Traffic at Incheon International Airport is surging despite the global economic slump. A total of 39 million passengers passed through the airport last year, up 11 percent compared to 2011.
Incheon is operating at close to 90 percent of its capacity of 44 million passengers. The number of transfer passengers also increased 13 percent.
An average of 694 passenger planes used the airport per day, compared to 589 two years ago.
Combining the numbers at all other airports across the country, a record 69.3 million people used air transportation, up 2.8 percent from 2011. International flight passengers increased 12 percent to 50 million.
The trend is continuing this year. Korean Air carried 1.42 million passengers on its international flights in January, slightly more than the 1.4 million during the same month a year ago. Asiana Airlines had 1 million passengers, up almost 7 percent.
"Taking into account that the Lunar New Year holidays fell in January last year, passenger traffic last month really rose more than 10 percent on-year," said an aviation industry source.
Hana Tour and Mode Tour, the top two travel agencies here, said their outbound tourists last month hit a new record of 185,000 and 103,000.
What is behind the growth in air traffic? Industry insiders say there has been an increase in the number of foreigners visiting Korea thanks to the popularity of the Korean Wave, while an increase in living standards has contributed to a surge in the number of Koreans traveling abroad.
There has also been a huge rise in the number of singles in their 20s and 30s who spend lavishly on themselves since they don't need to save up for their families. And with the economic slump dragging on, young people in this group have increased spending on overseas travel to get away from problems at home.
Another factor is the increasing number of budget carriers that specialize in short-haul routes. The number of passengers on budget carriers last year rose 24.1 percent compared to the previous year.
The strong won also played a role, making it cheaper for Koreans to travel abroad, especially to Japan.
The aviation and tourism industries expect the surge to continue for the time being. Korean Air forecasts that global air passenger traffic will increase 5.1 percent this year, with the Korean market growing 7 percent.
Asiana also set its international flight passenger load for this year at 12.61 million, up 11 percent from last year.