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72 Hours With Korean Air: Getting to Korea (Trip Report)

Five flights. Four aircraft types. Two airlines. Two maintenance bases. Two catering kitchens. One hotel. One farm (yes, a farm). One flight training center. One airline headquarters. One medical center. And I just missed a traditional village. In 72 hours, I had the chance to experience all of this with Korean Air. (The entire trip was paid for by Korean Air.) See Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

It sounds like an interesting trip, but you know what made this unique? Every single one of those things is owned by Korean Air or its parent, Hanjin. If you thought Delta buying a refinery was a stretch then get ready to see how things work in Korea. In 72 hours I was able to get a sense for what is really a very different kind of airline than what you’ll find in the US.

Korean A380

I was debating the best way to put this report together, and I decided to just plow through it chronologically. The idea for this trip came up just last month, and it gelled very quickly. My contact at Korean knows that I’m not as interested in traditional media trips where the focus is often on the destination instead of the airline itself. So when she had to be in Korea for a meeting, the opportunity came together to do an action-packed trip that focused entirely on the airline and its various subsidiaries. This seemed like the perfect trip to be my first experience in Asia. (Seriously, I had never touched any part of the continent before.)

Korean runs two daily flights from LA to Seoul’s Incheon airport. The first is a daylight trip on the A380 with the second being an overnight trip, usually on a 777-300ER. The A380 departure on the return is in the afternoon followed by the other departure in the evening. I can’t sleep on airplanes so I was clearly going to take the A380 out. I thought about doing the return on the evening flight, but due to maintenance, they had an older 747-400 with the old interior operating that day. I was more interested in seeing how the new flat beds were for sleeping, so I stuck with the A380.

The night before the trip began, I tried to check in for my first flight online, but that wasn’t to be. Apparently Korean requires you to be registered to check in. I signed up for a Skypass account, but I put my first name as Brett whereas the ticket had my first and middle names together. Because of that, it wouldn’t let me check in or pick a seat. Apparently checking in online isn’t that big in Korea, but requiring someone to sign up certainly isn’t going to help push people in that direction.

At 1115a the next day, I arrived at LAX to find the Bradley Terminal buzzing. My contact was there waiting for me, and we checked in at the desk with a smiling agent. I was given a window seats at my request, and I was also handed a pass to the First Class lounge. I was in business, or Prestige Class, but Korean had arranged for the lounge pass so I could see both lounges (they’re in the same facility, just separated by a wall).

Korean LAX Lounge

After wrestling with the TSA (it’s always a terrible experience at Bradley), we headed up to the SkyTeam lounge, which is operated by Korean. Fun fact: The big backdrop photo at the check-in desk (above) was taken by Korean’s chairman who is an avid photographer. It seems pretty clear that SkyTeam drew the short straw when they were handing out lounges at Bradley. It was narrow and not very long (see half of it below), and it was crowded with both Korean and China Eastern travelers. I’m told they are in the middle of expanding it now. The First Class lounge was a private, small room off the main lounge that had upgraded drinks and food. (Well, mostly upgraded. They also had chicken nuggets in there which were, admittedly, pretty tasty.)

Korean LAX Lounge 2

After a few minutes in the lounge, we headed to the gate where most people had already boarded. That gate has two jet bridges with First and economy boarding on the lower level with Prestige upstairs. We took the ramp up and boarded.

Several flight attendants were waiting at the door with a smile. They examined each boarding pass and escorted us all to our seats.

June 1, 2013
Korean Air 018 Lv Los Angeles 1245p Arr Seoul/Incheon 550p (on June 2)
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 123, Runway 24L, Depart On Time
Seoul/Incheon (ICN): Gate 17, Runway 33R, Arrive 30m Early
HL7619, Airbus A380-861, Standard blue livery, ~90% Full in Business
Seat 10H
Flight Time 12h05m

After I was seated, a flight attendant quickly came by with a pre-departure drink. Another came by to introduce herself and she brought an amenity kit. Slippers were already in the seat back pocket. The seat itself was spacious with plenty of legroom ahead, but there was no place under the seat in front to store anything during takeoff and landing. That’s why the window seats on this airplane are even better. On the upper deck, compartments line the window the entire way. There was plenty of room for my computer and a bunch more if I needed it.

Onboard Korean A380

We pushed back on time and had a leisurely taxi to the runway. I flipped on the tail camera and watched as we headed into the hazy sunshine. A flight attendant came by with a menu and I decided to explore the entertainment system.

Korean A380 Tailcam

The screen is huge, and there was a lot of content on the system. The only complaint I have is about the headset. It’s a pretty cheap little plastic thing that seemed out of place. Meanwhile, the captain came on to introduce himself and told us basic details about the flight. I went back to staring out the window as we went northwest past the California coast. There is nothing like flying past the Bay Area at altitude on a clear day.

Out the Window to Korea

I was asked to order both my lunch and dinner entrees in advance. I chose the bibimbap for lunch and the udon noodles for dinner. When lunch came, they started with a little appetizer followed by mozzarella and tomato. Then the bibimbap came, complete with instructions on how to put it together. After lunch, dessert was offered, and I had the ice cream; a little personal-sized Haagen Dazs cup.

Korean Air Bibimbap

After that, the lights started to come down and the crew asked everyone to close their window shades row by row. Apparently it was time to sleep, but I knew that wasn’t happening. I went to explore the airplane. Korean has only 407 seats on the A380 and it’s not hard to see why there are so few. There is a lot of other stuff on this airplane besides seats. I was in the front cabin on the upper deck (it’s all business class up top). In the front (where Emirates has its showers), Korean has lavs on one side and a little self service lounge area on the other. You can make your own drink and have a seat.

Korean A380 Lounge

We went downstairs and visited the very private First Class cabin. There was only one seat out of twelve filled on this flight, and that must have been a surreal experience for that guy. Then it was time to pass back into coach. It was packed, but the legroom was good, as was the in-seat video screen. At the back of the coach cabin is where it gets really interesting.

Korean A380 Duty Free Shop

There is an entire Duty Free “Sky Shop” set up in the back. It has a counter staffed by a flight attendant and there are even video screens behind giving it more of a retail feel.

Korean Air Duty Free

The products that they offer in the shop are rotated monthly, but as you can imagine, there’s a lot of alcohol and cosmetics. Korean says it has the largest airline duty free operation in the world. I would learn more about this while in Korea. (I’ll have details in a future post.)

Korean Air Liquor

Then we went back upstairs, but this time we took the rear staircase. I’m not sure how I missed this originally, but Korean has a large lounge called the Celestial Lounge back there. This was sponsored by Absolut in a big way. The bartender is trained by Absolut and they have a variety of Absolut cocktails they make.

Korean Air Flight Attendant

They even have a TV monitor that just rotates the various cocktails. The space is actually very cool and has room for probably 8 to 10 people to sit depending upon how cozy they want to get. We sat there for over an hour just having a drink and talking.

Korean Air Lounge

I started to feel a little sleepy, so I went back to my seat. I flipped on a movie and dozed off… for about 10 minutes. Then I woke back up and somehow wasn’t tired anymore. I watched another movie and then finally gave up. I picked up my laptop and went back to the lounge where I was able to get some writing done. I really can’t explain how much I loved this lounge. There was something fantastic about being able to go do work outside of your seat area.

About 5 hours before landing, they started turning the lights on and began preparing for the second meal service. This seemed way too early to me, but I went back to me seat anyway. They asked if I was ready, and I asked if I had a choice. She said she would be happy to serve me later if I wanted, and I took her up on that offer. I was not that hungry. Instead, I turned on some music and watched the tail camera while I did some more work.

Delicious Noodles

Around 3h30m before landing, I finally started to get hungry, so I rang the call button and a flight attendant was at my seat in seconds. She brought me my meal quickly and the udon noodles were really tasty. The only problem is that they’re hot, and this is a big deal on Korean. I have heard several reports that Korean keeps its cabins too warm, and since the A380 has no personal air vents, there’s not much you can do about it. I didn’t have much of a problem until I had those tasty, hot noodles. Later, I found out that cabin temperature is an issue for the airline as many Koreans think the cabin is too cold while American think it’s too warm. It’s hard to find the happy medium.

After dinner, I had fruit for dessert and then some green tea. I settled in to watch another movie and almost nodded off but could never quite get there. We were soon passing over Japan, and my movie was over. When it flipped off, classical music came back on and it was Rhapsody in Blue. Even though I wasn’t flying United, there was no way I was turning that off. I listened and drifted off again for a few minutes of sleep. I woke up as we were passing over the Korean coast. It was clear but hazy most of the way in. We touched down a little early and taxied back to the terminal slowly. We only had to pause for a United 747 to take off for San Francisco. That was quite fitting with Rhapsody still ringing in my head.

Korean at Gate Incheon

Once off the airplane, we took the 5 minute shuttle to the Hyatt Regency Incheon. There’s a big banner for Korean Air on top of the hotel and for good reason; Korean Air owns the property. The hotel itself was really nice, and they put me on the top floor with a view of the airfield. Unfortunately, it was pretty hazy, so my view was limited.

I was tired but determined not to waste any time in this country. We went into Seoul (about a 50 minute drive) and went to the top of Mt Namsan. After, we had dinner and then went back to get some sleep before our next big day of travel. I’ll have my post up on travel to Jeju Island and Busan soon.

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