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Singapore and South Korea airport operators battle for Manila

Will the Philippine gateway look more like Changi or Incheon?

Automated immigration control gates are seen at Changi airport's Terminal 4 in Singapore.   © Reuters

MANILA -- Two of Asia's top airport operators are poised to go head to head here as a spate of new projects in emerging countries spurs industry players to pursue more opportunities outside their home markets.

South Korea's Incheon International Airport Corp. is considered the leading candidate to work with local conglomerate San Miguel on the planned New Manila International Airport, which will become the Manila metro area's third airport. Doing so would bring it into direct competition with Singapore's Changi Airport Group, which is involved in the two existing airports.

Both companies look to use the capital as a stepping stone toward broader foreign expansion, particularly in Asia, where rapid economic growth in emerging countries has stoked demand for more air travel facilities to keep up with rising traffic.

Incheon's Philippine plans center on the new airport to be built about 30 km northwest of downtown Manila in Bulacan Province. San Miguel has secured government approval for the 735 billion peso ($14.4 billion) project and plans to break ground as early as next month.

The airport will start off with two runways, letting it accommodate 20 million travelers per year, before later expanding to four runways and 100 million passengers. San Miguel President Ramon Ang has called it a "game-changer" for the Philippines' economy and industry.

Philippine Airlines and Cebu Pacific airplanes at Ninoy Aquino International Airport in Manila. (Photo by Kosaku Mimura)

The conglomerate needs an experienced partner to handle the large volumes of people and cargo expected to pass through the facility, which is where Incheon comes in. The companies signed a memorandum of understanding on operating the new airport in November 2018, and they previously partnered on a bid to expand and operate Mactan-Cebu International Airport.

Incheon, which first set up a team for overseas operations in 2007, has participated in such projects as a master plan for a new terminal at Indonesia's Surabaya Juanda Airport. It took over operation of a terminal at Kuwait International Airport last year.

"We want to add more 'second Incheons' around the world," including in the Philippines and Indonesia, an Incheon executive said. The company aims to double its annual revenue to 5 trillion won ($4.27 billion) in 2030 on the back of foreign expansion.

Incheon International Airport itself placed third in this year's Skytrax ranking of the world's top airports, which looks at such factors as staff attitude, amenities, cleanliness and comfort. Leading the pack was Singapore's Changi International Airport, whose operator has already made inroads into Manila.

A consortium of seven Philippine conglomerates plans to invest 102 billion pesos to expand Ninoy Aquino International Airport -- named the world's worst airport on multiple occasions -- to more than double its annual capacity to 65 million passengers by 2022. The group has named Changi as a partner.

The Singapore-based company also is involved in the private-sector venture that took over operation of Clark International Airport, 100 km northwest of Manila, from the government in August. Plans are underway to open a new terminal there in the middle of next year, nearly tripling its capacity to 12.2 million passengers.

"Together with our partners and with the support of key stakeholders, we will develop Clark as the region's premier gateway," Changi Airports International CEO Lim Liang Song said early this year.

After the third airport opens, the Manila metro area will be able to accommodate over 170 million fliers per year -- more than triple the number last year. Competition for customers looks certain to intensify.

Since expanding outside Singapore around 2000, Changi has been involved in managing 10 or so airports in Asia, Europe and elsewhere, building up its expertise. It currently holds stakes in and handles operations for airports in such countries as Russia and Brazil. In April, a consortium including Changi and West Japan Railway took over operation of Japan's Fukuoka International Airport.

Changi, Incheon and other operators look to seize on the business opportunities provided by a wave of airport construction and expansion around the world, particularly in fast-growing Asia, where Indonesia, Vietnam, Myanmar and India are all working on expanding international airports. More than 10 projects are underway in South and Southeast Asia, according to Japan's transport ministry.

Japanese players are getting in on the act. Trading house Mitsubishi Corp. and aviation services company Jalux have run Myanmar's Mandalay International Airport in partnership with local conglomerate Yoma since 2015. The two Japanese companies, along with the operators of Haneda and Narita airports, announced this past July a joint venture with the Mongolian government to run New Ulaanbaatar International Airport, which is slated to open next year.

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