First-rate first class: a review of Korean Air’s 747-8 from Atlanta to Seoul
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During the COVID-19 crisis, our team has temporarily ceased taking review trips and we are not publishing new flight or hotel reviews. While bringing our readers unbiased, detailed reviews of travel experiences is one of our core missions, now is not the time. We all love to travel and know you do too. So, to help keep you entertained — and maybe inspire you — we are republishing a selection of the most popular reviews on our site, including the one below. Hopefully, this will help you once we’re all ready to start booking trips again.
The Korean Air nonstop flight from Atlanta to Seoul is still operating during the pandemic, but on a reduced schedule, using smaller Boeing 777s rather than the 747-8 we reviewed. In the U.S., Korean Air also still serves Chicago, Los Angeles, New York JFK and San Francisco as of April 14, all with a reduced schedule.
This review was originally published in January 2019. It has been lightly edited from the original, to reflect the changed availability of Boeing 747 flights around the world and changed points valuations.
While the 747, affectionately referred to as the Queen of the Skies, is perhaps the single most iconic passenger jet in history, it’s getting harder to find one of these double-decker jumbo jets in the US.
The version of the storied Jumbo Jet in production these days is the 747-8, featuring updated technology and more fuel-efficient engines, plus a lengthened fuselage hump. But while the cargo version, the 747-8F, has done very well, the 747-8i passenger variant has not. There are only three airlines operating it: Lufthansa, Air China and Korean Air.
Many people have fond memories of the older and more common 747-400s, even though those birds are undeniably showing their age. However, prior to this trip, my only flight on a 747 had been with Lufthansa when I was much younger. To me, the jet with the giant hump has always been a modern wonder. When I found myself in Atlanta for a friend’s wedding, I knew it was a sign: This was my chance to cross a huge item off my award-travel bucket list and try Korean Air’s phenomenal first class for myself. My excitement for this flight had been building for weeks, reaching a peak when I arrived at my gate and confirmed with my own eyes that a 747-8 was in fact waiting to take me to Seoul. Let me just say: Korean did not disappoint.
Korean Air first-class awards used to be phenomenally easy to book, but all that changed when Chase Ultimate Rewards dropped Korean Air as a transfer partner. Now the only way to earn a meaningful number of SkyPass miles quickly is by transferring points from Marriott at a 3:1 ratio. A one-way first-class award from the US to Korea/Japan/China/North Asia costs 80,000 SkyPass miles. This meant that I had to transfer 195,000 Marriott points after factoring in the 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred.
I was dead set on trying out Korean’s 747-8 first class but wasn’t sure which trip I wanted to fly it on. I ended up putting two separate awards on hold for 60 days — the one I ended up flying from Atlanta (ATL) to Shanghai (PVG) via Seoul (ICN), and another one from Shanghai to London (LHR) via Seoul. After finding award space on ExpertFlyer, I was able to place both awards on hold in a single phone call. Once I had settled on the Atlanta trip, I transferred the Marriott points (which took about 48 hours) and was able to ticket the Atlanta itinerary and cancel the London one, again in a single call.
In addition to the Marriott points (which TPG values at $1,560 currently, or $1,755 at the time of booking), I had to pay $209 in taxes. A cash ticket on this route would have cost just over $10,000, which gave me a stellar redemption value of just over 5 cents per Marriott point after subtracting taxes. Compared to TPG’s valuation of Marriott points at 0.9 cents each at the time of booking, I was incredibly happy with the deal I got here.
Korean Air departs from the international terminal at Atlanta’s Hartsfield-Jackson airport. My Uber driver had never been to that side of the airport before, so it took a few wrong turns before he was finally able to get me where I needed to go.
Korean had clearly marked check-in lines for both first-class and “prestige class” (business class) passengers, and I was helped immediately. The agent issued my boarding passes all the way to Shanghai, and I headed off to security. I got about 15 feet from the check-in counter when I heard him calling after me. He’d forgotten to ask if I’d like to have someone meet me in Seoul to escort me to the first-class lounge, which I politely declined, as I was interested in exploring the then brand-new Terminal 2 at Incheon as well.
Security lines were quick, and I found myself in the Delta Sky Club no more than 15 minutes after checking in.
This was my first time in a Sky Club, and from the minute I walked in the door, I was blown away by the friendly and sincere service. My boarding pass was scanned at the door, and the agent even complimented the recycled, hard-sided Lufthansa business-class amenity kit that I used as a passport holder. Meanwhile the agent at the desk started joking about what kind of celebrity status he needed to earn to make it into my photos.
Despite the cold January weather, my first stop was the outdoor terrace and the incredible planespotting views it offered.
At this point, I went back inside to find a seat. While the lounge was fairly packed when I arrived around 9:30am, it emptied out almost entirely after Delta’s flight to Tokyo departed.
I counted four different hot options for breakfast, though three of them were some variation of eggs.
The food was all very good, though I was fully aware of the feast that lay in wait for me on board, so I decided to keep things light(er).
The centerpiece of the lounge is a massive and well-stocked bar, with two large seating areas spreading out on either side.
One thing this lounge does especially well is the number of outlets and USB ports available. In addition to charging stations along the wall and at the high-top bar seating, there are large power banks between every clump of seats.
While I was already very impressed with the quality of the lounge itself, the service was by far the best part. Every five or so minutes, a server would make the rounds, asking with the sweetest smile imaginable whether everyone was doing all right and if she could get us anything to eat or drink. Shortly before it was time to board my flight, the lounge food changed from the breakfast to lunch menu. There was an announcement made over the PA letting guests know they had one last chance to grab breakfast, and the same server came by to make sure everyone was aware of the change and had gotten all the breakfast they wanted. If you’d closed my eyes and spun me around three times, I never would have guessed that I was in a legacy carrier’s lounge in the U.S.
Cabin and Seat
Eventually it was time to board, and my heart really did skip a beat when I turned the corner and saw our majestic 747-8 parked outside. This plane (tail number HL7642) was the third-youngest in Korean’s fleet, having been in service for just under two years.
Boarding began as scheduled at 11:25am, but the preboarding of passengers with wheelchairs and strollers took a good 30 or 40 minutes. Despite the multiple cabins spread across two decks, all passengers were being boarded through a single door, which added to the logjam. Thankfully, as I would find out in a few minutes, I was the only passenger in first class, so I didn’t have to worry about being the first to board.
I’d seen pictures before, but my jaw still hit the floor when I turned left into the six-seat cabin in the nose of the 747-8.
Spread across three rows in a 1-1 layout, it made a 368-seat super jumbo feel like a private jet.
Just to give you an idea of how open this layout was, Lufthansa puts eight seats in the same space and British Airways manages to cram 14 first-class seats into the nose of its 747-400s.
I had assigned myself 1A, the left-side seat right in the very nose of the plane, but with an empty cabin, I really had my pick of seats.
The flight attendants kept insisting that I was the only passenger in first class, but throughout the flight I saw a middle-aged man sitting behind me in Seat 2J. It was only when he got up midway through the flight and swapped his seats with another man in a pilot’s uniform that I realized the seat was being used as a crew rest.
The suites are very spacious, though the seats themselves are only 20 inches wide.
To the left of the seat are two pop-open storage compartments, as well as one that houses the entertainment controller, headphone jack, and USB plug. I prefer when the plugs are exposed and not in a compartment like this, as it forces you to keep the compartment open the entire flight to avoid crimping your cords.
This was the first time in my life I’d ever had four whole windows at a single seat.
There are no overhead bins in the nose, giving the cabin an open and airy feeling. The suites in rows 2 and 3 have closets built into the doors, but Row 1 can use a small storage locker (shared with the crew) for jackets and carry-ons.
There are two lavatories for first-class passengers, behind the galley and just in front of the business-class cabin. They are relatively standard in size and had no special amenities worth mentioning, but the crew did a great job keeping them spotless throughout the flight. In fact, whenever an FA saw me get up to use the bathroom, she would run ahead of me to make sure it was open, close the door for me and lock it behind me.
This was only my second time flying in a suite with closing doors, and I can’t overstate how much privacy it added, even in an otherwise empty cabin. I will note that I had a little trouble closing the doors by myself, but the FAs were more than happy to help me with that.
The suites look even larger with the doors closed, adding to the private-jet feeling of this cabin design.
In fact, when you stand in the nose of the plane and look backward, it almost looks like there are just two suites in the whole cabin.
After lunch, I had my bed made up in Seat 1J across the aisle. Since the suites are so private, if you are traveling with someone you might have trouble talking to them. I would suggest picking seats 1A and 1J in that case, but even so you’d have to lean your neck pretty far forward.
I loved how much space there was when the seat was fully reclined. Unlike some first-class cabins (like ANA’s) that feel a little tight around the elbows in bed mode, this seat gave me plenty of room to stretch out and roll over. These suites also come with individual air nozzles, which made a huge difference when I was under the blankets in a warm cabin.
With the door closed, it wasn’t hard to relax and get comfortable. I will say that I was surprised that turndown service didn’t include an extra pillow. In this case, I had no problem stealing one from an empty seat, but that was one small area where Korean could improve.
Amenities and IFE
Each first-class suite features a crisp, 23-inch screen, but the inflight-entertainment selection was mediocre at best. The TV selection was minimal and only had one or two episodes of each show, and the movie choices weren’t much better.
Waiting at my seat upon boarding was a water bottle, amenity kit, headphones, and a misting spray. Korean Air did a great job providing Bose headphones for first-class passengers, which is an area where many five-star carriers (including Emirates) drop the ball.
The amenity kit was provided by Atelier Cologne, and included lip balm, hand cream, body lotion, aftershave lotion and face cream, in addition to the usual elements like an eye mask and toothbrush. The pouch itself was plain and fairly low-quality, and I couldn’t help but feel like Korean missed an opportunity by not partnering with a higher-end cosmetic brand. Even Asiana, Korean’s most direct competitor, partners with Salvatore Ferragamo for its amenities.
Pajamas by Gianfranco Ferre were provided shortly after takeoff, meaning no one had to guess my size before boarding.
The pajamas were comfy, if a bit bland, but I couldn’t stop laughing at what was written on the back (and arm).
“Tonight … My dream … Fly … Good night”
Even after a few glasses of Champagne, I couldn’t make sense of that one, but I thought it was cute nonetheless.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Korean Air didn’t serve Champagne on the ground, so I stuck to water for my predeparture beverage. I was also offered a small package of nuts, though once I confirmed that I wanted them, the FA rushed back to the galley and brought them out in a small ramekin instead.
Menus were already tucked into the seats prior to boarding, so as we taxied out, an FA came by to take my order. The process took a good five minutes, a testament to her desire to make my entire meal perfect. For each course (amuse-bouche, appetizer, soup, salad and main), she asked what I would like to drink, and for the most part I stuck to the delicious Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque rosé.
Service began after takeoff with a scaldingly hot towel handed directly to me instead of on a plate. The FA warned me that it was hot, but I was still a little taken aback.
About 20 minutes after takeoff, my table was set with the utmost precision, followed by an amuse-bouche of asparagus wrapped in salmon that came with a horseradish dip. The tablecloth was just a little too short to cover the table completely, which is a minor detail but something that should be easy for Korean to fix. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d assume that they load the same tablecloths across the entire fleet and the tray table on the 747-8 is just a little bit longer than those on the 777s, A380s and 787s.
That was followed by an appetizer of tuna tartare and avocado, as well as seared scallops. The flavors were absolutely delicious, fresh and perfectly cooked. I was a little disappointed to see that there wasn’t a caviar course, which I know Korean offers on certain routes. I’m not sure if it had to do with our early-morning flight (lunch service versus dinner service), or simply something about the way they run catering out of Atlanta, but this dish quickly washed away that momentary disappointment.
At this point I was also offered a selection from the breadbasket, and chose a piece of garlic bread, which ended up being used as a sponge for the tomato soup I was served next. The soup was creamy and thick without being too rich or filling, and the portion size was perfect.
Next up was the salad course. While Korean normally rolls a cart around and prepares the salad at your seat, it would have been absurd to set up that whole show for a single passenger. Instead, the FA knelt by my seat and read off a list of possible ingredients and dressings, then returned moments later with the exact salad I’d ordered. The salad was nothing fancy but hit the spot, and the candied nuts added a nice crunch.
Next up was the bibimbap, an absolute must when flying Korean. When I was ordering, the FA had suggested I switch from Champagne to red wine to pair with this course, and so she opened a bottle of Chateau Branaire-Ducru to breathe while I made my way through the early parts of the meal.
Normally, Korean serves bibimbap with a cute little instruction card on how to prepare and eat the dish, but I never received one. The FA had asked me earlier if I’d eaten bibimbap before, and when I said yes it’s possible she assumed I wouldn’t need the help (but you can bet I still made a mess of it). This is an incredibly minor detail, but things like this are the reason I read copious numbers of flight reviews before traveling myself so I can make sure I get the full experience.
I did mention to the FA that gochujang, the spicy Korean red-pepper paste, was one of my favorite sauces in the whole world, and she was very happy to surprise me with a second tube to go with my bibimbap. As we were descending into Seoul, she came back to my seat and presented me with a bag of five more tubes to take home with me. I’ve been happily putting it on my eggs every morning, reliving a fantastic flight and smiling at a small but personal service touch.
I skipped the cheese and fruit plates because I was absolutely stuffed and went straight for dessert, a chocolate crunch cake. The ice cream (and the cake itself) were frozen solid and hard as a rock. I had to wait a good five or 10 minutes before I could dig in. The cake was good, but if there was a low point of an otherwise perfect meal service, it was this.
Lunch service was complete about an hour and a half into the flight, and the pacing was perfect. Drink refills were proactive (and I was presented with the bottle every time), empty dishes were cleared quickly, and each course was brought out soon after.
Though the meal service itself was impeccable, the next 15 hours were a little lacking. The entirety of the midflight snack menu was ramen and chocolate-chip cookies, neither of which sounded especially appealing. That being said, when I woke up from my nap, an FA proactively brought me a plate of cookies and a bottle of water, and it hit the spot. I’m sure I could’ve gotten some fruit or cheese if I’d asked for it, but for a 15-hour flight I think Korean needs to up its snack game seriously. Both ANA and JAL, on shorter flights (around 13 hours), had several entire pages of the menu devoted to light snack options, both Western and Japanese.
About three hours before landing, a flight attendant came by to tell me I could have my prearrival meal whenever I wanted. Once again, my table was meticulously set, and I was offered a selection from an entirely different breadbasket. The focaccia with sun-dried tomato was moist and delicious, and went well with what felt like a breakfast meal.
The salad was delicious as well, and I appreciated some healthy greens after a filling dinner.
For my entree, I went with the panfried sea bass in saffron sauce with mashed sweet potatoes. The fish was cooked absolutely perfectly, and the mashed potatoes tasted 10 times better than they looked, but the saffron sauce was simultaneously too watery and too heavy for me, and I only ate about half of it. This concerned the FAs to no end, and I had to reassure them (and the purser) multiple times that I was in fact stuffed and beyond satisfied with the catering and that there was nothing else they could get me.
As we made our final approach into Seoul, a flight attendant brought me a glass of omija (magnolia-berry) punch and thanked me again for flying Korean Air. I’d never had this traditional drink before, but loved the tangy, sour flavor, and wish I’d ordered some myself during the flight.
It’s definitely easier to provide good service when there’s only one passenger in the cabin, but I have no doubt these FAs would have been every bit as perfect if all six seats had been taken. The meal service was customized as much as possible for me, and the service was professional and proactive throughout, always with an incredibly genuine smile. After lunch, my bed was made up without my having to ask for it, and after clearing my dessert and stowing my tray table, the FA even proactively closed the door to my suite.
After lunch, I got up to explore the plane a bit and bumped into the purser in the galley, right in front of the staircase to the upper deck. We ended up chatting for a good 15 minutes about how excited I was to be on the 747-8 and how much she loved the plane, and she even brought me upstairs to give me a tour of the business-class cabin. Every seat was occupied, so I didn’t take any pictures, but if you’re curious how that product stacks up to first class, you can read TPG editor-at-large Zach Honig’s review.
Things like holding the bathroom door open for passengers was clearly an ingrained part of the service culture, but the little touches, like the gochujang-to-go gift made me so incredibly happy. It was a little moment like that that showed that the FA had been listening hours earlier and was intent on making every second of my flight experience perfect. This attention to detail was present throughout the long flight. The FAs noticed I was drinking a large amount of water, and began greeting me with a new bottle every time I came out of the bathroom without my having to ask.
A minor language barrier was to be expected, but the way it was handled spoke volumes to the quality of service. I rang the call button at one point to ask for some water, and a new FA appeared to take my order (presumably the other ones were on a break). She wasn’t sure if I wanted still or sparkling water, so she brought both to my seat so I could pick. That way there was no chance of her getting my order wrong, and no embarrassment (for either party) about having to ask again — simply perfect!
It’s normal in first class for the purser and flight attendants to come by and thank passengers at the end of the flight, but in this case I was also given a detailed update on our arrival time, instructions on how to find the first-class lounge, and the gate information for my connecting flight. The purser was very curious to hear how I thought the service and food were during the flight, and I was happy that I could honestly tell her they were pretty damn near perfect. She gave me a postcard saying thank you from her and the FA who had been taking care of me, another small touch that went a long way.
When traveling in a premium cabin, high expectations can amplify the disappointment with even the smallest mishaps. I had higher expectations for this Korean Air flight than any I’ve ever taken (except for Emirates), and still left the flight wildly impressed. The spacious cabin in the nose of the 747 was even more private and comfortable than it looks in pictures, and the food and service were every bit as perfect as I’d been led to expect. While this award is much harder to book now that you can’t transfer Chase points to Korean Air, I consider this an incredible use of Marriott points and wouldn’t hesitate to book this same itinerary in the future.
All photos by the author.
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