72 Hours With Korean Air: Headquarters, Duty Free, Catering, and a Medical Center (Trip Report)

My first night of sleep in Korea was short after my A380 flight over. But after flying around the country on the second day, I slept like a baby… at least until 4 in the morning when I found myself awake and ready to go once again. That’s ok, it was one hour later than the night before, and I could still get a bunch of work done before the day began. My last day in Korea was action-packed. It was so busy that I’ve broken this up into two posts.

[Reminder: Korean Air paid for this entire trip]

Korean Air Headquarters

After an early breakfast overlooking Seoul, we jumped into a cab and went back to Gimpo Airport. This time, we passed the terminals and pulled up in front of the mammoth Korean Air headquarters building. This place was big and well-protected. I checked in at the guard shack where I nervously left my passport before being allowed into the facility. We went upstairs and arrived at the communications team’s area just in time for morning stretches.

That’s no joke. I guess every morning they have a morning stretch routine that’s blasted over the loudspeakers. Once that was done, it was time to take a tour of the building. Each floor looks out in the back on the big maintenance hangar where Korean handles the narrowbody fleet. Not a bad view.

Korean 737 Hangar

We went down into the hangar and toured around. I was surprised to see a private jet there, but apparently it’s one of three that they use for charters. (They also have a BBJ but it wasn’t around.) There were a couple of brand new helicopters in the hangar as well. Korean has a growing medical transport business that it does in partnership with hospitals. Two of these helicopters had just been delivered. That 737 parked in the hangar posed for this great shot with the taegeuks sitting on the wing.

Korean in Hangar

After stepping outside to enjoy the view, it was time to go back inside. I had a date with the duty free organization. I was particularly interested in duty free because it is just so big for Korean. The duty free magazine is about 300 pages and a new one is printed every month. According to the airline, it is the largest airline duty free operation in the world with more than $200 million in revenue each year. I had to learn more.

Duty Free Catalog

But first, we had to switch buildings. Across from the headquarters is Korean’s hot kitchen. All hot meals are prepared there and then sent off to Incheon for assembly. (Not the most ideal setup.) The duty free team is based in this facility and it has quite the secure location. As we drove in, our car was inspected with mirrors underneath and there was a lot of discussion back and forth before they took my passport again (I had just been given it back when we left the headquarters).

It was pretty fascinating discussing duty free, especially since it seems like more of an afterthought in the US. For Koreans, however, it’s huge. Chinese and Japanese people account for a fair number of purchases as well, but that has declined in the last few years. Apparently, there is very little sold on flights out of Korea, but on the return, Koreans all buy things to bring to the family.

Duty Free

Want to guess the big seller? Of course, it’s alcohol, but the biggest seller is Ballantine’s Scotch. Cosmetics sell well too, but perfume is in decline. Most of the buyers are 35 to 45 year old men and nearly all the purchases are made through the magazine onboard, though you can actually pre-purchased online as well. The A380 provides another option, with the onboard duty free store at the back of the lower deck. Because of that and I assume the routes it flies, the A380 sales are “a bit” higher.


I was amazed to find out that every single item for sale in the catalog is stocked onboard each flight. (Narrowbody aircraft have an abridged version.) That’s a lot of merchandise to carry. It also means that they have to be very selective about what they pick to go onboard. Dozens of pitches come in every month and very few are picked to go into the catalog. New items are given 3 months to work or they go away.

It was fascinating that so many people actually bought things via duty free, so naturally I was curious about pricing. Is it cheaper? Nope, it’s not. Interestingly, the manufacturers decide the price and they keep it at somewhat of a premium. You would think that the lack of taxes would make up for it, but I was told that’s not always the case. You can often find it cheaper online. So why do Koreans keep buying from the airline?

Part of it is that Koreans trust Korean Air, and that means something. But I would have to think the biggest reasons are immediacy and convenience. If you’re on a business trip and you need to buy something for your family, you might not have time to do it while on the road. But you have plenty of time sitting on that flight home and the stuff is right there. Easy. (And that’s exactly what I did on the flight home as well, though mostly just to say I used the service.)

Once we were done with that conversation, it was time to head to Incheon. I had a date with the catering facility out there. The building sits right near the runways with a great view of departing aircraft. It looks huge, but apparently it’s not big enough because further expansion is being discussed.

As mentioned Korean does its hot meal preparation at Gimpo and then trucks it over to this facility. (Then for Gimpo flights, it gets trucked back, bizarrely.) At Incheon, meals are assembled, bread is baked, desserts are made, and they push them all out on to trucks for departing aircraft. This sounds complex enough for one airline, but Korean caters more than 50 airlines from this facility. Some, like Malaysian, have very strict rules about Halal preparation so Korean went to great lengths to have a fully-certified Halal kitchen for them and Middle Eastern carriers. Just to go into the facility, I had to suit up.

Catering Korean Air

The stark contrast between automation and manual labor is easily noticeable. While the preparation side is buzzing with workers hand-assembling meals, the intake side is a different story. When trucks dump off carts with used dishes and silverware, they are whisked through several stages to pull everything out, get sorted, and then get cleaned. It was quite the operation. I wish I could take pictures, but I wasn’t allowed to in that area, probably because so many meals were being prepared for other airlines and Korean Air didn’t have permission.

But it’s one thing to just look at everything in action and it’s a whole different thing to get to taste the results. I was flying in business class, but especially since I had visited Je-dong farm where much of the First Class food comes from, the airline wanted me to be able to try those meals. So I went upstairs where they brought me into a tasting room with a sweeping view.

Korean Air First Class

This room is usually used for customer (or potential customer) meetings, but that day it was all mine. They brought out several meals, but my favorite was the Je-dong Farmhouse Chicken Thigh with Port Wine Sauce and Tangerine Reduction (above). That one had everything from the farm including chicken, peppers, and cherry tomatoes. I also really liked the Korean style Ginseng Chicken Soup (below) which I’d say can best be classified as Asian matzo ball soup.

Korean Air First Class

When we finished up there, it was off to our last stop before the airport, the Inha International Medical Center. Wait, what the heck was I doing at a medical center? This one is, as you would expect, owned by the same company that owns Korean Air.

I realize this isn’t aviation-related, so I won’t spend a ton of time on it, but the idea here is that travelers can come into Korea, get a variety of medical treatments and tests at a low cost, and be on their way. They do dentistry, dermatology, Oriental medicine, and general wellness checks among other things. Oh, and plastic surgery is coming soon.

Korean Medical Center

This actually was pretty interesting to see. Apparently most people come from Russia and China and aren’t specifically coming for medical care. They just stopover on their way into Seoul or while traveling beyond. When you get there, you are assigned a physician assistant who speaks your language fluently and stays with you throughout the process. If I had more time, they told me they would have given me a full wellness check. But time was up, and I was off to the airport.

The last chapter in this report covering the impressive Incheon Airport and my flight home will follow next week. Read Part 1 about my flight to Korea and Part 2 about my visit to the farm and the maintenance base.

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