Flying a Dinosaur: Asiana A380 in First Class From Seoul to Los Angeles
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Everyone has their own travel bucket list. For some people, it’s to visit every continent or maybe even every country. Mine is a little nerdier: Since my first flight on an A380, my goal has been to fly first class on every carrier that operates the whale jet. So far, I’ve managed to cross two off the list (and I’m booked in Singapore’s new suites for the summer!), but Airbus’s decision to end production of the monstrous double-decker jumbo jet put a bit of pressure on my plans.
I figured I still had a few years, as most A380s that are currently in service will continue to fly for 10 to 15 years before being retired, but Asiana had other plans. In poor financial shape, and with first class going out of style for airlines around the world, Asiana announced recently it would stop selling first class for flights after Aug. 31. Asiana isn’t actually removing the first-class suites from its A380s and will continue to sell them as business suites, but I’m guessing they can save a lot of money by cutting back the soft product and closing down the first-class lounge.
Thankfully, by the time this announcement was made, I already had my flights booked to try out Asiana’s first class. I’ll admit that it was a little surreal flying a product that won’t exist in three months. Normally I approach a review flight with the mindset of trying to help readers decide whether this specific airline and product would be a good use of their miles. While Asiana passed that test with flying colors, you’re running out of time if you want to book this product for yourself. Read on to see what made this flight so enjoyable.
Asiana flies its A380 to both New York-JFK and LAX, and as it’s a member of Star Alliance, you have plenty of options for booking this award. One-way tickets would cost 90,000 Avianca LifeMiles, 105,00 Aeroplan miles or 120,000 United MileagePlus miles
Avianca has a clear edge, with the lowest award rates and no fuel surcharges to worry about. You can easily earn LifeMiles by transferring from American Express Membership Rewards, Citi ThankYou points or Capital One miles. Since we booked this award before Amex added Avianca as a transfer partner, we booked through Aeroplan instead. Points transferred instantly from Amex, and while the $200 or so in taxes we had to pay was less than ideal, it was certainly manageable for a long-haul first-class flight.
My day started too early in the morning at Shanghai Pudong (PVG) for the quick hop over to Seoul (ICN). I was in economy for this first leg but had no problem using the business-class check-in lane.
Our flight was scheduled to depart at 8:30am, but at 6:30am the check-in lines still weren’t open. The economy queue stretched endlessly, and people were starting to get a bit antsy, but I was the only person in the business-class line. I asked if it would be possible to upgrade me to a business-class seat, since I was on a first-class ticket and there were at least a dozen empty seats in the cabin, but the check-in agent (and her supervisor) said they couldn’t do anything because my ticket had been booked through Aeroplan.
Our flight landed in Seoul on time, and it was incredibly easy to find the bright green hallway leading to the transfer security.
Once I was through security, I was off to the first-class lounge, which turned out to be rather hard to find. There were transit lounges scattered throughout the terminal and no clear signage for the specific Asiana lounges. I had to stop and ask at the information desk after walking halfway down the terminal in the wrong direction. To save you time, you’ll find the business- and first-class lounges near Gate 11.
I loved the bright red Asiana logo greeting me as I stepped off the escalator.
The lounge didn’t have a traditional check-in desk. After an agent verified your boarding pass, you could simply scan it at the electronic gates to let yourself into the appropriate lounge. Immediately behind the gates were a number of high-top tables that seemed ideal for meeting with a larger group, though they didn’t offer much privacy.
Once inside, the main lounge area was down a short hallway.
The bathrooms were on the left, and a number of rooms with day beds were on the right.
I’m a sucker for an open lounge design with good tarmac views, and so I was immediately pleased.
I ended up grabbing a chair as close to the windows as possible before I went off to find food. There was an outlet and two USB ports at the seat.
There were also a number of couches and high-top tables spread out in the dining room. There were maybe 10 people in the lounge the entire time I was there, so I pretty much had my pick of seating types.
I wanted to be good knowing the feast that was waiting for me on board, but the lounge food all looked delicious. There was popcorn shrimp and tandoori chicken, as well as a number of other hot options.
I ended up nibbling on a bit of bulgogi salad (yum!) and eggplant Caprese.
There was a self-serve bar as well as Taittinger Champagne on ice.
This was a great lounge, and while I had not a single complaint, nothing about it felt particularly first class, either. This would have been a perfect business-class lounge, but when you’re traveling in first class you expect either unique amenities (like boarding directly from the lounge in Dubai or a tarmac transfer in Frankfurt) or top-notch service. Service was perfectly fine, but I was never offered anything to drink and with the automatic entry gates, the lounge felt like a self-service concept.
Cabin and Seat
Lounge or not, my favorite form of airport entertainment is sitting by the windows and drooling over the jumbo jets, so I made my way to the gate about 30 minutes before boarding was scheduled to begin.
One nice thing about a plane this large is that it necessitates an orderly boarding process. Asiana had separate lines set up for first-, business- and economy-class passengers, with three jetways hooked up to the A380.
First class was at the front of the lower deck, meaning you entered the plane right next to the grand staircase.
I was in Seat 2K, a window seat on the right side of the plane. My first impression of the cabin was how tall the seats were, providing a good amount of privacy with the doors closed. However, with the doors open, I could turn my head and make eye contact not just with the couple seated in the middle seats next to me but even with the person in Seat 2A on the other side of the plane.
I’ve heard people complain that Asiana’s color pattern feels like a boring office, and while I don’t disagree, that’s not the most important thing to me either. When you’re sitting in the seat, you’re not concerned with the color of the fabric behind you, and I thought the soft wood trim around the suite made for a very relaxed design.
While the window seats were obviously preferable for solo travelers, the middle seats were great for couples, as it was easy to converse with the person sitting next to you. There was also a privacy partition that could be raised if you ended up in the middle and didn’t know your seatmate.
The seats themselves had an ample amount of storage, including along the fuselage.
There was a small storage compartment to the right of the seat, which was also where the headphone jack and USB port were.
There were no overhead bins in the first-class cabin, which kept it from feeling claustrophobic with the high seat walls. If you had a carry-on suitcase, you needed to store it in a locker in front of the cabin, while backpacks could fit under the seat. This was also where the main outlet was, which meant you couldn’t charge items like a computer while reclined into bed mode.
Each seat also had a small closet built into the wall. It was about one shoe wide (I only know this because I stacked my shoes to fit them) and included a vanity mirror.
One feature I really liked was the handheld tablet, which could be used to control the seat. I’d only ever seen this feature before on Emirates.
Since only five of the 12 seats in first were taken, I had the flight attendant make up my bed in 1K after lunch. Turndown service included a mattress pad, a separate blanket and an extra pillow. I got a solid five hours of sleep, which is about as good as I could hope for on an afternoon departure.
I’ve now flown on four or five different airlines that offer closing-door suites, and while I used to think it was a complete gimmick, the added privacy really helped me get comfortable and fall asleep faster.
The starry night sky on the ceiling certainly didn’t hurt, either.
While the seat itself had plenty of storage, the bedding took up most of the space on the ottoman and took away from the sleek feeling of the suite.
There were two bathrooms in first class, one larger one on the right side of the cabin and a smaller one up the stairs near the cockpit. The bathroom was well-stocked with extra amenities like mouthwash and real towels, and the flight attendants kept it spotless throughout the flight.
The toilet was hidden under a bench, giving me a large space to spread out and change. There was also a window in the bathroom, which was really fun during flight, but make sure to keep it closed while you’re on the ground!
I also took a peek at the staircase during the flight. The upper deck of the plane was mostly business class, with a small economy cabin in the rear.
At the top of the stairs, where Emirates puts its shower suites and Etihad puts The Residence, Asiana simply had two bland office waiting-room couches. These appeared empty for most of the flight (as the lights were off on the upper deck) and looked like a waste of space. One of the best things about the A380 is the way it’s allowed airlines to innovate, so chalk this “lounge” up as a missed opportunity.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting at my seat upon boarding were a pair of noise-canceling headphones, an amenity kit and slippers. The slippers were very sturdy and even said “Asiana” on it, something you don’t always see.
The Bose headphones were a great touch, though I used my own set.
The amenity kit was sturdy and featured products by Salvatore Ferragamo. It was incredibly well-stocked, including cologne, lip balm, hand cream, aftershave lotion, body lotion and a facial mist. This was by far the nicest amenity kit I’d ever received, both in terms of the bag itself and the quality and diversity of products.
Shortly after takeoff, I was offered pajamas. They were soft and comfortable without being too hot, and I see myself rewearing the quarter-zip top again. The pants didn’t have any pockets, though, so I left them on the plane.
I was also presented with an Asiana duffel bag to carry everything off the plane. It was folded into a small pouch (and pajamas and an amenity kit don’t take up that much space), but I’m sure I’ll find a good use for it on future trips.
Each seat featured a 30-inch TV screen with not an inch of wasted space. But the content was abysmal, worse than even China Eastern. I’d never struggled so hard to find something to watch on a plane, and I strongly suggest you bring your own entertainment if you’re flying Asiana in any cabin.
The good news was that the handset was touchscreen and incredibly responsive, so it didn’t take me more than a few minutes to realize there was nothing I wanted to watch.
There was an underbelly camera, which provided good views on our approach into LAX, though for most of the flight there wasn’t much to look at.
Shortly before we started our descent, the IFE cut out and played a short exercise video to help passengers stay comfortable on the long flight. While it would have been more useful at the beginning of a 10-hour flight than at the end, the stretching felt good.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Shortly after settling in, a flight attendant came by to offer me a predeparture beverage. I appreciated that she actually held open the drink menu so I’d know what they had on offer that day. The good news: Unlike many airlines, Asiana isn’t too cheap to serve the good Champagne on the ground. I had a glass of the Barons de Rothschild Blanc de Blancs, which retails for about $130 a bottle. The flight attendant also asked if it was OK to serve me peanuts, which anyone with allergies would appreciate.
Menus were distributed and meal orders taken about 30 minutes after takeoff. I opted for the Korean menu, with two minor adjustments. While Asiana offers a caviar course on the Western menu, the Korean menu notes that they’ll be happy to serve caviar upon request. I also swapped out the pine-nut porridge for a salad.
About 45 minutes into the flight, I was served a bulgogi quiche as a starter. The dish was flavorful, though I prefer lighter canapés when the meal itself is going to be heavier. My Champagne was also refilled at this point, though the pour was 80% bubbles and the flight attendant disappeared without realizing it.
After that, I was served a beautifully presented caviar course, along with a single rose placed across my table. Asiana uses a proper porcelain spoon for the caviar, and it was served with all the usual accoutrements of chives, chopped onion, chopped egg white and egg yolk and sour cream.
Caviar has to be among the most photogenic foods out there, and I appreciated the mix of blinis and toast.
Next up was an appetizer of shrimp and scallops with lemon yogurt dressing. The dish was served cold, and while the shrimp was delicious, the scallops were a bit tough.
The salad was simple, and the balsamic pearls were a fun alternative to normal dressing, but the greens were so thin that all the bacon and pistachios fell to the bottom, making it hard to get one complete bite.
For my main course, I ordered the bibimbap and a glass of red wine. The flight attendant recommended the Chateau Fleur Cardinale Grand Cru 2013 ($50 a bottle) to pair. Each time she poured me a drink, she would first bring out an empty glass, present the bottle to me and then offer me a taste before filling my glass up all the way.
Bibimbap is one of my favorite dishes, especially when I get a generous amount of gochujang to top it off with. This one was served with a side of chicken and abalone. While the dish was certainly good, it wasn’t nearly as good as the bibimbap I had on Korean Air a few months ago. I can’t put my finger on what exactly it was, but this dish was an eight out of 10 where Korean’s was a perfect 10.
At this point, I was incredibly full, and the dessert of bread pudding and vanilla ice cream didn’t sound all that appetizing, so I decided to close my eyes and try and get some sleep. Without dessert, my meal was done 90 minutes into the flight, a great pace that maximized my time to sleep without rushing me through lunch.
Even though we landed in Los Angeles at 9:30am, I wasn’t quite in the mood for breakfast, so about two hours before landing, I ordered a bowl of spicy ramen and a side of fruit. The ramen hit the spot and came with a side of kimchi. The normal breakfast menu had plenty of other options, including scrambled eggs, French toast and Korean shrimp porridge.
Service was very attentive throughout the flight, with only five of the 12 seats in first class taken. The meal was well-paced and perfectly tailored to suit my appetite, and flight attendants were proactive about coming through the cabin throughout the flight to see if passengers needed anything.
However, and I’ll keep using Korean Air as an example, it felt like the emphasis was on form and not on warmth and personality. The flight attendants spoke English very well, so I don’t think it was a language barrier, but there was no attempt to strike up conversation at all during the flight. They knelt by my seat at every interaction and were the epitome of professionalism, but you expect a little bit more in first class.
One thing that stood out to me was that at the end of the flight, the purser and flight attendants did not come by to thank me for flying with Asiana. This is a very small gesture, but every other time I’ve flown in first class (and even many times in business class), the flight attendants have made a point of thanking me for flying with them and asking how I enjoyed the flight. It in no way detracted from my experience, it’s just interesting not to see Asiana take such a little step.
Award travelers and Star Alliance loyalists will surely mourn the loss of Asiana first class. Any chance to fly a premium cabin on an A380 is a treat, and my flight with Asiana was top-notch in many ways. The amenity kit was well-stocked, and the food was mostly amazing. The service was good, though it didn’t have that extra something that sets first class apart. Overall, I’m happy I’ll have a positive memory of Asiana when it converts its first class into business suites at the end of August.
All photos by the author.
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