Flight Review: Korean Air First Class 777-200 ICN-MAD

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It seems like months ago now thanks to the whirlwind of the Star Megado, but it was just a week or so ago that I was in Seoul, and after a few great days there doing things like touring the DMZ, eating Korean barbecue all over town, and checking out the funky boutiques of Garuso-gil, it was time to head to Madrid to see my friend Lori. I had just had a great experience aboard JAL first class from Chicago to Tokyo, and TPG Managing Editor Eric had enjoyed the airline’s newest prestige business class on one of the airline’s A380s, so I was hoping that flying Korean Air first class would measure up.

Checking in at ICN.

The Point Price Breakdown

When plotting out my trip, I discovered that among some of its more idiosyncratic routes, Korean Air flies non-stop from Seoul Incheon to Madrid on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, leaving Seoul at about 11:55pm those nights and arriving in Madrid at 5:45am the following morning (though our schedule was off by an hour since Spain observes Daylight Savings and Korea did not).

It’s a bit of an odd flight between an unlikely pair of cities, but because I was on a tight schedule, I was pretty pleased to find out about this route and the fact that it would spare me connecting in another European (or other) gateway. It also fit perfectly into my plans, and best of all, there was plenty of award availability in first class so I could get tickets for Eric and myself.

Just looking up recent prices on the route within the timeframe that I was booking our tickets, each of our one-way fares would have been about $5,500 ($5,460 this week, to be exact).

The flight would have cost about $5,500 if I’d purchased it.

However, each award seat was available for 80,000 Korean Air Skypass miles plus $190 in taxes and fees. I put the two award tickets on hold by calling Korean Air with our Skypass numbers, then Eric and I each transferred Ultimate Rewards points from our accounts into our Skypass accounts, and went through the odd rigamarole of booking Korean Air award tickets (fax machine and all).

All in all, I was getting about 6.6 cents per point in value from my Ultimate Rewards – a pretty good value if you ask me.

Heading into the KE First Class lounge upstairs in the terminal.

The Airport and Lounge

I had gotten 4pm late checkout at the Park Hyatt Seoul thanks to my Diamond status, but they were unable to extend it past that point without charging me an extra $250, so I decided to head to the airport early and spend my evening working in the lounge.

The entrance lobby to the KE First Class lounge at ICN.

First class check-in was just a set of counters in the main check-in area, and no one was there, so it only took a few minutes. The one thing I had to remember was to bring the actual credit card I had used to pay the taxes and fees on the tickets because you have to present them at check-in for identity verification and to sign off on the charge. I’m not sure what happens if you don’t have it with you, but I didn’t want to find out!

After breezing through security, Eric and I walked into the main terminal, past shops like Burberry and Louis Vuitton, and took the escalators to the upstairs level where the Korean Air and Asiana lounges are.

A shot of the main lounge area.

I will say, I was a bit disappointed in the Korean Air first class lounge. Seeing how much the airline has invested in its fleet and onboard product, I thought the lounge would be pretty spectacular. It wasn’t.

Another section of the lounge with armchairs.

It looked more like your everyday Admirals Club or Delta Skyclub, with clusters of armchairs and coffee tables, and a small bar area with a few snacks laid out like soup, crackers and cheese.

The paltry selection of snacks in the lounge.

It had a bar, but no one was manning it, so there was just water, soda, juice, beer and some bottom-shelf Chilean wines to drink. The lounge also has a separate smoking room with TV’s showing sports and news.

The good news was, the WiFi was strong and reliable, so Eric and I worked for a few hours, then I headed out to explore the terminal and get an hour-long massage at this other small lounge on the second level. There’s actually a “massage area” at the Korean Lounge, but it’s just four massage chairs that you can sit in.

Not quite relaxing pre-flight in the “massage area”.

Eventually, our work done and a couple hours to go before our flight, Eric and I got creative and decided to do a Gangnam-style Instagram mash-up for my friends in Madrid. Here’s the result:

Going Gangnam-style in the lounge.

As you can tell, we were getting a little bit punchy. Finally, about 90 minutes before our flight, we decided to reserve the lounge’s two shower rooms to freshen up. Each had its own sink with stocked toiletries, a toilet, and a shower stall with Dove body wash and Pantene shampoo.

Feeling clean and ready to go, it was finally time to board our flight to Madrid.

Heading onto the 777-200 to Madrid.

Aboard KE 913

The flight was aboard one of the airline’s 777-200’s. We boarded through the door between business and first class and walked up to the front, where the first class cabin contains 8 seats in a 1 x 2 x 1 configuration.

The middle row of seats in first class.

Much to our disappointment, our plane didn’t contain the airline’s newest Kosmo Sleeper Suites, but just the Kosmo Sleeper Seats – yes, there’s a distinction. It can be difficult to tell whether your 777-200 will have the Seat or the Suite since the airline’s 777’s are a mishmash of the two versions, and since the two kinds of seats require the same amount of mileage for an award ticket.

A side seat in first class.

One tip would be to look at the economy cabin of your plane – if it has 212 seats, you will have the Suites, if it has 225, you’ll have the sleeper seats. The version of the 777-200 with the newer Suites is coded 772S. Sleeper Suites are also aboard the airline’s A380.

There is also a handy guide here that details Korean Air’s entire flight schedule by region and which kinds of seats you will find in each class of service on each route by flight number.

Stretching out comfortably before takeoff.

The Kosmo Seat has 83 inches of pitch and is in a hard shell, made to feel like your own mini-suite with a little foot stool with a seatbelt (in case you want to dine with a companion) and a cubbyhole beneath it.. When reclined into a flat bed, it stretches to 78 inches, and is 21 inches wide. Our seats were made from gray-blue fabric while the hardshells were lined with a peridot-green leather.

The IFE was a 17-inch LCD monitor.

The LCD flatscreen in-flight entertainment systems were attached to the top of the far end of the seat and were 17 inches and controlled by a handheld remote. They give you flimsy Sennheiser headphones to plug into it, which are pretty much just like your average pair of normal headphones, so I used my Bose noise-cancelling ones instead.

Just for reference, the Kosmo Suites recline to 79 inches, are 26.5 inches wide, have 23-inch screens and come with Bose noise-cancelling headphones. Korean’s signature teal leather, and wood (laminate) paneling on the surrounding hardshell.

Though disappointed in the product, I drowned my sorrows in some pre-flight Laurent-Perrier Grand Siecle champagne, which is served on almost all international flights except those to New York and Paris, on which KE serves Laurent-Perrier Alexandra Rose 1998, one of the house’s prestige wines (presumably those New Yorkers and Parisians are harder to please).

The first class amenities kit.

The amenity kit had the usual supplies plus face cream, aftershave lotion, hand cream, lip balm and eye gel by Davi, a high-end brand based in Napa. Not long into the flight, I also changed into the pair of pajamas they gave me (the XLalmost fit) so I could keep my clothes fresh for after the flight.

Meal Service – More Than Bibimbap

Because the flight departs so late at night, the crew didn’t waste any time starting the meal service once we were at cruising altitude. Dinner started with an amuse bouche of smoked salmon, then an appetizer of champagne goose liver pate and king crab salad with asparagus spears.

The appetizer of champagne goose liver pate and king crab salad.

The intermezzo was a light roasted red bell pepper puree soup and then the main courses included the airline’s signature Bibimbap, Korean-style bulgogi beef, seared scallop with ratatouille and ginger-flavored orange sauce, or the option I chose: grilled beef tenderloin with Perigeux sauce, sauteed endive, mushroom and cherry tomato confit.

Grilled beef tenderloin with Perigeux sauce, sauteed endive, mushroom and cherry tomato confit.

The cheese plate included Camambert, Chaumes and Fourme d’Ambert – all well-known French cheeses ranging from mild to pungent – some seasonal fruit, and green tea ice cream for dessert.

Sampling a Bordeaux and a Burgundy with the steak.

Among the wines being served were a Premier Cru Chablis, a Gewurtztraminer from Germany, a Margaux from France’s Bordeaux region, Le Corton Grand Cru from Burgundy, and Founders Reserve Porto from Sandeman’s. It’s hard to know in advance which wines you’ll be having since the menu varies widely depending on which route you’re on.

After dinner, I went right to sleep for about 6 hours before waking up to watch a movie and for breakfast service, which included fresh fruit, yogurt, cereal and options like scrambled egg with apple-potato roesti and bacon.

Scrambled egg with potato-apple roesti with bacon and cherry tomato.

The coffee was even decent, though I just had a little cup to keep me awake till we got to Madrid 2 hours later. We landed around 4:45 in the morning, and by 5:15, we’d cleared customs, gotten our bags and were on our way to the Palace Hotel, a Westin where I love staying thanks to its central location and old-school luxe rooms.

Final Impression

Though the experience was perfectly fine – it fit my schedule and was a high-value points redemption – I think I would have been a lot happier experiencing the newer Kosmo Sleeper Suite product the airline has on its newer 777’s and the A380. The service was good, and all the flight attendants were very attentive and sweet, though their English wasn’t always very good, so sometimes communicating devolved into charades – but with enough champagne, that was fun.

I wasn’t blown away by the experience or the product, and honestly, I feel like I would have actually preferred flying Cathay Pacific’s new business class, but for what I needed and the points it required, it was very decent.

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