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

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

  1. Neil S says:

    Agree with everything you say here. I connected through ICN last month doing JFK – BKK on KE.

    On the flight to BKK, I only had about an hour to connect, so didn’t get much time to explore the airport.

    On the flight home, I landed around 6 am from BKK, and didn’t leave for JFK until about 10 am, if memory serves. I went thru the connection security thing very fast, got to the business class lounge, showered, and then roamed around for a few hours.

    First, the shower was fantastic. The room was clean, stocked with basic supplies, and the shower head was terrific.

    There was a great selection of food for breakfast, and the staff was very warm. They also kept the lounge area sparkling and clean of dishes/cups, etc.

    Roaming around ICN for a few hours was an experience. I missed the parade, but did see a few folks waiting in line to get into the Louis Vuitton store. At 730 in the morning. All the duty free stores were booming, and there was a huge line for Starbucks. It was hard not to spend my leftover cash on a bunch of stuff I didn’t need – or want to carry back.

    Can’t wait to get back.

  2. HK says:

    I do hope you don’t lose objective and un-biased view on Korean air after this trip. KE is an airline that took months to fix error-fare that made many people go angry and its website is a total crap. They don’t accept non-Korean credit card on the phone (should be in person at the airport, or online) but what we can do online is very very limited. Therefore, we cannot book AUS-DFW-ICN flight through Korean air directly. My sister had a big trouble when she missed AA flight XNA-DFW and called KE at the airport, but KE accepts only Korean credit card for the change (fee was $100). All the drama happens on the ground – I do admit that KE’s inflight product is good, though.

    If your trip were a few weeks later, you could ask what’s going on with Delta. But I guess that happened after your trip.

  3. I don’t even sleep 7 hours in my own bed, so you did good on the flight. Bet people in coach seats couldn’t sleep that long.

  4. Dianne says:

    Have enjoyed your entire series on the Korea trip. Can you be more specific about where/how to find the “free showers on the mezzanine?” Are these available to inbound passengers? Or are they behind security and for outbound pax? I will be arriving on a KE flight at about 10am and have to wait several hours for a bus. It surely would be nice to take a shower after the all-night flight from Bali. Traveling in business class, if that makes a difference.

    Thanks again for an interesting and informative set of posts.

    • CF says:

      Dianne – I think Neil covered it well. If you’re in biz, I would use the lounge myself. But the free showers are in the main terminal, just go upstairs.

  5. Also on the lower level of ICN there is a spa where you can take showers, sleep, charge your phone, etc. Never seen anything like it at any other airport and not too sure how many people are aware of it :D

  6. Neil S says:

    @Dianne – Once you land at ICN, you have to go thru “connections security” – which was super quick, and then you’re back in the main terminal. Since you’re in Business Class, you can shower in the Prestige Class lounge, which I think is near Gate 10 or 11.

    Tip – When you go into the lounge and check-in, tell them you want to use the showers. They’ll either give you a key to the room, or a pager that will vibrate when one is ready for you.

  7. Jay F. says:

    Seeing the pictures you posted after your visit to the central catering, the breakfast in business class looked underwhelming. Regrettably, the seat cover is similar to the geri-chairs used in nursing homes to wheel residents around. The free airport shower at ICN is near the hotel entrance and is immaculate clean. Opens at 7AM. Duty free is significantly more expensive than US prices. Finally, I am glad to read you got your much deserved sleep Mr. Cranky. The topic of sleep quality dominated your Korean series heavily.

  8. Reminder to self: It is always my wedding anniversary when/if I fly Korean Air.

  9. The architects who designed Incheon also designed the new LAX International Terminal and Denver International Airport. DEN isn’t particularly memorable, but the new TBIT at LAX is amazing! At least what we could see during the preview was remarkable. I hope to compare it with Incheon one of these years.

  10. Peter G. says:

    I travelled through Incheon on many occasions when I was doing work in Asia Pacific until February 2009. Always flying with THAI Airlines, and , I was able to use the Star Alliance lounges there.

    Incheon was my favourite airport. So professional .

    I do miss that place… :-(

  11. Michael says:

    The showers and all transit activities are in the transit lounge on 4F if I am correct. I fly from ICN but never use them… . But always see them.

  12. Diana says:

    After reading this blog I am no longer envious of my two travel companions traveling on Delta to Australia via HNL with a 36 hour layover. Instead, I am flying LAX to ICN on KAL landing in the morning and leaving for SYD late that same night. I understand that after arrival I can shower, take a long nap at a mini hotel, get up and have a late lunch, watch a parade, visit a Korean village upstairs, spend a ton of money buying Louis Vuitton products (NOT) and sample a day of Korean culture.
    QUESTIONS: Am I missing anything? Do they offer hip replacement surgery? Any other time filling suggestions for this wanderlusting grandmother of nine?

  13. van ngo says:

    I go with economic class and long layover 17 hours..do i have room for sleep for free? …thank u!

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