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Flight Review: Korean Air A330 and A380 First Class HKG-ICN-JFK

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I spent my final legs of my whirlwind trip to Brazil, South Korea and China in Korean Air first class, thanks to my Chase Ultimate Rewards points, which are a 1:1 transfer partner. “It never ceases to amaze me that I can cross the Pacific Ocean in a gigantic first class seat for less than $100 cash outlay.”—I think my Instagram caption after boarding the plane sums up this journey perfectly. Join me as we fly back-to-back first class from Hong Kong (HKG) to Seoul (ICN) and then on to New York (JFK) on Korean’s posh A380.

Booking First Class Awards on Korean Air

First class award availability on Korean Air is phenomenal, but the booking process can be fairly complicated. I found first-class award space on Korean Air’s website, determined the blackout/peak dates I’d have to avoid, and learned that my route would require a redemption of 80,000 miles per person and just $84 in fees. I then transferred some of my Chase Ultimate Rewards points (which I earn via my Sapphire Preferred and Ink Plus cards), into my own Korean Air SkyPass account and called Korean Air directly to book the actual award since my routing wasn’t showing as available online for some reason (most routes that are just operated by Korean should show online). Tip: You will always be asked to show the credit card you used for your award taxes, so make sure to bring it with you to the airport when you travel!

Our flight from HKG-ICN was aboard an A330.
Our flight from HKG-ICN was aboard an A330.

Flight 1: Hong Kong to Seoul on the A330

Our first flight was a quick afternoon trip from Hong Kong to Seoul that lasted about 3 hours and 40 minutes. It was aboard one of the airline’s A330-300s, so not a plane with the airline’s latest business or first class, but still a comfortable ride.

Korean's Hong Kong lounge.
Korean’s Hong Kong lounge.

Korean’s Hong Kong lounge is what you might call basic.

This is the first class section of the lounge? Not impressed.
This is the first class section of the lounge? Not impressed.

There was a small first-class area set aside, but it only had a few little warm dumplings, unappealing sandwiches in plastic and plastic cups for water.

The meager food and beverage options in the lounge.
The meager food and beverage options in the lounge.

The first class cabin on this flight had just six seats in a rather cramped-feeling 2 x 2 x 2 configuration and in my opinion first class looked the same as business class. In fact, per Seat Guru, they are the same width as business class seats with about 3 more inches of legroom/pitch because the bulkhead wall is far away.

The first class cabin looked more like an outdated business class.
The first class cabin looked more like business class.

It was only a modest step up from business class, with a quieter cabin (we were the only 2 people out of 6 seats) and enhanced food and wine, like the Perrier-Jouët Blason rosé Champagne, which I really liked.

At least there was Perrier-Jouet rose champagne.
At least there was Perrier-Jouet rose Champagne.

Each seat is just under 21 inches wide and has a pitch of 83 inches, converting to a fully lie-flat bed. There was also a 15.4-inch LCD monitor for in-flight entertainment.

Another shot of the seats.
Another shot of the seats.

The flight attendants were very nice and attentive, though less polished than their counterparts on Singapore and Cathay.

The seats don't feel that roomy.
The seats don’t feel that roomy.

On our flight, one of the flight attendants stood at the back of the cabin on the other side almost the whole time watching us and coming over if we needed anything. It was sort of cute…but also a bit creepy.

The starter - a selection of canapes.
The starter – a selection of canapes.

The meal service was nice with several courses, including a hot soup where we found out about one of the airline’s service standards the hard way. When they warm up the tray, they leave the spoon on it in the oven so that it, too, is heated and won’t cool the soup when you eat it.

Julio's ill-fated soup.
Julio’s ill-fated soup.

They neglected to tell us this, so when Julio picked his up, it was scorching hot and he actually burned himself! That was quite a shock, and luckily, the only sore spot of the flight.

The airline's signature bibimbap.
The airline’s signature bibimbap.

I chose the bibimbap for my main, and despite a cute little menu with instructions, I still managed to make a mess of it, but it was delicious.

Despite instructions, I still made a mess of it.
Despite instructions, I still made a mess of it.

I even had time for a quick (rosé induced) nap before we landed in Seoul.

Time for a quick snooze before landing.
Time for a quick snooze before landing.

Flight 2: Seoul Incheon to New York JFK

Transiting through Seoul with these folks in traditional Korean garb.
You never know who you’ll be transiting through Seoul with.

The transfer process in Seoul was fairly seamless, and we had about two hours to kill before our flight. We spent some of that time browsing some of the airport’s high-end shops. Outside one of the stores, there were men dressed in traditional imperial guard garb (with spears and all, like you see at Gyeongbokgung Palace).

Heading to the lounge in Seoul.
Heading to the lounge in Seoul.

We also spent some time in the first-class lounge, which hasn’t improved much since my last visit a few years ago. It’s spacious, but I find that the amenities are scant.

Checking into the first class lounge.
Checking into the first class lounge.

There is a small selection of cold and hot food, along with some beer and wine available, and some basic shower facilities. The first-class lounges of other Asian carriers like Cathay Pacific and JAL blow it out of the water, frankly, so Korean Air has a lot of catching up to do. I’d even take the American Airlines JFK Flagship lounge over this one.

Our second flight was in the evening.
Our second flight was in the evening.

Our second flight departed at 7:30pm and would arrive in New York JFK at 9:00pm the same day (I love crossing over the International Date Line).

Settling into the first class cabin.
Settling into the first class cabin.

Our second flight was the main attraction as far as I was concerned, since it was aboard one of the airline’s flagship A380s, in its signature first-class suite. I liked the calming blue and dark wood design of the cabin, and there was plenty of storage space.

I think I prefer the seats along the side.
I think I prefer the seats along the side.

The first-class cabin on Korean’s A380 is located at the front of the lower/main deck, and is comprised of just 12 seats laid out in three rows in a 1 x 2 x 1 configuration.

Looking over the seats at the IFE screens.
Looking over the seats at the IFE screens.

I’d flown Korean Air’s first class before, but only the older version aboard a 777-200. This updated cabin blows that one out of the water, but still lags behind competitors like Singapore and Cathay Pacific. I still enjoyed my first-class flights on Emirates and Singapore (even Singapore’s older first class) more, but Korean Air’s first class is still a very nice experience with one of the best seats you can fly to Asia these days.

The cabin is kitted out in Korean’s signature turquoise-and-taupe color scheme, which feels tranquil and cool. Each Kosmo Suite is 79 inches long and a roomy 26.5 inches wide, so there was plenty of room, even for me and my long legs.

When upright, the seats look like big, cushy armchairs, and unlike some other seats—which flip over so that the back of the cushion becomes the lie-flat bed mattress—these recline to lie flat so that the ottoman (under which you can stow a bag or laptop for takeoff/landing) becomes the foot of your bed.

Unlike Emirates or Etihad’s Suites, these are open, though they’re encased in a sort of shell with faux-wood paneling that provides a bit of privacy when your seat is reclined to a bed, and also shields you from the aisle. Each of the two middle seats also has its own privacy shield, which you can flip up if you don’t know the person sitting next to you.

Perrier-Jouet Blanc de Blancs being poured in first class.
Perrier-Jouet Blanc de Blancs being poured in first class.

Each has its own 23-inch LCD monitor with all the usual audio/video bells and whistles, and passengers are offered Bose headphones to use during the flight, though I always pack my own. Each seat also has a few little cubbies for stowing small belongings, and a rather unsightly reading lamp that juts out of the armrest.

No nut rage on our flight!
No nut rage on our flight!

Before takeoff, we were served Perrier-Jouët 2002 vintage Belle Époque Blanc de Blancs Champagne (I actually preferred the rosé from the first flight, though this bottle retails for about $300), which is available exclusively on flights to Paris and New York. We were also served macadamia nuts in a bowl, thank goodness, so no nut rage on our flight!

I was also given the first-class amenity kit, which is an expanded version of the business class kit.

The DAVI amenity kit.
The DAVI amenity kit.

It includes five DAVI cosmetic products, which are based on wine-grape extracts: face cream, hand cream, aftershave, eye gel and lip balm. There were the other usual inclusions as well, such as a toothbrush and toothpaste, ear plugs, an eye mask and a pen, plus Gianfranco Ferre pajamas.

I often find that Asian airlines keep their cabins warmer than their American counterparts, so I usually pack Lululemon t-shirts and shorts to wear since they breathe better and keep me cooler. However, even though I could see that the extra-large PJs would be a bit too small for me, I changed into them to see how they’d feel. While wearing them on this flight, I managed to get eight hours of rest, but still woke up sweating a couple of times because the cabin was so warm.

The Gianfranco Ferre pj's are comfy but a little too warm for me.
The Gianfranco Ferre PJ’s are comfy but a little too warm for me.

Meal service started shortly after takeoff, and while this crew was again very friendly and attentive, they were not nearly as polished as crews I’ve had on JAL and Singapore. In fact, some of them did not speak English that well, and it led to a bit of confusion during mealtime.

One of the starters.
One of the starters.

There were just four passengers in the whole first-class cabin, but they still managed to run out of the Korean food options, so we had to swap in options from the Western menu.

A selection of bites and soup.
A selection of bites and soup.

Even a desire to mix and match our courses was difficult to communicate. In the end, we basically just told them to serve us what they had, which ended up being a basic chicken breast with vegetables.

I was less than thrilled with the chicken-veggie main.
I was less than thrilled with the chicken/veggie main.

Not really inspiring cuisine for a first-class Korean experience.

Another uninspiring course - some sort of porridgy soup.
Another “okay” course—the crab was actually nice

The wine list was pretty interesting, though, and included some good whites like a Chablis Premier Cru, a Margaux from Chateau Lascombes, a Domaine Latour Corton Grand Cru from Burgundy and a reserve Port from Sandeman.

What I find fun about Korean’s A380 is that there is a little lounge area in the nose of the upper deck where you can sit on sofas and flip through magazines and art books.

The little lounge area on the upper deck.
The little lounge area on the upper deck.

The “Celestial Bar” at the back of the upper deck is actually pretty cool, and you can get small plates and signature cocktails throughout the flight. Korean Air also has a small duty-free shop at the back staircase on the lower deck where you can pick up any last-minute gifts you might have forgotten.

The Duty Free area at the back staircase.
The tiny first class display bar at the forward staircase.

As I said, though, my main priority was sleep, so I changed and crawled into the bed, which felt spacious even for me. I managed to get a solid eight hours of shut-eye before a pre-flight snack and landing.

Overall Experience

While I wouldn’t call Korean Air first class the best first-class experience out there, I still think that it represents an amazing value for Ultimate Rewards members, especially given the tremendously generous availability. I always consider it as an option when I need to get to Asia, and I’ll likely fly it again on future trips.

Have you flown Korean Air first class? How was your experience?

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