The faraway airport

In India, too, constraints on capacity are leading to the development of more faraway airports


The Incheon airport in Seoul. Photo: Jean Chung/Bloomberg
The Incheon airport in Seoul. Photo: Jean Chung/Bloomberg

This week I had back-to-back work trips to Tokyo and Seoul. I like both cities and look forward to visiting them. There is one thing though that keeps me on tenterhooks when it comes to booking flights. Will it be HND or NRT? Will it be Gimpo or Incheon?

I am not fussy about airports. I like Singapore’s Changi airport, regularly ranked as the best in the world, but I find it quite unnecessary, really, to provide transit passengers the option of unwinding by a butterfly garden. No, I did not worry about the airports in Tokyo and Seoul because I crave one duty-free over the other or feel attached to their particularities; what I cared about was the time from the airport to the city. On a good day it takes one and a half hours to get from NRT—Tokyo’s Narita airport—to the city centre, as opposed to 35 minutes from Haneda —HND—on a bad day. Gimpo, in Seoul, is roughly 15km away from the city while Incheon is more than triple that. Keep in mind that taxi fares in both these cities are bank heists; from Narita to the city, it can cost you as much as $300 (around Rs.20,000)—something that even the charm of shiny black Toyota Crowns with delicate white-lace back-seat covers doesn’t quite compensate for.

The long distance is really a consequence. Both the Incheon and Narita airports were built to supplement the capacity of the city airports, and cities being as cramped as they are, these “second airports” had to move farther away.

Haneda, originally built in 1931, struggled with growing traffic after Japan lifted restrictions on citizens travelling abroad in 1964—the same year in which the Tokyo Olympics was drawing record crowds into Japan—and a second airport was needed to ease the pressure. There was no space in Tokyo, already the most densely populated prefecture in Japan, so place was found in neighbouring Chiba. By 1978, all international flights were moved to the newly built Narita airport. Similarly, when Seoul hosted the Olympics in 1988, there was a rapid increase in air traffic into South Korea. Gimpo, which was built in the last decade of Japanese rule in Korea and played a key part in the Korean War that followed, was no longer enough. After initially considering a site 124km from Seoul, the administration settled on Incheon for the second airport.

It’s not just Tokyo or Seoul. In India, too, constraints on capacity are leading to the development of more faraway airports. The Kempegowda airport in Bengaluru was among the first to grow out of a small, centrally located airport (HAL) and sprawl itself out 42km from the city. In Delhi, there is now talk of a second airport in Jewar, in Greater Noida, some 93km south of the Indira Gandhi International Airport; and in Mumbai, work has begun on the Navi Mumbai International Airport, situated some 35km from Terminal 2 (43km from Nariman Point)—in a forest clearing near the Ulwe hill in Panvel.

An IATA report published in 2013 forecast that airline passenger numbers would grow to 3.91 billion people by 2017—meaning, more than half of humanity would be getting on to a plane. Cities will have to build bigger and bigger airports to accommodate this expansion, and that means they will only get farther away from the city. The new airports of today will become old airports; maybe the cities themselves will expand such that they are drawn close to these boondocks—it’s happened with the Santacruz airport in Mumbai and Dum Dum airport in Kolkata—and, who knows, some really old airports might be seized upon as new.

It is interesting that most people think of the Don Mueang airport (DMK) in Bangkok as the city’s second airport when, in fact, it is the better-known Suvarnabhumi that is new. DMK was opened as a Royal Thai Air Force base in 1914 and is one of the world’s oldest international airports. It was witness to the Boworadet rebellion in 1933, a fight between the royalists and the constitutionalists. At various times in history, it’s been occupied or used by the Japanese, the British and the Americans. After Suvarnabhumi opened in 2006, Don Mueang was shut down for operations and later reopened as a hub for regional short-haul carriers such as Nok Air and Lion Air, which cater to the booming tourism scene within South and South-East Asian countries. Haneda itself has undergone renovation and is now busier than Narita.

I prefer landing at airports closer to the city but I have found ways of coping when I don’t. This time, when I landed at Narita, instead of just the bottle of water that I buy at Haneda, I got myself two rice ball packets, as though I was going on a little road trip. As the bus rolled out of the terminal and I bit into the sticky sesame-flavoured rice, it occurred to me that a second airport is a layer of a city’s history. Perhaps I shouldn’t grudge that it takes such a long journey to get there.

Red Eye is a monthly column on the odds of travelling for business. Abhijit Dutta tweets at @abhijit1507.

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