Incheon Airport Deserted Despite Peak Summer Season

  • By Kwak Chang-yeol

    June 29, 2020 12:27

    Some 200 check-in counters at Incheon International Airport's Terminal 2 for 10 foreign carriers plus Korean Air are deserted as what is normally the peak summer season gets underway.

    Last year, 187,754 people came and went through the airport every day in May, according to Incheon International Airport Corporation. But the number fell 98 percent in May this year to just 4,449 people.

    Flights to Las Vegas, Rome, Madrid and other top destinations have been halted since March. Before the coronavirus pandemic, around 77,000 people worked at the airport, including staff in restaurants, duty-free shops and banks. How are they faring now that business has ground to a halt?

    One flight attendant who worked for a carrier for more than 15 years has been resting at home for the last three months after flying back from Atlanta, Georgia in early March. She was able to get some work recently flying from Gimpo to Jeju Island for a day and on another flight to Vietnam. But she only worked 50 hours this month, compared to 95 on average before the coronavirus epidemic.

    After a flight to and from Los Angeles later this month, she has to rest for another three months. Her pay has declined significantly from about W6 million a month to W2.2 million (US$1=W1,200). She is able to make even that amount thanks to government subsidies supporting airline industry workers. The problem is that even those subsidies may be halted after October. "If the coronavirus situation does not improve, many flight attendants are afraid they will stop getting paid and even get laid off," she said.

    Korean Air employs about 6,000 flight attendants. Between 12 to 15 make up a team on a big overseas flight, and there are 380 teams at the carrier. After the epidemic started, around 90 teams were placed on rotation every three months. Asiana Airlines, which employs around 2,700 flight attendants, is placing just 20 percent of them on planes since the number of flights has declined to just nine percent of previous levels.

    The situation is even more serious at low-cost carriers. One 34-year-old flight attendant at a budget airline said, "I haven't flown since April and I haven't been paid since then.

    Pilots are getting paid or not, depending on the type of aircraft they operate. One pilot who flies the jumbo Boeing 777 aircraft has not flown since March. Due to safety concerns, domestic carriers allow each pilot to operate only one kind of aircraft. Those who fly Airbus A380 or B777, which are usually deployed on long-haul flights, are suffering the most.

    Korean Air owns 10 A380s and employs 200 pilots for them, and Asiana six and 130. Flights on large passenger planes like the B747-400 or B777-300 have dropped by half. But pilots flying the smaller A330 or B737 are faring better as the number of flying hours returned to 70 to 80 percent of previous levels because of a rise in domestic passengers.

    More than half of the workers preparing inflight meals have been put on leave. Korean Air employs around 160 workers, and only 60 are working. The number of inflight meals served daily declined from 75,000 a day on average to just 3,400 this month. Asiana outsources its inflight meals, which declined from 34,000 to 1,300.

    Duty-free shops were hit hard as well. One staffer at a cosmetics duty-free shop said, "Since April, we have seen zero sales every other day." Lotte used to generate W1 billion in daily revenues at Incheon, to cover the W20 billion in rent and wages for around 1,000 workers. But daily sales have plummeted to W30 million, resulting in snowballing losses.

    One beverage stand at the airport said the daily number of customers fell from 600 to just 100.

    But not everyone is in immediate trouble. The 11,300 regular staff at Incheon are on leave on full pay. One airline worker who is on unpaid leave said, "It feels like they're living in a different world."

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