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
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
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
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.