2017 was a special year of flying for me. It involved reaching top-tier Executive Platinum status with American, followed by award flights in Lufthansa First Class, British Airways First Class, SWISS Business Class, American Airlines Business Class, and ended with Korean Air First Class. It was a fantastic line-up of experiences, most I flew for the first time. Not only was each flight memorable, it also gave me deeper insight and perspective into the booking and planning process, an area I critique heavily.
One of my favorite - and generally underrated - flying programs is Korean Air SKYPASS which offers a very simple and seamless booking experience. Regardless of status, Korean Air allows award space holds up to 30 days! This is great if you're booking with miles to avoid speculatively transferring miles without a seat. Even better, Korean Air releases a generous number of award seats per flight, even on transpacific routes.
You can place award seats on hold online or by calling Korean Air's customer service line. I find Korean Air's phone agents to be friendly, knowledgeable, and consistent. After a quick search, I found and held a First Class seat from Tokyo (NRT) to Seoul (ICN) to San Francisco (SFO), transferred 80,000 miles from Chase directly to my SKYPASS account, and paid $131.46 in taxes.
Airline: Korean Airlines (KE)
Route: Seoul (ICN) - San Francisco (SFO)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
Duration: 10h 25m
Service: First Class
Seoul-Incheon International Airport (ICN) is South Korea's largest airport and has become the benchmark for global terminal experiences. Known for its easy-to-navigate terminal and extensive line-up of shops and restaurants, you could easily mistaken Incheon airport to be a mall, which is a testament to the architecture design and customer flow. What I appreciate most are the spacious high-ceilings and interwoven holding areas amongst the retail stores, breaking up the space into a cohesive fashion.
My connecting flight from Tokyo (NRT) arrived into Terminal 1 at 12:15PM, almost 25 minutes after our scheduled arrival time of 11:50AM. I was first to deplane, cleared customs within a few minutes, and in the lounge by 12:35PM. Unfortunately, Korean Air does not offer additional ground services for its premium passengers, which is a big missed opportunity for the airline, particularly at its hub.
What a disappointing experience. From Los Angeles to Seoul, there is not a single Korean Air lounge that is acceptable or should even be considered a proper First Class lounge. It really is just a roped off holding area with slightly nicer seats. But to call it a world-class lounge is a stretch.
The Korean Air First Class lounge is located on the second floor of the main terminal. Once after security, take the escalator up and walk across a gangway to enter the lounge. You can't miss the elaborate Korean Air branding emblazoned on the lounge's exterior walls.
I entered and approached the only agent greeting passengers. Her back was turned and looked like she was filing papers. She did not greet or acknowledge me until I said hello. Did I enter the wrong lounge? I literally asked myself this question about a dozen times throughout my time there, but sadly no. She checked my boarding pass, passport, and on I went.
The space itself is massive with seating for over 250 passengers. You'll first enter a hallway of conference rooms located on both sides and open up into the main room. Check out the bizarre set-up of the main conference room. There's 4 sporadically placed tables for a room designed for 20 tables. Just odd.
The design for the rest of the lounge was normal with a buffet area located in the center and sectioned off seating areas surrounding it. The highlight of the lounge was the panoramic views of the tarmac, which I couldn't get enough of.
The food offering was atrocious. I likened it to a "poor man's " PF Chang's, with 3 hot dishes including fried rice, and some orange chicken-esque dish. Also offered were small finger foods, vegetable crudité, and pastries. The drink, wine, and spirit selection was decent but not acceptable for a First Class lounge.
I left after 30 minutes and decided to spend the rest of my time shopping.
The Boarding Process
After exploring the airports extensive shops and restaurants, I decided to head to the gate. The flight began boarding late at 3:35PM, 5 minutes after the scheduled boarding time. First Class was invited to board first and I made my way down.
I initially booked this flight specifically to fly onboard their new Boeing 747-8i, which offers the best First Class product. However, a few months later, Korean Air increased their San Francisco frequency to 2X daily and decided to deploy two Boeing 777-300ER's instead of one 747, which makes economic sense.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with the Boeing 777-300ER but I had my hopes on the 747. For non-aviation fans, the 777 has become the industry's star player with nearly every airline operating this aircraft. The plane's most notable features are the two mega-engines and ability to fly almost 17 hours nonstop, which is an engineering marvel.
Upon boarding through door 1L, I was greeted by one of four flight attendants working First Class and the main flight attendant serving my aisle. Despite being first to board, I was surprised to see another First Class passenger already boarded and seated, which made taking pictures of the empty cabin difficult.
After settling in, the flight attendant offered to take my beverage order. I asked for water, which was served with macadamia nuts. At my seat were 5 sets of menus including a traditional Korean Bi Bim Bap menu, traditional Hansik Jeongchan or Korean menu, a Western menu, an Espresso menu, and full wine list. I mean, wow, talk about nothing in the lounge and everything in the air.
The flight attendant then offered pajamas, an amenity kit by Ferragamo, and a refreshing face spray. I went with a Medium for pajamas, which fit my body well except for the sleeves, which was a bit short. This seems to be a common trend with the last few First Class pajamas I've received in both Lufthansa and British Airways.
The Cabin + Seats
Weeks before departure, I grew deathly afraid I would be flying on an older generation and outdated First Class product given the aircraft swap. I was very relieved when I stepped onboard to find the latest product, similar to its 747-8i seats. Korean Air has been speeding-up their onboard product fresh with its latest First Class product, otherwise known as the Kosmo Suite 2.0, a fully-enclosed suite.
The First Class cabin has seating for 8 passengers, spread across 2 rows in a 1-2-1 configuration. This is a standard configuration for a First Class cabin, which typically feels both spacious and comfortable. The cabin features warm yellow tones, which compliments the wood grain and Korean Air signature blue upholstery. To offset the softer tones are the suite's metal door, which added a "masculine" element to the cabin.
The suite itself is a solid hard-product, offering a decent amount of storage including a coat closet, two side compartments, and space under the ottoman for your carry-on bag. My roller-board was slightly too big after a 2-week trip to Japan, otherwise, I liked the convenience of having your carry-on bag within arms reach.
I assigned myself seat 2A, which is a window seat on the left side of the cabin. To the left of the seat were the main controls for your light and four pre-set seat settings, a television remote, and outlets. Behind the main control was the only compartment for additional storage. To the front is your extra large table, which could slide back and forth. Comfort-wise, I found the seat to be well cushioned and wide, although the seat back could have been designed a bit taller.
The best feature of this product is the fully-enclosed doors, which truly elevated the in-seat experience.
The plane was fully boarded and ready for pushback at 4:10PM, 10 minutes after our scheduled departure time. We taxied for 20 minutes before making our way to Runway 33L for a quick take-off.
Along the way, we passed an Asiana Boeing 747-400ER and the airports new Terminal 2, which will be the home for Korean Air and its SkyTeam partners. It looks beautiful.
15 minutes after take-off, we were airborne and leveled-off. The captain came on to add his welcome and to inform us of our flying time of 9 hours, shaving off an hour from our total flying time. I'm always indifferent about shorter flight times, especially when I'm trying to savor my First Class experience. :)
The inflight service began shortly after leveling-off, starting with drink and menu orders. Be forewarned, the first meal service is extensive and lasted almost 2.5 hours. And, funny enough, the only other time I ate for this long was my First Class flight on Asiana. Go figure!
Korean Air offers 3 different coursed meal options: 1 Western meal and 2 traditional Korean meals including their signature Bi Bim Bap. Perhaps this makes up for their terrible lounge food but I was thoroughly impressed by the expansive menus. I asked to customize my meal and combine the Bi Bim Bap with the Western meal, which the crew happily obliged.
To begin, I ordered glass of the Perrier-Jouet Belle Epoque Rosé 2006 and sparkling water. Drinks arrived by cart along with my table settings and the amuse bouche of seared scallop and black mushroom with a spicy orange sauce. The scallop was perfectly cooked with the right firmness, which is unbelievable considering the limitions of an airplane galley.
Next, the caviar service. Oh my goodness how I love caviar even more when served on an airplane. It's such a sophisticated and nostalgic service item made popular during the golden age of air travel. The single serving of caviar was paired with traditional blini's, onions, egg whites, egg yolks, creme fraiche, lemon, and a mother of pearl spoon(!!). So elegant and so delicious.
Next, the wild sesame soup with stuffed bean curd. While the soup was flavorful, the temperature could have been hotter. Overall, it wasn't my favorite course from the meal.
Next, the delicious salad from the salad cart. A lovely touch to have the salad prepared seat-side.
For my main course, I selected the Bi Bim Bap with traditional side dishes or banchan. The meal was also served with both the Spicy Hairtail Soup, and Braised Chicken Stew. The entire course was phenomenal. From the preparation to the portions, the entire course felt authentically Korean and just as good on the ground, if not better.
For dessert, the cart arrived with fresh seasonal fruit, cheese and crackers, and a red bean paste with sweet potato. At this point, I was stuffed but I still found room to balance out the heavy meal with some delicious cut fruit. The flight attendant also convinced me to try their Cappuccino from the Espresso menu, freshly baked cookies, and the chocolate molten cake. I said yes to all, and thoroughly enjoyed each.
The meal service concluded just under 2.5 hours, which may be the longest meal I've had on an airplane.
The pre-arrival meal began 1.5 hours before arrival. The menu consisted of three options: a Korean style beef rib with side dishes, a Western option, and mini French toast. I opted for the Western option with fresh scrambled eggs on a bed of potato apple roesti served with crispy bacon and cherry tomatoes. The eggs were so delicious, I thought for a moment they were freshly scrambled onboard.
As the culinary journey came to an end, the flight attendants brought out a refreshing and soothing cup of Omija Punch, or a tea with fruits in it to help with digestion. It may be an acquired taste for most but I found it to be calming. Check out the heart-shaped apple slices.
The Entertainment + WiFi
The more I travel, the more I value WiFi as the most important inflight amenity. Not to stream videos or surf the net, but I value the ability to stay connected and catch-up on work. So when an airline doesn't offer any WiFi in today's day and age, the flight automatically loses a few experience points.
Korean Air is an airline that does not offer WiFi and I'm not surprised. The airline has learned to play to its strengths and technology is not one of them. However, where the airline lacks in WiFi, it makes up with a wonderful selection of TV and movies. On this flight, I enjoyed the hilarious Rough Night with my favorite comedian Kate McKinnon. Who doesn't love her Hilary impression?
After the meal service concluded, we had around 6.5 hours left in our flight leaving only just a few hours for me to get some rest. I asked for turndown service, went to change into the uber-soft PJ's, and came back to a fully-flat bed with a fluffy mattress pad and plush duvet. Everything about their onboard bedding was outstanding and comfortable for every type of sleeper too. I got in about 5 hours of rest, just in time for the pre-arrival service.
The flight began its decent 45 minutes before landing, a bit earlier than normal. Unfortunately, weather in the Bay Area was not ideal and left us circling over the Pacific for a bit. We were cruising alongside a Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER for about 10 minutes before it flew left into the clouds.
Landing is by far my favorite part of flying and I intently follow the flight pattern until touchdown. About 20 minutes before touchdown, I realized we were making our way through the North Bay and back over Oakland to land on 19L, which is incredibly rare for SFO. I was very excited for this approach and the crew touchdowned right on time in overcast and drizzly weather.
Here is something worth mentioning. Immediately after pulling into the gate, the flight attendants will block both aisles and the Business Class passengers from rushing to exit the plane until First Class has deplaned. They will ensure each First Class passenger has time to pack up their belongings without a hoard of people trying to squeeze behind you. It was such a luxurious and thoughtful touch.
Korean Air is an incredibly hard working airline, perhaps, to a fault. The airline is intently focused on perfecting key touch points, like its meal service and flight attendant interactions, areas they know they can win. For example, I found the meal service was designed to perfection. However, it was also overkill. Who needs to be eating for 2.5 hours? Instead of plating and serving each course, the airline could shave off 15 minutes by serving both dishes together. But, you can tell the airline is deeply passionate about its food and curating an over-the-top culinary journey with 4 different menus, an Espresso menu, freshly baked cookies, caviar service, and more. How about we put some of that effort into the ground experience, too?
Korean Air is great about playing to its strengths. If they're unable to offer the best product in the marketplace, they simply will do just enough to get by. This was most evident with their atrocious First Class lounge experience, lack of WiFi or advanced inflight technology, and simple seats. From check-in to inflight, you'll recognize underdeveloped and overdeveloped areas.
Overall, I would fly Korean Air again in a heartbeat. Is it the best experience? No. Is it the worst? No. Is it of great value? Yes. When flying Korean Air, you can expect an outstanding inflight experience, easy point transfer options, and generous award availability. When it comes to award bookings, Korean Air is a solid redemption option and one anyone would enjoy.