Officials on Asia mission to bring Korea flights to Philadelphia airport

Airport chief Mark Gale : Phila. a good spot for the flights.
Airport chief Mark Gale : Phila. a good spot for the flights.
Posted: September 24, 2012

City Councilman David Oh and Philadelphia airport chief executive Mark Gale are in Seoul to meet with top executives of South Korea's two largest airlines to discuss the possibility of starting direct flights between that country and Philadelphia.

Oh, the first Asian American member of Council, pursued contacts at the Korean Consulate in New York and in the South Korean government to get meetings this week with Chang-hoon Chi, president and chief operating officer of Korean Air, and with Jae Young Park, vice president at Asiana Airlines.

"Some countries, by culture, even their governments and corporations, are heavily relationship-oriented. Korea is one of them," said Oh, a lawyer and Republican at-large councilman. "The desire, and the friendship, and the willingness to work together means a lot to them."

Also on the trip is Howard Mann, an air-service development consultant for Philadelphia airport, who will meet with technical planners at Korean Air and Asiana, two top airlines in Asia.

Philadelphia airport constantly strives to attract new airlines, and the discussions can take a year or longer. Earlier this year, Virgin America, Alaska Air and Spirit Airlines began or announced new air service from Philadelphia.

New carriers and routes translate into increased airport revenue from taxi, landing and gate fees, which, in turn, help pay for expansion projects and airport improvements.

For consumers, new routes provide more choices and increased competition that can lead to lower fares.

Oh, who handled Gov. Tom Ridge's trade mission to Korea in 1999 and chairs Council's new Global Opportunities committee, said the idea for the meetings originated with briefings to City Council last spring on a proposed $6.4 billion expansion of Philadelphia International Airport.

"It occurred to me, as a legislator, that in order to get the funding to expand our airport to that degree we would need to have new flights, new carriers. Asia would, I think, be the primary place for us to go - from Philadelphia to Asia."

Oh, Gale, and Mann flew Saturday - with a plane change in California - to Incheon International Airport, South Korea's primary airport, 30 miles west of Seoul, with flights all through Asia.

When Oh, a Korean American, asked contacts in the Korean government about potential interest in Philadelphia flights, the initial answer was "a low level of interest," he said.

He opted to appeal directly to the airlines' executives about "the benefits of doing business with us."

"That means the opportunity to talk with Korean corporations, not just about what is the best airport for you to be in today, but what is a good airport to be in tomorrow," Oh said.

Korea's consul in New York pushed for the meetings. Word came back to send a formal request, and letters were written to the chairman and CEO of Korea Air and Asiana Airlines.

"They got right back. The answer was 'yes' right away. Boom, give us some dates," said the councilman, whose flight is being paid from airport operating funds, not taxpayer dollars.

"We have to go there and say 'Look, we really want you,' " he said. "I think only good things can come from very aggressively pursuing this."

The only nonstop flight to Asia from Philadelphia is a daily US Airways flight to Tel Aviv, Israel.

In 2007, US Airways, Philadelphia's dominant airline, announced it would fly nonstop to China, starting in 2009. But when jet-fuel costs skyrocketed and the economy plunged into a recession, the plan was shelved.

US Airways will get longer-range Airbus A350 aircraft in 2017 capable of flying to Beijing "and we may revisit Asia at that time," said spokesman Todd Lehmacher.

For now, Philadelphia travelers have to go to other airports - Newark, N.J., New York's JFK, and Washington Dulles - to get nonstops to Asia.

Direct nonstop air service to Asia is "one of the most highly sought after," particularly on the East Coast, said Gale, the Philadelphia airport's CEO. "We are the largest metropolitan area in the country without nonstop direct service to Asia."

Philadelphia is an advantageous location to support such flights because of the region's demographics and many Fortune 500 companies, pharmaceutical firms, universities, health-care institutions, and burgeoning arts and cultural scene, he said.

Seoul would be "a great landing point for continuing service into other parts of Asia," Gale said.

When assessing potential demand for international destinations, planners study many factors - economic, social, tourism, foreign students - that would generate demand for travel, said Philip Hopkins, director of research at Select Greater Philadelphia.

The 327,421 residents of Asian descent in this region - about 5.3 percent of the population, based on the 2010 census - do not include foreign workers here on visas, or students from Asia who attend more than 100 colleges and universities in the area.

Planners consider the foreign population - and people traveling back and forth to visit family and friends. They look at U.S. and foreign companies with operations in two places, and trade flows - exports and imports that would generate business travel, Hopkins said.

According to Select Greater Philadelphia, the Philadelphia region has:

759 foreign-owned companies. Five are South Korean, including Hyundai Rotem Corp., a manufacturer of rail and transit cars, and Hyundai Glovis' U.S. subsidiary, a logistics firm for importing 162,000 Hyundai and Kia autos annually through the Philadelphia port, headed for dealer showrooms.

The United Kingdom has the most companies here: 142. Germany is second with 102, and Japan No. 3 with 77. China has three, Taiwan has five, and Australia, 21.

14 Fortune 500 companies and 35 Fortune 1000 companies.

25 corporations, with U.S. or global headquarters here, that have 389 "foreign operations" ranging from small sales offices to large manufacturing plants in 16 Asian countries.

A survey of Philadelphia-area business air travelers found 65 percent said nonstop flights were "extremely important."

Top desired international business destinations were Tokyo, Shanghai, Beijing, Mumbai, India, and Milan, Italy. Top nonstop desired international leisure destinations were Milan; Vancouver, Canada; Sao Paulo, Brazil; Tokyo; and Buenos Aires, Argentina.

Direct nonstop flights to Asia have been the dream of Philadelphia's tourism and hospitality communities.

Philadelphia last year had 39,000 visitors from China, 18,000 from India, and 16,000 from Japan, both leisure and business travelers.

"Anytime you have nonstop flights it opens up the markets and makes it easier for people to come and go," said Jack Ferguson, president and CEO of the Philadelphia Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Nearly half of the business at the Pennsylvania Convention Center is medical, health care, and biosciences related. The attendees are international, Ferguson said.

Direct flights to Asia are important because of the large emerging middle-class populations in those countries that now travel, he said.

Korean Air flies to 119 cities in 40 countries. Asiana flies to 68 cities in 22 countries. Both have international hubs in Incheon.

"The public, even the business community, may think a flight out of the airport is simply a route from Philadelphia to Seoul," Oh said. "It's more than that. These are carriers that would fly from Philadelphia to Japan, to Seoul, to Shanghai, to Beijing, potentially."

Promoting Philadelphia, By the Numbers

The region has:


foreign-owned companies. Five of them are South Korean


Fortune 500 companies


Fortune 1000 companies


corporations based here that have foreign operations in Asia. (Total of 389 sales offices or manufacturing plants in 16 countries.)



of the

6.2 million residents who are of Asian descent

SOURCE: Select Greater Philadelphia

Contact Linda Loyd at 215-854-2831