Flight Review: Korean Air (Boeing 747-8) Business Class From Honolulu to Seoul
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Earlier this month, I had the privilege of joining United's final 747 flight, which took me and TPG Assistant Editor Nick Ellis from San Francisco (SFO) to Honolulu (HNL) on November 7. Then, a few days later, I needed to be in Dubai (DXB) for the launch of Emirates' fantastic first-class suite, followed by the Dubai Air Show.
In theory, there was enough time to route via the mainland US if I had to, but since I wanted to have a full day on the ground in Hawaii to work and do a bit of exploring — not to mention the fact that I really needed to rest a bit by that point — I set out to find the most efficient routing possible, that also allowed me to review a brand-new business-class product.
I ended up with two options: two flights on a Philippine Airlines A330, connecting in Manila (MNL), or one flight on Korean Air's 747-8 followed by an Emirates A380, with a long layover in Seoul (ICN).
As I mentioned, my one-stop options for flying from Hawaii to Dubai were incredibly limited, and due to the mix of airlines and lack of availability, using miles for this trip wasn't feasible. So we bit the bullet and booked a paid one-way business fare for $3,340. We paid with The Platinum Card from American Express, earning 16,700 Membership Rewards points for the purchase thanks to the card's 5x points bonus category on flights booked directly through the airline or with Amex Travel.
My itinerary included a nonstop flight from Honolulu (HNL) to Seoul (ICN) on Korean Air's 747-8, followed by a connecting flight to Dubai (DXB) on an Emirates A380. Emily McNutt recently reviewed business class on Emirates' superjumbo, so I'll be focusing only on the Korean Air flight.
Much to my surprise and disappointment, a few days before departure my 747-8 was swapped for an Airbus A330, with a much older interior. Fortunately, there was still a 747 flight that day, departing about an hour earlier.
Since we booked the ticket through Amex Travel, we reached out to them to see if they could get Korean Air to let me move to the earlier 747-8 flight, even though the same fare class (D) wasn't available. To my surprise, they made it happen — as you can see, I was rebooked in the "C" fare class but the ticket was an even exchange, so we didn't have to pay a cent.
Since I'm not working toward status on Delta and I find Alaska miles to be more valuable overall, I credited the flight to Mileage Plan, earning 10,298 miles for this one leg.
In total, with the 16,700 Membership Rewards haul ($317) and the 10,298 Alaska miles ($196), we earned a return of $513 based on TPG's most recent valuations. And that's not including the Emirates flight, which should earn me an additional 9,450 miles (worth $180) once that posts.
Airport and Lounge
I arrived at the airport around 10:30am for my 12:20pm departure, since I wanted to have time to check my bag and explore the airport and lounge.
Wait... hold up... check a bag? Yup, while I almost always insist on carrying everything on the plane, I decided to move most of my items from my backpack to my carry-on, and I checked the roll-a-board all the way to Dubai, since I knew I'd be leaving the airport during my seven-hour layover in Seoul.
It ended up being easy as can be — the agent was incredibly friendly, and my bag was checked and my boarding passes were issued within five minutes of pulling up in my Uber. The Honolulu contract agent was even able to select seats on my connecting Emirates flight, and issued my onward boarding pass as well.
The Honolulu Airport (HNL) doesn't have much in the way of amenities — it's a mix of indoor and outdoor spaces, so on a really hot day I'd actually want to spend as little time there as possible.
The weather was perfect during my visit, though, so I ventured into the courtyard to find the Korean Air Lounge — and some friendly ducks.
I was pleased to see that Korean operates its own lounge, which I suppose makes sense, especially when there are typically two 747-8 loads of passengers a day. However, upon checking in, the agent warned me that the lounge was very crowded, and that I might have trouble finding a seat.
She was right — it was packed.
And I mean PACKED — the only open seat I found was in a "reserved" section, which I imagine was being held for first-class passengers.
I sat down where I wasn't supposed to, but just for a few seconds to test the Wi-Fi:
Then I checked out the lame liquor selection...
...and the soft drinks, and made my way back out into the terminal.
Interestingly, we were assigned the same gate United had used for its 747 arrival party just a couple days before. It, too, was packed, but there were a few open seats. There wasn't much of a wait before it was time to board, though.
Our ship ended up being HL7630, a two-year-old 747-8 that was delivered in August 2015. Inside she looked like a brand new bird, though.
Cabin and Seat
I decided to board through the forward door, knowing that it would drop me off right at the rear of the first-class cabin. While I've flown in Korean's older first-class seat, I haven't seen the new design, which now offers a sliding door. I only had a moment to snap a photo before a first-class passenger walked into the cabin, but I'm hopeful I'll get to try this product someday.
Door or not, it's pretty awesome that the airline offers just six seats in the nose — and these are clearly far superior to the first-class seats available on other Korean Air planes, particularly the 787-9 Dreamliner.
From there, I made my way to the upper deck, first passing through the main business cabin.
The lower deck business cabin offers the same seats you'll find upstairs, but they're arranged in a 2-2-2 configuration, just as I saw on Korean Air's 787-9.
I knew if I were flying business class on the 747-8, it would need to be on the upper deck. I definitely made the right choice.
Upstairs, there are 22 seats arranged in a 2-2 configuration, though the cabin was only half full on my flight.
There are two lavatories up front, just behind the cockpit, but as on all 747s they're very tight.
Some passengers may find the seats to be a bit narrow, too, but at 5'9" and average build, I was comfortable.
While center seats downstairs are positioned alongside one another, they're all staggered on the upper deck, which adds some privacy but might make it a bit difficult to chat with your neighbor.
Another huge upper-deck advantage: the gigantic window bins — I had two compartments all to myself, but I had no problem storing everything in one.
I could have also kept my bag underneath the ottoman, but that wasn't necessary given all of the space by the window. Note that aisle seats don't have this storage, so I'd opt for "A" or "J" seats if flying on the upper deck.
Besides a small compartment under the armrest, there isn't much else to speak of on the storage front, so you're definitely better off with a window seat.
Of course the seats lie completely flat — Korean Air's latest planes offer the Apex seat, which is quite possibly my favorite business-class seat outside of Qatar's Qsuite. I've flown in an Apex seat several times before, including on Japan Airlines and Oman Air — it really does offer a great balance of privacy and comfort, even though it can feel a bit narrow.
I found the seat to be comfortable both upright and in bed mode, though I would have appreciated having a more substantial pillow.
My favorite feature is the slide-up partition. For example, here's the seat with the partition down:
And here it is with the partition up — you really feel like you're flying alone, even if there's someone right on the other side of the wall.
I chose seat 18J, which, along with 18A, feels a bit more spacious than others in the cabin, since there isn't a seat directly in front.
There was an amenity kit waiting at my seat when we boarded. It wasn't anything special, but it did include the essentials. I definitely appreciated that Korean Air offers a proper toothbrush, which I ended up using for the rest of my trip.
There are also noise-canceling headphones, but I wasn't impressed, and ended up using my Bose earbuds instead. If you're flying Korean Air, I suggest bringing your own set along.
I also found a set of slippers, along with a shoe bag.
There were a couple more items in the lavatories, too, including mouthwash and shaving kits.
One area where Korean Air really needs to improve is its on-demand content. The system itself was fine — good, even — but the selection was incredibly limited.
You can control the system either directly on the touchscreen, or via the wired touchscreen remote.
The handheld remote was unnecessarily complicated though — to the extent that I needed to reference the guide several times.
The film selection was very limited, with only a dozen or so new releases. Considering how long some of Korean Air's flights can be, I'd expect a greater variety.
Fortunately I found one option that I hadn't seen yet — The Circle. Certainly not a fantastic film, though it did have a good cast, and, again, my options were very limited.
I spent a fair amount of time watching the high-res moving map...
...and staring out the window.
It really was quite a thrill getting to fly on a brand-new 747-8 just after joining the retirement party for United's last 747-400.
Sadly Korean Air does not offer Wi-Fi on its 747-8s, though there was a power outlet and a USB port — the latter charged my iPhone especially quickly.
Food and Beverage
As much as I disliked the entertainment selection, I was a really big fan of the food. Shortly after boarding, I was offered my choice of beverage. I selected guava juice, which was served with packaged nuts.
The menu was perfectly sufficient for a 10-hour flight — there were two full meals, and a couple snack options to choose from as well.
About 25 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant came by to take my meal and drink order. She returned quickly with my bloody Mary and sparkling water, which was served with a small snack of veggies stuffed with cream cheese.
My appetizer and wine appeared about 50 minutes after takeoff. There was one option, seared tuna with salad, which I very much enjoyed.
The wines were presented in an unusual wicker basket of sorts — it didn't seem especially on-brand, but it was an interesting presentation nonetheless.
I selected the Korean option for my entree, Bibimbap, which arrived about an hour and 10 minutes after takeoff and consisted of minced beef and a variety of vegetables, along with Gochujang, which I love. It was fantastic.
Next, about an hour and a half after takeoff I was offered dessert.
I requested both the cheese and fruit plate, and the ice cream, along with some Port — all were great.
Finally, I asked for some chamomile tea, knowing that I planned to sleep a bit. Unfortunately that got lost in translation, and I ended up getting a glass of Campari.
I'd actually never had Campari before, but I didn't really care for it. I didn't want to bring attention to the miscommunication, though, so I saved the tea request for later in the flight and drank from the provided water bottle instead.
I slept for a couple hours, then decided to ask for a snack. I saw someone else with a cookie, so I asked for one of those, along with some sparkling water and some creme de menthe, which I was curious to try. I won't be doing that again anytime soon, but that's one thing I really love about premium-cabin flights — the opportunity to try something you wouldn't normally ask for on the ground.
About two hours and 20 minutes before landing, a flight attendant came by to set my table for "dinner," which was quite a bit less involved than lunch. First, I had a fresh salad served with pineapple dressing.
For my entree, I selected the Korean option again — this time a braised chicken thigh with bulgogi sauce. It tasted fine, but the presentation left a lot to be desired.
And finally it was tea time! I went with a Korean green tea.
Other than the dismal entertainment selection, there wasn't much not to like about my Korean Air flight. The service and catering were fantastic, and I really loved my seat. This 747-8 is especially comfortable, too, especially on the upper deck. While I'm definitely bummed to see so many airlines retire their 747-400s, there's no question that the 747-8 offers a far superior experience overall.
While my itinerary was especially complex, had I just been traveling on this one leg I would have needed to redeem 62,500 miles, or 92,500 miles each way during peak season — that's fairly steep, considering paid fares can be had for about $1,700 each way or $2,300 round-trip. More likely you'll be flying Korean's 747-8 from the mainland US — availability's a bit hit and miss, and substitutions are possible, but from time to time you can find it flying between Seoul and New York (JFK) or San Francisco (SFO).
For more on booking Korean Air awards, see How To Book Award Flights with Korean Air SkyPass.