South Korea airport flies high on debut

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INCHEON, South Korea -- South Korea's new Incheon Airport opened on March 29 without any of the possible glitches that had worried officials of the $5.5 billion facility.

The first plane to touch down was an Asiana Airlines flight from Bangkok, Thailand. The airport's first departure was a Korean Air cargo jet bound for Manila, Philippines.

The Incheon airport, located 32 miles west of Seoul, replaces the capital's Gimpo airport as the new gateway for international flights. Kimpo has been consigned to domestic flights.

Incheon has two 12,375-foot runways and a $1.1 billion 46-gate passenger terminal. It is designed to handle 27 million passengers and 170,000 flights a year, and officials hope to expand its annual capacity to 100 million passengers by 2020.

During its first day of operation, the airport ran the computerized baggage-handling system in a semi-automatic mode after glitches surfaced during rehearsals. Officials said it could take up to three months for the airport's systems to stabilize.

Meanwhile, the government agreed to the demands of unions representing workers at Korean Air, Asiana Airlines and the new airport who threatened to strike on opening day over the high cost of airport expressway tolls.

The government agreed to lower the cost of the toll on the highway that provides the only access to the new airport from $8 to $1.50 per car for airport staff. Regular car and bus passengers will still be charged $8 per vehicle.

A taxi ride into downtown Seoul from Incheon will cost about twice as much as from Gimpo airport, which also can be reached by subway. Less expensive rail service to Incheon will not be available until 2005.

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