72 Hours With Korean Air: The Impressive Incheon Airport and the Flight Home (Trip Report)

After a whirlwhind couple of days in Korea, it was finally time to head home. But after having met with everyone from a farm to catering and even a medical center, I had one more thing to explore before going home… Incheon Airport.

[Reminder: Korean Air paid for this trip]

Incheon is a very impressive airport in a number of ways. The airport didn’t open until 2001, but it took years of planning and work to get to that point. Land between two islands was filled in and the airport was built. The result is a very user-friendly facility that gets constant accolades.

I started by checking in for my flight. All passenger check-in and arrival operations are handled in a single building. Once I had checked in, I was met by the PR folks from Incheon Airport. I went through security and ended up in the main shopping area of the terminal.

Asiana’s and Korean’s gates are attached to this main area while the other airlines fly from a remote concourse that requires a short ride on a train. More concourses are going to be added over time.

But I didn’t need to go out to the concourses, so my tour was all in the main terminal. While the bottom floor is all about shopping, there is a mezzanine level that is sort of an escape from the insanity of the airport. And most of the things up there are free for passengers.

I say things are free for passengers, but of course that’s not true. Somebody is paying for it and ultimately passing it on to the traveler. But it’s still impressive to see the services provided.

Most impressive of all is that you can have a really nice free shower (with a free towel and free toiletries). There is free internet access, and for those without computers, free use of internet-connected terminals are provided as well. You can borrow an iPad or a book if you’d like to keep busy.

There is a kids play area or, if you need a rest, plenty of loungers around. They’ll even let you borrow a blanket. But for really long layovers, there is a transit hotel and both ends of the mezzanine level. You’ll have to pay for that. The rooms are basic and small as you’d expect, but they’re clean and great for a good sleep.

If you’re a member of one of the airline lounges, those are on that level as well. I was able to see both the large and quiet First Class lounge for Korean (below) as well as the larger but more crowded Business Class one.

Back down on the main floor, it’s all about shopping. As you can imagine, duty free is the name of the game, and Incheon was the number one airport in the world for duty free sales last year. Shopping is such a big deal that Louis Vuitton opened its only airport shop at Incheon. It has a prominent location and apparently, there are often lines of people waiting to get to into the place. Crazy.

A few times a day, they put on a traditional parade that goes right down the middle of the concourse. There is a ton going on in this airport, and if I had to connect, this would be a great place to spend time.

But I didn’t have a lot of time to kill. After spending a few minutes in the lounge, it was off to the gate to board my flight home.

People had started lining up and boarding should have begun, but it hadn’t. Instead, an announcement was made that due to the aircraft arriving late, we would be a little late in boarding. It would begin at 3p.

It turns out they got it cleaned up sooner, and we were boarding at about 255p. That’s one thing I noticed about this airline. Korean seems to be very conservative with its estimates on timing so that people aren’t disappointed. The same thing happened with flight times. The captain would announce a flight time of something and we’d always arrive earlier by at least a few minutes, even on the shortest flights.

So I handed over my boarding pass, said goodbye to my Korean Air escort, and went onboard.


June 4, 2013
Korean Air 017 Lv Seoul/Incheon 315p Arr Los Angeles 1015a
Seoul/Incheon (ICN): Gate 10, Runway 33L, Depart 15m Late
Los Angeles (LAX): Gate 101, Runway 24R, Arrive 20m Late
HL7611, Airbus A380-861, Standard blue livery, ~50% Full in Business
Seat 11H
Flight Time 10h28m

Ok, so I didn’t exactly get onboard. First we had another security check required by the US. There were an army of people searching everyone’s bags before letting us on. Once done, I went and grabbed my seat at the front of the second cabin on the A380 in business.

Generally I hate the bulkhead, but there isn’t underseat storage in the regular business class section anyway (at least not during takeoff and landing). The only thing annoying here was that the video screen came out of the armrest instead of being mounted on the seatback. But it wasn’t an issue.

We took off into the haze and pointed east for the flight home. I was completely and totally exhausted. Though I can’t usually sleep on an airplane, I was feeling pretty good about it this time. I put the seat into a bed shortly after takeoff. While it didn’t look completely flat to me, it certainly felt flat and I never slipped at all as I do on most angled flat beds. So maybe it was an illusion. I told the flight attendant I was skipping the first meal, and hoped to get some sleep.

A couple hours later, I woke up and realized I had been knocked out. Wanting to keep it going, I popped a little ZzzQuil and zonked out some more. Other than when I was awakened by some turbulence, I slept pretty much straight through for nearly 7 hours. That’s unheard of for me, and it was much needed.

At that point, I realized that we didn’t have a ton of time left. I watched movies until breakfast came around. This time, I opted for the western meal to get a little variety. It was good but not particularly memorable.

I filled out my entry card for the US and I ordered a little bit from duty free. Then I was ready to land.

But I forgot one thing. The flight attendant came back and reminded me that I had a special cake waiting. If it’s your birthday or anniversary, Korean will give you a special personalized cake that’s made in the catering facility at Incheon. My hosts had graciously told the caterers it was my birthday so I could try it out.

I wasn’t starving, but I couldn’t turn this down. The flight attendant brought it by and it was good. But more importantly, it was just kind of fun to get something like that.

Soon, we were paralleling the California coast and winding our way into LA. We came down through a deep marine layer and landed. Taxiing was painfully slow, and it was delayed even further because we had to be towed into the gate.

I was one of the first ones off the airplane and had to do the long walk toward immigration. I breezed through immigration, but then was held up at customs with long lines, as is always the case at LAX it seems. I hopped the shuttle to my car and was on my way home after an excellent blur of a trip.

Hopefully you enjoyed this series on Korean Air. I’m hopeful that other airlines will give me this kind of access in the future as well. If you missed any of the earlier posts…
Part 1: Getting to Korea
Part 2: Jin Air, Je-Dong Farm, and the Tech Center
Part 3: Headquarters, Duty-Free, Catering, and a Medical Center

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