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Earlier today, Korean Air took delivery of its first Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner — with nine more on the way. TPG and I were in attendance and had an opportunity to tour the airline’s latest wide-body plane, which will initially enter service with 3x daily domestic flights between Seoul (ICN) and Jeju (CJU). A flight to Tokyo will follow, then Korean Air will add the plane to its Seoul-Toronto (YYZ) nonstop route on June 1. Eventually, the aircraft will also operate a third daily flight to Los Angeles (LAX), and will enable daily service between Seoul and Seattle (SEA), with increased frequency scheduled to begin in May (with a 777 for the time being).
What makes Korean Air’s 787-9 unique (as you can see below, and in the Facebook Live tour above) is a decision to install the exact same APEX seat in both business and first class. It’s an excellent seat, don’t get me wrong, but is typically used for business-class service only — it’s the same model JAL uses for the business-class Sky Suite, for example.
The only major difference is that the in-flight entertainment screen is considerably larger (more on that below) — and it appears that seats 1A and 1J are an inch or so longer than those in business class, though all premium seats are listed as having a 75-inch pitch on this aircraft.
When TPG asked Korean Air President Walter Cho about the decision to use the same APEX seat in both cabins, he explained that the airline’s passengers are most interested in the soft product, saying:
Our passengers pay for the service, which ours is very exclusive. These seats are actually designed by B/E Aerospace. These are sold as first class, but we just said ‘nah,’ we’ll do it for business. They were very excited when we decided to. Our customers know our service in first class is very special, and we’ll show it to them.
I certainly experienced very good service on my Korean Air 777-300ER flight from Singapore to Seoul, as did TPG on his flights on the A330 and A380 (notably, some of the airline’s A330s also have the same seats in business and first). We haven’t reviewed business class in several years, but it wouldn’t be unreasonable to say that the same level of service wouldn’t be available in biz — you’ll certainly experience higher-end catering and alcoholic beverages in first class, including Perrier-Jouet Champagne.
Additionally, while it was an odd move to install identical seats in both cabins, there’s no question that the first-class mini-cabin (with just six seats) feels more exclusive, compared to the business-class cabin with three rows and a total of 18 seats.
So let’s check out the two cabins:
As I mentioned, the first-class cabin consists of one row of six seats in a 2-2-2 configuration — at just 21 inches, these are definitely some of the narrowest seats you’ll find in international first class. The airline’s first-class seats on the A380 are 26.5 inches wide, for example, and even the business-class seats are wider on the A380, at 21.6 inches.
Seats are separated from the aisle by a shell of sorts, and a center partition can be raised to add some privacy as well.
The area where you can enter and exit the window seat is more spacious as well, so getting in and out shouldn’t be an issue.
Additionally, the first-class seats next to the windows (1A and 1J) appear to have an extra inch or so of pitch, which could definitely come in handy if you’re 6’7″ like TPG.
The aisle-side seats seem to have the same amount of pitch as in business class, though.
Finally, the in-flight entertainment screen is much larger in first class — reportedly these screens are 23 inches, compared to the 17-inch screens in biz.
Meanwhile, the business cabin is still quite small, with just three rows and a total of 18 seats, in the same 2-2-2 configuration.
The display size difference is definitely noticeable, but that alone probably isn’t a reason to pay a premium to sit in Row 1.
TPG found the window seats to be shorter in biz, requiring him to bend his knees a bit more.
Seats in both cabins have the same privacy dividers, though, which is definitely a nice perk — especially in business class.
The finishes are very similar, too, with fancy wood-grained pull-out tables in business class.
As are the seat recline and entertainment controls.
The space to get in and out of the window seats is narrower, though, so keep that in mind if you tend to get up often.
Korean Air Fares and Award Rates
Of course, what really matters is how much more customers are willing to pay for the soft product, since the seat itself really is more or less the same. A round-trip flight in business class between Toronto (YYZ) and Seoul (ICN) will run you just shy of $3,400, while first class is a whopping $9,000 round-trip. That’s an incredible 265% premium, which is nuts if you ask me. So, unless you have many thousands of dollars burning a hole in your pocket, or your company prefers that you travel in first class, it’s simply impossible to justify paying extra for first.
Award bookings are a different story, however. Round-trip business-class award tickets start at 125,000 miles, while first-class awards start at 160,000 miles, plus about $220 (for both cabins) on this route. There were two seats available in each cabin on every date I searched. What makes these awards especially appealing (besides the phenomenal availability) is that Korean Air is an instant transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, so you can transfer points earned with cards like the Chase Sapphire Preferred and book these seats instantly.
Additionally, the airline will let you put award seats on hold until a few days before departure, so if you’re planning a trip far in advance, you have plenty of time to earn the required points before the hold expires. Korean Air awards can be a bit complicated to book, though, as outlined in our post How To Book Award Flights with Korean Air SkyPass. You can also book business-class awards (but not first-class awards) using Delta miles, though availability is much more limited.
It’s not everyday that we see an airline decide to install the same seats in two separate classes of service, and there will no doubt be some disappointed first-class customers here. This is a great seat for business class, though, and biz passengers should take comfort in knowing that the customers up front paid far more for a similar product. Additionally, first-class awards tend to be more widely available, so if there aren’t any business-class awards on the flights you need, first class is definitely worth considering.
Know before you go.
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