinions from the one that the area for the airport was too big to the one that it costs too much.

Furthermore, some argued that the project must be scaled down as they could not expect that the passenger demand would continue to rise. There were also other concerns that Yeongjongdo Island was not a good place for the new airport due to the risk of bird strikes, the potential aftermath of ecosystem destruction, construction costs, the airport scale, natural disasters, and environmental pollution.

However, given today’s Incheon Airport, we can see that those concerns in the past were “unwarranted.” For 19 years since its opening, Incheon Airport has proven itself as a hub airport in Northeast Asia and a global airport in the world through its safe and stable operations.

In particular, because the Incheon Airport land area reclaimed between Yeongjongdo Island and Yongyudo Island is 52  away from Seoul and 15  away from Incheon, it is considered the optimal place to operate 24/7 without causing any noise pollution.

Incheon Airport made efforts to minimize any environmental harm by installing barriers in its construction and dredging area to prevent any suspended materials from leaking. It is also currently investing in eco-friendly facilities and reducing energy consumption.

Aircrafts landing or taking off in Incheon Airport do not pass migratory birds’ habitats, and the impact of migratory birds on aircraft damage or operation is very low. Incheon Airport is currently operated by the cutting-edge instrument landing system CAT-lllb, where an aircraft can land or take off as long as visibility is ensured for 75 m. So, the impact of fog is also minimal.

If we were overwhelmed by opinions emphasizing potential risks in the beginning, it would not be possible to witness Incheon Airport today.

We have so far looked into the amazing story behind Incheon Airport’s construction. The next post will dive into Incheon Airport’s construction projects by phase. By looking at how adjacent facilities, including passenger terminals and runways were built one after another, it will be a good opportunity to understand how Incheon Airport has become what it is today. Stay tuned! 😊

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