72 Hours With Korean Air: Jin Air, Je-Dong Farm, and the Tech Center (Trip Report)

After an excellent flight in, I crashed pretty hard in my room at the Hyatt Regency Incheon. But of course, my body wasn’t interested in cooperating, so shortly after 3am, I was awake and ready to go. That was a good thing, actually, because it meant I could clear out my inbox, Skype with my family, and still be ready to go for our insanely early bus ride over to Gimpo Airport.

Reminder: This trip was paid for by Korean Air

Gimpo used to be Seoul’s primary airport, but it was small and was bursting at the seams. When Incheon was built, Gimpo was kept open as a domestic airport and today also serves short-haul international destinations like Tokyo. Gimpo is a little closer to town, so it’s the preferred airport for domestic travel. This does mean that Korean and Asiana have to do double duty with some domestic flights at Incheon for international connections. But there aren’t a ton of domestic destinations, so it’s not a huge issue as it is in the US.

We took the KAL Limousine bus over to Gimpo (yes, of course it’s owned by Korean). Much of the old international terminal has been turned into shops and offices. We pulled up to the domestic terminal to find a fairly small building that was buzzing at this early hour.

Our first flight of the day was on Jin Air, Korean’s attempt at a low cost carrier. Jin Air has a handful of 737-800s handed down from Korean and flies them on a lot of regional routes throughout Asia. The only flight from Gimpo, however, is to Jeju Island, also know as the Hawai’i of Korea, and that’s where we were going. (It’s not nearly warm enough to be compared to Hawai’i, but it is a volcanic island with palm trees, so, uh, close enough.)

When we walked into the check-in area, the ticket counter was absolutely mobbed with school groups on their way to Jeju. We found an agent and checked in. Boarding passes on Jin Air as well as on Korean domestically are printed out on a roll of receipt-like paper.

We got our boarding passes and I found we were seated in the exit rows. Korean had arranged for us to sit there, though Jin Air usually charges a premium for those seats. We sailed through security where you don’t need to remove your laptop or your shoes. Oh, and you can bring as much liquid as you want onboard. It was glorious.

Once we got through, several Jin Air employees were there looking at boarding passes to direct people. They saw ours being in the “premium” exit row seats and escorted us down some stairs to the bus gate to our airplane. We were directed past the students in the stairs and put on our very own bus to the airplane. Right behind us was a jam-packed bus full of students. Go figure. After a short drive, we were walking on board.


June 3, 2013
Jin Air 301 Lv Seoul/Gimpo 640a Arr Jeju 725a
Seoul/Gimpo (GMP): Gate 8, Runway 14L, Depart 1m Late
Jeju (CJU): Remote Gate, Runway 7, Arrive 13m Late
HL7556, Boeing 737-86N, Standard livery, 100% Full
Seat 43A
Flight Time 45m

The flight attendants greeted us warmly wearing the Jin Air uniform of designer jeans, a white or green polo, and a bright green baseball cap. Seats are separated into three different groups with A, B, and C written on the antimacassars. So if you check in first, you get an A pass and you can pick any seat in that section. Then B is assigned and lastly C. There is no price difference between the different sections. All Korean Air aircraft begin the coach cabin at row 28, so our seat in row 43 wasn’t nearly as fare back as it sounds.

We took our seats just as the rest of the student mob started to board. I’m pretty sure there were 150 kids, a couple chaperones, and us. I was expecting this to be a long 50 minute flight.

My expectations were confirmed when the students all started clapping and cheering as we ascended into the morning fog. But then… silence. Half the kids immediately fell asleep while the other half just played on their phones. Wow, that was a pleasant surprise.

It was a short flight, so I didn’t expect any kind of service on this low cost carrier, but I was wrong. The flight attendants came through with small cups of juice and water, same size as you’d get on a short Korean flight. But the vibe on this airline is definitely young and hip. I was having trouble figuring out what was actually low cost about this airline, but then again, I don’t know if wage rates are different.

As we got close to Jeju, the skies cleared and the volcano jutted out in the distance. We circled around and bounced our way to the ground. We again parked at a remote gate and the bus picked us up and took us right to the baggage claim area. We were met someone from Je-dong farm, and we were soon on our 50 minute drive to the other side of the island.

I found out that I was the first member of the foreign media ever brought to Je-dong Farm. I’m not sure why it’s kept secret, but it is a beautiful place. It’s here that Korean raises cattle and chickens along with peppers, tomatoes, and blueberries. Most of these end up in First and Prestige class meals. What’s left over is sold off.

Why does Korean own a farm? The owner of the company actually started it in 1971 when beef was in short supply in the country. It eventually became a way to produce high quality food for the airline. I put together an extensive slideshow with details all about Je-dong farm on the Conde Nast website, so head over there to learn more.

After the farm, we drove through the hills, and all of a sudden there was a big blue ball in the distance. It turns out that this is where Korean does its flight training, and they have three display airplanes that they keep to remind them of their heritage. That big blue ball ended up being a 747-200. There was also an A300 and the sweetest of all, a fantastic Constellation. How awesome.

We accidentally cut our return to the airport a little too close because we got so caught up in the farm. With just over 20 minutes before departure, we jumped out of the car and sailed through security easily. It was strange, however, that they required passports before going through security. Apparently the port at Jeju has a lot of cruise traffic from China and Japan. (Fukuoka and Shanghai are less than 300 miles away.) So, they check passports even for domestic departures there. Once through, Korean was still boarding our big blue A330 to Busan, so we had a chance to catch our breath before getting on.


June 3, 2013
Korean Air 1004 Lv Jeju 1225p Arr Busan 120p
Jeju (CJU): Gate 6, Runway 7, Depart 2m Late
Busan (PUS): Gate 17, Runway 36L, Arrive 6m Late
HL7720, Airbus A330-323X, Standard blue livery, ~90% Full in Biz
Seat 1H
Flight Time 35m

I was in business class on this trip, and for a sub-200 mile flight, it was quite the sporty ride. I was in row 1 which has a bulkhead behind it separating it from the rest of business class. I believe this used to be First Class, but the seats look identical now, as you can see.

I was exhausted by this point and had to make a decision. Did I try to sleep or did I chug some coffee and power through? Once in the air, I reclined and the flight attendant handed out earplugs. Then I realized I wasn’t going to sleep, so I ordered a cuplet of coffee and prepared to get through the rest of the day.

The flight was very quick but scenic with views of some really small islands with permanent settlements. Then, all of a sudden, the metropolis of Busan was ahead. The place was huge with tall buildings hugging the water at every chance.

The airport lies west of town and is surrounded by farms. There is quite the military presence there, and we could see all kinds of military aircraft operations as we taxied to the gate. We went to the domestic terminal which paled in comparison to the new international terminal next door. Then we hopped in a car and drove through the fields around the airport to the mammoth tech center on the west side of the field.

It was here that Korean used to do heavy checks on United’s 747s. That arrangement may have ended, but there is so much more to what goes on in this place.

Sure, Korean does most of its widebody heavy maintenance here (narrowbodies are at Gimpo while the A380 is at Incheon). It also has a big paint hangar where it paints aircraft from all kinds of airlines. But Korean also has a serious maintenance operation that takes care of US and Korean military aircraft. I couldn’t believe how many different US aircraft were being worked on while I was there.

But wait, there’s more. Did you know that they manufacture airplane parts? I had no idea that the company was building sharklets for the Airbus narrowbodies, but they were all over the place, as you can see above. I saw cargo doors for the A350, tail sections of the 767, nose cones for 737s, and parts of the 787. It was unreal seeing so much activity on so many different programs all buzzing in different buildings on the campus.

We finished our tour and meetings and were shuttled right back to the airport. We had a little time to kill, so I went to the incredibly tiny Korean Air lounge tucked away on the wrong side of security. I got a little work done and then went through security to the gate.

Korean runs a shuttle-style operation between Busan and Gimpo and you can tell that there were a lot of business travelers who knew the drill. An agent carried a sign showing which groups were boarding. I was again in business class on this 737-900 so I got on board with the SkyPriority group.


June 3, 2013
Korean Air 1120 Lv Busan 530p Arr Seoul/Gimpo 625p
Busan (PUS): Gate 11, Runway 36R, Depart 1m Late
Seoul/Gimpo (GMP): Remote Pad 129, Runway 32R, Arrive 6m Early
HL7569, Boeing 737-9B5, Standard blue livery, 25% Full in Biz
Seat 7A
Flight Time 37m

This flight had a domestic-style seat but it was way better than what we get in the US. The seat was comfy in its own right, but it also had a good legrest that made all the difference. This was yet another very short flight so there was only a beverage service. I have a vague memory of bits and pieces of the flight but I was so exhausted that I fell in and out of consciousness.

After 35 minutes, we were back on the ground at Gimpo. It seemed like we had been gone for ages, but it was just about 12 hours since we had left that morning. We had once again parked at a remote gate. The buses came quickly and took us right to baggage claim again.

We hopped in a cab and went to a new hotel, the Lotte Hotel in downtown Seoul for the night. We went to a traditional Korean dinner in this great restaurant tucked away down an alley. But by then, I couldn’t see straight at all. I stumbled back to the hotel and passed out quickly. I had to be ready for yet another busy day in the morning.

Read Part 1, Getting to Korea. The rest of the report covering duty-free, catering, a medical center, and the flight home will follow soon.


29 Responses to 72 Hours With Korean Air: Jin Air, Je-Dong Farm, and the Tech Center (Trip Report)

  1. Sanjeev M says:

    Wow what a nice experience. I’m getting the feeling from your reports that airlines like Korean are truly passionate about what they do. Owning a farm, making airplane parts are just several ways they uphold quality in the entire industry and their operation.

    It reminds me of Japan, where rampers always stand in formation and wave goodbye to every plane they push back. There’s a sort of involvement and care in Asia that is nearly impossible to see in the West.

  2. A says:

    Did you get to tour the constellation? I want to see photos!

  3. Just remembered I read and looked at your Saturday photos of the farm, but forget to comment about them. Not just a farm, but a modern scientific one (the calf was cute).

    KE seems to do what legacy airlines used to by owning the airline,hotel, car rental company, etc, except KE does it better is sounds like.

    • MonteK says:

      Its important to remember KE is part of the huge Korean Hanjin Group conglomerate so many activities are placed under the airlines umbrella regardless if there is a direct business need for the airline or not.

    • That being said the conglomerate form of business ownership is much more prevalent in Asia than it is in the US. If you’re curious lookup what Hyundai does.. Cars are just a small corner of their business.

  4. So jealous!!! What an amazing trip, albeit they could have spread it out over a few days.

    • CF says:

      biscuitfarmer – The schedule wasn’t their fault but mine. I prefer to be gone from home as little as possible, so we packed this trip into a couple days. Korean actually wanted me to stay an extra day originally so I could experience a little more of Seoul.

  5. Bravenav says:

    The Busan airport is also Kimhae Air Base (or K-1) thus the reason for all the military traffic there.

  6. MonteK says:

    Nice report, except Cranky we can see you are not cut out to be global business travelers dozing off so often.

  7. Tom says:

    You have the best job ever! Thanks for sharing your experiences. Have you ever written a book?

  8. RICH says:

    Interesting article… A Great Trip and Tour…
    But, what did you buy for the family…
    Those of us that travel international
    always have to bring back “stuff”
    for the family…

    • CF says:

      RICH – Naturally I decided to follow Korean tradition and buy things from duty free for the family. I bought my wife some chocolates that she likes and my son a coloring set.

  9. Cedarglen says:

    Nice post, Bret. I’m enjoying this extended report as well as the ‘Conde-Nast edition’ you published over the weekend. Without a doubt, KAL is a diverse, interesting company. In an era when precious few airlines even maintain their own catering kitchens, KAL has farms!
    Of note: I recognize that you (and Conde-Nast) generally take a dim view of ‘sponsored’ (subject client paid) trips and other related events. Your up-front, clear disclosures, both here and in the companion Conde-Nast article are appropriate and sincerely appreciated. Perhaps old-fashioned, I view absolute adherence to personal and professional ethics codes as essential if one’s work is to to taken seriously. Despite your reluctance to accept ‘sponsored’ trips, IMO you’ve fully met the disclosure standard, and I’m glad that you made this trip.
    With some , it sounds like KAL ran your southern parts ragged during your brief tour. I look forward to reading the remaining posts and seeing a few more pix. Congrats and thanks. -C.

    • CF says:

      Cedarglen – Thanks for chiming in. I turn down a lot more trips than I take, but when a trip is really going to provide some excellent fodder for the blog, I will jump on it. Korean’s willingness to put together so much stuff into such a short time made this a truly worthwhile opportunity and I will gladly take a trip like this. But I will always disclose it.

      I received a note from a reader this morning reminding me that I hadn’t disclosed that my trip was paid for in this particular post. I sometimes forget because I write multiple posts together and so they seem like one. So I always appreciate email reminders like that.

      Conde Nast generally won’t publish anything from a sponsored trip, but this was such a unique opportunity that they couldn’t get otherwise that they decided to publish.

  10. JayB says:

    Visiting the company farm seems a little bit better than visiting the company oil refinery, but just me, maybe.

  11. Peter G. says:

    Interesting comments. I used to do a lot of work in Korea until late 2008.. I would fly into Incheon on Thai Airlines from Bangkok, and often flew down to Pusan with Asiana. Incheon is an amazing airport. So clean and professional. My firm wanted me to live in Korea, way back in 1992. At the time, I hadn’t done a great deal of travel and declined. Worked in Japan instead.

    However, I saw a huge change in Korea from my first trip in 1992 , until my last trip into the country in 2008

  12. Troy says:

    When you look beyond the borders of the US, it’s a nice surprise to find little things like service on a short flight, light meals and the luxury of leaving your shoes on and taking liquids through security!
    From a service perspective and in very simple terms, I think US carriers have competed their way out of service altogether.
    From a security perspective, I think the DHS has gone overboard! LOL

  13. Troy says:

    Oh…and thanks for the cool new word! I would have called it a seat bib or head critter protector, but knowing it’s a antimacassar is awesome!
    CF…Do you know what the vent is called in the service unit above your seat? I love this conversation starter. :-)

  14. Harold says:

    I’m loving all these reports from my adopted home, about my adopted airline. Quick note: Koreans are always overtired from work and school. It’s amazing that as soon as people are on a bus, subway car, or plane, everyone falls right asleep. It’s the Americans who are wide awake.

    Also, last February I was lucky enough to go on a behind the scenes tour of ICN because my boss is friends with the ICN CEO. The tour included the almost unheard chance to go below the terminal and into the cavernous assembly line where all the luggage is sorted and transferred, and also up into the ground control tower, as well as through the VIP entrance (which is for Korean politicians and elites, not merely the rich or famous). It was one of the best days of my life.

  15. Sounds like an amazing experience! Thanks for sharing it!

  16. Renan Ferrer says:

    Seemed tiring, but as another reader said, “you have a beautiful job.”

    When you speak of the seats, it seemed more a mobile hospital than a plane! ;) My god, how awful!

    Thanks for sharing with us!

    Cheers

    Renan Ferrer

  17. Pingback: 72 Hours With Korean Air: The Impressive Incheon Airport and the Flight Home (Trip Report) - >> The Cranky Flier

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