Transpacific Sweet Spot: Asiana's A350 in Business Class From Seoul to San Francisco
Update: Some offers mentioned below are no longer available. View the current offers here.
Asiana Airlines took delivery of its first A350-900 in April 2017, and since then, it's expanded the use of the aircraft on its long-haul route network — including on several to the US. Seoul-based Asiana now operates several A350s-900s and has more on order, including its newer, bigger sibling, the A350-1000.
On a recent trip to Asia, I was able to take advantage of one of the sweet spots in the Avianca LifeMiles award chart in order to check out an alliance airline's A350 in business class. The A350 is one of the newer aircraft flying, and I was curious to find out just how Asiana's stacks up with the competition on the popular Asia-to-US nonstop routes.
Asiana is a member of Star Alliance, to which United Airlines also belongs. I was traveling from Seoul (ICN) to San Francisco (SFO) and onward to St. Louis (STL). Avianca, another Star Alliance member, publishes an award chart, which has great sweet spots. In fact, its LifeMiles is an underrated frequent-flyer program.
My final destination, Missouri, rendered my trip a North Asia-to-United States two-trip affair, based on the LifeMiles award chart. A one-way flight would have cost me 75,000 LifeMiles in the business-class cabin, but I chose to use LifeMiles and money, redeeming 72,340 LifeMiles plus $25 to cover the remaining 2,660 LifeMiles.
Note that even itineraries that don't continue onward and end in, say, San Francisco also can be redeemed at the same 75,000-mile level. According to the award chart, all flights between the North Asia zone (where Seoul is) and the United States (zones 1, 2 and 3) are 75,000 LifeMiles one-way.
LifeMiles can be transferred directly from Citi ThankYou points (1:1 ratio, though there are often transfer bonuses) and Amex Membership Rewards points (1:1). The program has also become famous for its cheap mileage sales, with rates for buying miles sometimes as cheap as 1.35 cents each.
I arrived at Seoul's Incheon International Airport a few hours before my flight was scheduled to depart at 8:40pm. Check-in had just opened for the flight at Asiana's fairly large space in the terminal.
Because I was early, there wasn't much of a wait for business-class check-in lanes. After a process that lasted less than 10 minutes, I was en route to the security checkpoint.
The check-in area for Asiana was close to one entrance for security, but it was poorly marked. In fact, I didn't see a separate lane at all for premium passengers.
The security line was short, and I was through within five minutes and on my way to the Asiana business-class lounge.
The Asiana business-class lounge was the contract lounge for a number of other programs and carriers. But in the time between my visit and writing this review, it closed. Shortly after I had visited that lounge, I returned on another trip and found signs that, as of Oct. 1, the airline had opened a new lounge on the east end of the terminal. So I'm including my review of the new lounge here instead.
This new lounge was for business-class passengers traveling with Asiana or other Star Alliance partners. I was able to gain access because of my Priority Pass membership, a benefit of the Platinum Card® from American Express.
Upon entry, I could tell that the new lounge was a fresher version of the old, dated lounge.
The interior was set up the same — business- and first-class passengers had separate entrances and lounges. On the whole, the new business-class lounge felt more modern.
Gone were the worn carpets and aged seating. In their place: modern, open-air design and brighter alternatives. Everything felt new — and much improved.
There were two main dining areas. One was a self-serve bar when you entered the lounge. It was accentuated by lighter floors and a brighter, more welcoming look.
At the opposite end of the lounge, though, the food was better, with more hot options. During breakfast, there were scrambled eggs, dumplings, sausage, cold options and fresh fruit.
While still not the best business-class lounge out there, Asiana did a good job in designing a new lounge that'll give its passengers a better on-the-ground experience than the old lounge, which simply needed to go.
Cabin and Seat
Asiana's A350-900 had three cabins: Business Smartium (business), Economy Smartium (premium economy) and standard economy. Though I didn't have a chance to check out either the premium economy or economy cabins, there were 36 and 247 seats in each cabin, respectively. The premium economy cabin was in a 3-3-3 configuration, with each seat offering 36 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width. Standard economy had a similar 3-3-3 configuration, with 32 to 33 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width.
Forward was the business-class cabin, with 28 lie-flat seats. The cabin was arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, meaning every passenger got direct aisle access. The seats had 77 inches of pitch and 22 inches of width.
If you're traveling alone, ideal seats are those closest to the cabin wall (A or K), specifically the even-numbered ones, which had the most privacy. Odd-numbered seats in rows A or K are still nice for solo travelers but have less privacy, as they're flush against the aisle.
If you're traveling with someone, the best option is the two seats in the center of the aircraft (E and F). Try and select odd-numbered seats, as you'll be seated closest to your travel partner. Even-numbered seats in the center are separated by tables.
At first glance, the interior of the cabin gave off a somewhat dated feeling — the upholstery looked like something you'd find at a dentist's office, and the light beige screamed old-fashioned.
Once I got over the initial appearance of the yellow-on-beige seats, I found the cabin extremely bright and airy. Because Asiana's A350 had cathedral ceilings, with no overhead bins in the center of the cabin, it opened up the space and made it roomier. Even with the limited number of overhead bins, there was plenty of storage for all the business-class passengers on my flight, which wasn't full.
Within minutes of boarding, I was approached by a flight attendant who introduced herself and thanked me for flying with Asiana. The immediacy and friendly nature of the introduction got the flight off on the right note, and the service remained consistently good for the duration of the flight.
Each of the seats was supplied with a plastic-wrapped blanket and pillow, as well as an amenity kit and set of headphones.
My even-numbered center seat, 4G, sacrificed some privacy from aisle traffic in favor of privacy from my neighbor. (The seat next to me was empty, though.)
One notable drawback was the lack of secure storage at my seat. The only storage for a bag was under the footwell.
The only storage for smaller items was underneath one armrest — for me, the armrest closest to the center. The space was just big enough to fit my AirPod case, as well as my phone when I was sleeping.
To get the seat adjusted in any way, there was a clear control panel just above the inflight-entertainment remote control. The display icons were self-descriptive and simple to use.
Most of the seats around me appeared to be working fine, but mine was incredibly loud. Every time I adjusted my seat, it drew looks from neighbors. Knowing it wasn't the fault of the cabin crew, I didn't make a big deal of it. Nevertheless, it was disappointing to get a defective seat on a fairly new aircraft — just five months old. The Airbus A350-900 (registration HL7771) was delivered to Asiana in April 2018.
Because of the loud noises my seat emitted, I tried to make a conscious effort to move it as little as possible. Nearing time to sleep after meal service, I reclined the seat — a slow process — to its lie-flat position. Once in that position, each of the beds measures 77 inches long, or about 6 feet, 4 inches.
I found the footwell to be comfortable enough for my feet, a women's size 7.5. However, it was definitely on the more cramped side of business-class products I've flown.
Tray tables were built into the seatback in front, making them, in my opinion, easier to use than those built into the armrest. That said, it was hard to bring it to a comfortable position — and no way to bring it closer to or farther away from my body.
Overall, I found my seat to be comfortable for the nearly 11-hour journey from Seoul to San Francisco. The color of the cabin and its brightness grew on me, especially as we were nearing our destination and in need of a wake-up call in the form of daylight and bright colors.
While not the most luxurious business-class seat in the skies, it was a comfortable hard product that made for a great trip — especially when you consider the great redemptions to be had.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Passengers each got a set of Asiana-branded slippers that were open-toed — a benefit for those with larger feet and a drawback for those with smaller, as your feet could slip more easily.
Along with the slippers, each side table was graced with two plastic-wrapped items: a set of headphones and a green amenity kit.
Inside that amenity kit was some pretty basic fare, including an eye mask, socks, package of tissues, earplugs, a dental kit, a brush and L'Occitane moisturizing products. I found the kit itself to offer the necessities, but not much beyond that.
There were two lavatories at the forward of the cabin and one more at the rear of the cabin, though that was more accessible for premium economy passengers. After we had reached cruising altitude, lavatories were stocked with a number of amenities, ranging from L'Occitane products to dental kits and perfumes.
I found the inflight-entertainment screens to be sufficient in size, especially given how close to the seat the screen was. It could be operated either via touchscreen or a remote control. While the content was OK, the selection of Western new releases was pretty dismal, and the system featured no tail camera, a mainstay on many A350 aircraft.
Food and Beverage
Within five minutes of boarding, each business-class passenger that was seated was offered Champagne, orange juice or water. I opted for the Champagne, which was a nice Laurent-Perrier brut. I was happy with the predeparture beverage choices — an option that many carriers choose to skimp on, or skip entirely.
Right after we had reached 10,000 feet, flight attendants came around the cabin distributing menus and offering hot towels. The menu included two options: Western or Korean. Your choice meant that you were going all-in with that option — if you chose Western, you had only one main-course choice, and likewise with the Korean.
I opted for Western, which consisted first of a mozzarella-and-cherry-tomato skewer. The canapé was served about 10 minutes after ordering and tasted fine, though the presentation was underwhelming. At the end of the day, it's hard to screw up cubed cheese and tomato. I also chose a glass of the Aaldering sauvignon blanc 2017 (about $20 per bottle), which was crisp and refreshingly citrusy.
Next up was the sous vide lobster-tail salad. The lobster was tasty without being too fleshy or fishy, tasting rather like something you'd get off the coast of New England. I was a big fan of the dish, prepared with fresh lettuce and vegetables.
Following the lobster tail, the crew came around with a celeriac cream soup. The soup was pretty bland and extremely oily, as if it had separated and a thick layer of olive oil lay on top.
Finally came a sous vide chicken breast with mushroom cream sauce, my favorite of the four. The sauce was tasty without being too heavy, and the chicken tasted fresh without being overdone.
To wrap up dinner service was a slice of apple cake with whipped cream. Though not too sweet, the cake was extremely dry, aided somewhat by the moistness of the topping.
The Korean menu featured: ginseng, pear and date roulade; shrimp and vegetables with pine-nut dressing; white tam porridge; ssambap; and preserved dates and a sweet walnut cookie
Less than two hours before landing, the crew brightened the cabin lights and asked passengers if they were interested in a breakfast: scrambled eggs with pork sausage, or abalone porridge. Given my shaky luck with eggs on flights, I opted for the abalone porridge.
All passengers were first given a plate of tasty fresh fruit, pastries and yogurt.
I was not a fan of the abalone porridge, though — it just wasn't for me.
Overall, I found the food disappointing. While there were some hits — the chicken was delightful and the lobster salad was a win — there was an equal number of misses, like the disappointing canapé.
That being said, I was impressed with the attentiveness of the flight crew. From start to finish of both meal services, they worked efficiently to get meals served as quickly as possible. As a passenger who tends to nap right after eating, I'm a huge fan of a quick meal service rather than one that's drawn out and can take hours.
Asiana's A350 is a comfortable way to get between Asia and the US. It's a new aircraft that offers a quiet and technologically advanced ride. While the hard product isn't like what you'd find on some competitors, it's a solid option.
While there are some things that Asiana could do to improve its product, like upping its catering to something more consistently good, I would absolutely fly this product again.