Posted : 2013-03-07 18:15
Updated : 2013-03-07 18:15

How (not) to spend 24 hours at Incheon Airport

Jung Min-ho
In the 2004 Steven Spielberg film, "The Terminal," Tom Hanks plays the role of a man who arrives in New York when there is a coup in his Eastern European homeland. With his return ticket and passport impounded, the man finds himself trapped in the international travel lounge of the city's Kennedy Airport indefinitely until peace returns.

During a desperate search for a Weekender subject, the movie came to the mind of one of our editors, who suggested a reporter be confined at the Incheon International Airport for a day and chronicle his or her mental state. Of course, he wasn't going to do it himself, so Jung Min-ho had to.

The PR people at the airport weren't contacted over worries that they would let Jung be too comfortable.

In no man's land with coffee, burgers and books

By Jung Min-ho

Being trapped in an airport can be torture. Essentially, airports are intended to be gateways, not the destination. Travelers go there with the purpose of leaving as quickly as they can.

And every traveler seems to have an airport-related horror story: flights postponed or canceled due to bad weather, the excruciatingly long layovers that are the cost of getting cheaper tickets, or luggage arriving days later in different pieces.

So it could be argued that the true quality of an airport hinges on how easy it is for travelers to tolerate it when they are stuck there for longer than they want to be.

Incheon International Airport has won a slew of international accolades, including the World's Best Airport by Skytrax last year.

But does it really live up to that lavish title? There was only one way to find out.

The following is the record of 24 hours spent at the airport from 9 a.m. on Feb. 28 to March 1.

9:25 a.m.:
A group of Chinese backpackers come out of the gate of the arrivals terminal on the airport's first floor, their eyes seemingly full of excitement and curiosity. At the terminal for departures on the third floor, people are hugging their friends and family members before leaving for the airplane. Observing these groups of people on a chair for a few minutes, I head to a coffee shop for a desperately-needed caffeine jolt.

11:00 a.m.: The coffee is beginning to wear off and I have still 22 hours to go. I flip open my laptop. The airport's free Wi-Fi is delightfully fast. The only problem is that the airport doesn't have nearly enough electrical outlets and I made the mistake of bringing an undercharged laptop. After checking some emails, I put the computer away and go to a bookstore to buy a book.

11:55 p.m.: Still at the bookstore, a man with a heavy Indian accent asks me about something in what I guess is English. I imagine I heard the words "take" and "pie" and point toward the escalators leading up to the fourth floor where a slew of restaurants are located. Then I realize I am hungry and follow him upstairs.

12:35 p.m.:
The fourth floor, which I didn't bother to check in the morning, seems like a totally different world from the floors beneath it. A theme park of restaurants, so to speak. Of course, most of the eateries here seem to be all frills and expensive. I desperately search for the cheapest meal and settle on chicken curry and rice, which actually looks worthy of the 11,000 won (about $10) I paid for it. My fork hits the bottom of an empty plate very soon. I have to say that it was not a bad curry.

1:00 p.m.: A full stomach brings a weird sense of satisfaction. I hear the Korean traditional tune, "Arirang," playing somewhere and follow my ears. Three ladies in "hanbok" (traditional Korean garb) are playing the music with traditional instruments next to an in-house pavilion the airport named "Biseonlu." I sit on a low wooden bench. Arirang proves to be the perfect tune to fall asleep to.

2:10 p.m.: The airport seems intent on bludgeoning visitors with elements of Korean traditional culture. I, on the other hand, crave a cup of Americano. At the coffee shop I meet the Indian man again. He sees me, but not in a welcoming way. So I guess he had no interest in finding a "pie" to "take."

4:00 p.m.:
I am sitting in a first floor coffee shop with my second cup of the day. I pull out the book I bought earlier. A woman sitting next to me is fielding a call from a friend who seems to be asking for a variety of items available at the duty free shops. Then she gets a call from another person and speaks to her in fluent Chinese. I can't help myself from looking up. She stares right back at me. I imagine her saying "you thought I was Korean, didn't you?"

7:30 p.m.: This whole assignment was inspired by the movie, "The Terminal." That film was about a man forced to live in an airport away from home. My lasting memory from the film? Tom Hanks eating Burger King at night. That's what I am getting for dinner.

10:00 p.m.: The shops are starting to close. The number of people wandering around the airport has decreased significantly. I see many people walking or sitting alone. Many of them look exhausted. Some are lying on chairs and falling asleep. I am relieved that I have survived the halfway point of my assignment. I celebrate with my third cup of coffee.

12:05 a.m.:
I watch the MBC talk show, "Knee Guru," along with strangers at one of the televisions in the hallway. It's a neat feeling to laugh with strangers at the same joke. We obviously have nothing better to do.

12:30 a.m.: Finding a long chair in a quiet and safe spot is critical for sleeping at an airport. The competition for chairs is not very fierce here, thankfully. I throw myself on a long chair on the third floor, but the light is too bright above. When I ask if there is a place to rest, a passerby tells me there is a spa in the basement floor.

12:45 a.m.: The spa costs 20,000 won ($19) a night. I see a bunch of men and women lying in a one dark, spacious space. The place is clean and cozy. The money includes bathhouse, a short-sleeved T-shirt and pants, which is not warm enough for the low temperature inside.

2:30 a.m.:
Distracted by someone's dramatic divorce story from ladies lying next to me, I am still awake.

5:30 a.m.: I fall into a pattern of dozing off to sleep, then awake shivering with cold. It becomes hard to stay asleep as people move out of the place to catch their planes, making rustling sounds here and there. I resent my editor for not allowing me to call the PR people at the airport. They would have suggested a warmer place to sleep or at least some blankets. And they could have shown me around the duty free shops.

8:40 a.m.: I am back on the first floor. It feels like I just came back from a day long trip. If I stuck to the chair to sleep, or with a blanket in the spa, I would have had a better night.

9:00 a.m.: About to leave for home. Despite the fact that I knew little about the airport, which is the case for most travelers, I was very impressed by the quality of services and first-rate facilities here even aside from the ones that I did not use, including a skating rink, a two-screen theater and a golf course that is a minute away via free shuttle bus. One traveler I encountered told me it "makes many other international airports look uncivilized." And after 24 hours here, I agree.

10:30 a.m.: But still, there is no place like home.

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