South Korea’s number two: Asiana flies high on growth trajectory

Asiana Airlines might not be a household name on the international stage yet, but it is a five-star alternative for intercontinental routes.

03.2019 | Text: Andreas Spaeth

Andreas Spaeth has been traveling the world as a freelance aviation journalist for over 25 years, visiting and writing about air­lines and airports. He is frequently invited to appear on radio and TV programs.


The most flown route in the world: Seoul – Cheju

Cheju: With its fine sandy beaches and impres­sive sights such as this hareubang sculp­ture, the largest island off South Korea is a popular desti­nation for vacationers.

Which is the world’s busiest air route? An ide­al ques­tion on any TV quiz show. There’s a good chance that no con­tes­tant would know the an­swer or even come up with the cor­rect guess. That’s be­cause, in terms of pas­sen­ger traf­fic, the world’s most pop­u­lar route is ac­tu­al­ly a do­mes­tic route in South Ko­rea: from Gim­po, Seoul’s do­mes­tic air­port, to the pop­u­lar re­sort is­land of Cheju—about an hour’s flight from the cap­i­tal. Ac­cord­ing to sta­tis­tics from trav­el da­ta provider OAG, al­most 14 mil­lion pas­sen­gers make this short hop every year, about dou­ble as many who fly the most pop­u­lar do­mes­tic routes with­in Japan. Lo­cat­ed at the south­ern tip of the Ko­re­an Penin­su­la in East Asia, South Ko­rea is tiny com­pared to neigh­bor­ing Chi­na to the west and Japan to the east. Even though South Ko­rea is slight­ly small­er than Ice­land in size, it is home to some 51 mil­lion in­hab­i­tants.

Ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts at the Cen­tre for Avi­a­tion (CA­PA), South Ko­rea has a thriv­ing do­mes­tic avi­a­tion mar­ket that served 65 mil­lion pas­sen­gers in 2017. This is large­ly at­trib­ut­able to the coun­try’s topog­ra­phy as the many moun­tains and stretch­es of wa­ter re­strict over­land trav­el, al­though there are com­pet­i­tive high-speed trains that run on trunk routes. As the coun­try’s flag car­ri­er and largest air­line, Ko­re­an Air has long dom­i­nat­ed the do­mes­tic mar­ket. But when the Kumho Asiana Group—a mul­ti-in­dus­try con­glom­er­ate typ­i­cal of Ko­rea—launched Asiana Air­lines in 1988, a sec­ond play­er ar­rived on the scene. The full-ser­vice air­line cur­rent­ly gen­er­ates rough­ly one-third of its busi­ness with­in its home coun­try where it serves ten des­ti­na­tions, but Asiana has al­so grown in­to a well-re­spect­ed, mid-size glob­al car­ri­er. It launched its first in­ter­na­tion­al ser­vices back in 1991, ini­tial­ly with­in the Asia-Pa­cif­ic re­gion and to Los An­ge­les. Short­ly af­ter, it added Vi­en­na and Brus­sels to its route map as its first Eu­ro­pean des­ti­na­tions.

With its fleet of 83 air­craft, Asiana is rel­a­tive­ly small com­pared to some oth­er East Asian car­ri­ers. Its ap­proach to growth is con­ser­v­a­tive, with a fo­cus on long-haul ser­vices. Asiana cur­rent­ly flies to 51 cities in the Asia-Pa­cif­ic re­gion, plus to six des­ti­na­tions in North Amer­i­ca and eight in Eu­rope. Air trans­port rat­ing or­ga­ni­za­tion Sky­trax award­ed the car­ri­er five stars—the high­est pos­si­ble rank­ing—for its out­stand­ing pas­sen­ger ser­vice. A mem­ber of Star Al­liance since 2003, Asiana of­fers a num­ber of pop­u­lar in­ter­con­ti­nen­tal routes via In­cheon as ap­peal­ing al­ter­na­tives for Eu­ro­peans who want to fly via Asiana’s world-class hub en route to Aus­tralia, for ex­am­ple, or for Amer­i­can pas­sen­gers who can reach 23 des­ti­na­tions in Chi­na with just one stopover. And for pas­sen­gers fly­ing in the oth­er di­rec­tion as well, of course.

Cheju Island: The highlight of the South Korean island, a popular Asiana destination, is the Seongsan Ilchulbong volcanic tuff cone on the eastern seaboard.

South Korea

Administrative language: Korean
Capital: Seoul
System of government: republic
Area: 100,363 km²
Population: 51.4 million
GDP: USD 1,530 bn (2017)

Source: www.auswaertiges-amt.de
As of October 2018

Country of superlatives: Occupying the southern tip of the Korean peninsula, South Korea is only about half the size of England but is one of the world’s strongest economies. It boasts the fastest internet con­nections, the busiest flight route and one of the best air­ports in the world, as ranked by Skytrax in 2018: Incheon Inter­national Airport, Asiana’s hub in Seoul.

Ac­cord­ing to CA­PA, the av­er­age length of an Asiana flight is three hours 20 min­utes, an in­di­ca­tion that the air­line’s main busi­ness comes from flights with­in cen­tral Asia. Seoul to Tokyo is by far Asiana’s busiest mar­ket and one that it ac­tu­al­ly serves on two to­tal­ly sep­a­rate routes, each with about the same num­ber of pas­sen­gers: One op­er­ates from Gim­po, Seoul’s do­mes­tic air­port, to Hane­da Air­port—which most­ly han­dles Tokyo’s do­mes­tic flights. The oth­er runs from In­cheon, South Ko­rea’s in­ter­na­tion­al hub, to Tokyo In­ter­na­tion­al Air­port in Nari­ta. These con­nec­tions rank fourth and fifth in Asiana’s in­ter­na­tion­al net­work, while routes from In­cheon to Shang­hai, to Kan­sai (in Japan) and to Los An­ge­les oc­cu­py the top three spots.

Flagship A380

In 2014, Asiana in­tro­duced the flag­ship Air­bus A380 to its fleet and now op­er­ates six of the 495-seat air­craft on routes to six in­ter­na­tion­al des­ti­na­tions. It de­ploys its A380s on two dai­ly flights to Los An­ge­les as well as on ser­vices to Bangkok, Hong Kong, New York, Syd­ney and Frank­furt, the Star Al­liance hub. Asiana wel­comed its first A350-900 to the fleet in 2017. Now it op­er­ates six of the jets, with 15 more on or­der along with nine A350-1000 jets. De­liv­ery of these new wide­bod­ies, which is ex­pect­ed to be com­plet­ed by 2025, is set to mod­ern­ize the fleet, bring­ing down its av­er­age age of cur­rent­ly 11 years.

On re­gion­al routes, Asiana and its sub­sidiaries al­so op­er­ate 55 Air­bus A320 fam­i­ly jets pow­ered by V2500 en­gines. This is where MTU Main­te­nance Han­nover comes in, sup­port­ing Asiana’s V2500 fleet to en­sure smooth op­er­a­tions. In 2018, the part­ners signed a new con­tract cov­er­ing main­te­nance for 40 per­cent of the air­line’s V2500s and En­gine Trend Mon­i­tor­ing for Asiana’s whole V2500 in­ven­to­ry. “We signed our first main­te­nance con­tract with MTU back in 2011 for CF6 en­gines and we’ve been ex­treme­ly hap­py with their out­stand­ing ser­vice and ex­per­tise ever since,” says E-Bae Kim, Ex­ec­u­tive Vice Pres­i­dent, Cor­po­rate Sup­port at Asiana. “In 2018, we em­barked on an­oth­er long-term jour­ney with MTU for our V2500 en­gines. Our A320 fam­i­ly air­craft form the back­bone of our re­gion­al busi­ness, so en­sur­ing their re­li­able op­er­a­tion is es­sen­tial to our suc­cess.”

Flagship aircraft: Asiana operates six Airbus A380 air­craft on routes to desti­nations all over the world.

“We know we can count on MTU to pro­vide the best lev­el of ser­vice for our com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions and that our suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship will con­tin­ue to grow.”

E-Bae Kim, Executive Vice President Corporate Support of Asiana

Customer proximity is key

One im­por­tant ad­van­tage MTU of­fers in South Ko­rea is the pres­ence of a lo­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tive. “We rec­og­nize that close cus­tomer prox­im­i­ty is ex­treme­ly im­por­tant here, which is why I moved out to Seoul in 2017,” says Wolf­gang Neu­mann, Di­rec­tor Sales, Far East Asia at MTU Main­te­nance. “This way, I have di­rect con­tact with Asiana and oth­er lo­cal cus­tomers on a dai­ly ba­sis. Be­fore, when I was fly­ing in from Ger­many for just a few days at a time, I al­ways had a fixed agen­da. Now I’m flex­i­ble and my cus­tomers can reach me at prac­ti­cal­ly any time—and that re­al­ly makes a dif­fer­ence.” This set­up al­so helps MTU get to grips with how a South Ko­re­an com­pa­ny ticks—some­thing that’s not al­ways easy for West­ern­ers. “My im­pres­sion from the time I’ve spent here in Seoul is that Asiana is quite a lean or­ga­ni­za­tion and some­what less hi­er­ar­chi­cal than its com­peti­tors,” says Neu­mann. And this prox­im­i­ty is some­thing the cus­tomer ap­pre­ci­ates too: “We know we can count on MTU to pro­vide the best lev­el of ser­vice for our com­mer­cial op­er­a­tions and that our suc­cess­ful part­ner­ship will con­tin­ue to grow,” says E-Bae Kim. “And I’m very proud to be part of it.”

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