First Time in First: Flying Korean Air's First Class (777-300ER) From Seoul to San Francisco
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In the past few years, I've spent a good amount of time flying in premium cabins on various carriers. Until recently, however, I'd never flown a true international first-class product. Since I've generally been more than satisfied in business class, I was curious to see if there was actually a tangible difference to flying in first.
Towards the end of last year, I traveled with TPG to Japan to review Delta's brand-new A350 in Premium Select, and then on to Singapore where Singapore Airlines revealed its new Suites and business-class products which are now flying on several routes. To get back to the US, I decided on Korean Air, which allowed me to both experience first class for the first time (thanks to plentiful award availability) as well as see a country I had never been to.
Both TPG and Editor-at-Large Zach Honig have reviewed Korean Air's old first-class product on both the Airbus A380 and the Boeing 777-300ER, the latter of which was on an intra-Asia flight. I chose to look for availability on Korean's Boeing 747-8 because not only is it a beautiful bird, but it also features the airline's newest hard product, which in first means just six fully enclosed suites in the nose of the Queen of the Skies. However, Korean doesn't fly the aircraft to many North American destinations, so my options were limited.
Unfortunately, I couldn't find any first class seats on the New York-JFK flight, but I was able to find space on the flight to San Francisco (SFO). I booked seat 1A with just 80,000 Korean Air SkyPass miles for the one-way off peak award, which were transferred from Chase Ultimate Rewards. I also paid about $43 in taxes and fees with my Chase Sapphire Reserve card, which earned me 129 UR points. Taking advantage of Korean Air's program is a great use of your Ultimate Rewards points — even though Korean itself has recently tightened up its award availability, there are still seats if you can be flexible, and you have the ability to book online awards on other SkyTeam carriers as well.
You're probably wondering why I'm rambling about the 747-8 when the review is of a 777-300ER. Well, a few days before my flight, I logged into my SkyPass account and noticed that the airline had swapped in a 77W for the 748, as the two planes are known by the International Air Transport Association. This was probably the worst thing you could do to an AvGeek like me. Don't get me wrong, the 77W is a beautiful plane, but it's sort of ubiquitous now, and nothing can really compare with the 747. Adding insult to injury, I assumed (thankfully, it turned out I was wrong) that I'd be getting the old first-class product that doesn't feature the fully enclosed suites. I ended up getting lucky, as the aircraft was one of the 77Ws in Korean's fleet that has been outfitted with the newest onboard products — so first featured sliding doors at each suite, and business class the much-loved Apex suite.
Check-in and Lounge
While I was lucky to experience the latest and greatest on board the aircraft, the same can't be said for the ground experience at Seoul Incheon Airport (ICN). I passed through the airport just weeks before Korean Air moved into the brand-new Terminal 2, which opened in January. Korean's former home in T1 didn't feel particularly outdated to me, but its lounge was certainly an archetype of mediocrity — there wasn't really anything bad about it, but it didn't seem suitable for a luxurious first-class product, as food and beverage options were lacking.
We'll be getting back to Seoul soon to get a first-hand look of the new terminal and its lounges, but according to several reader reports the lounges are much improved compared to the one I experienced.
Cabin and Seat
The first-class cabin on this version of the 77W is made up of eight fully enclosed suites arranged in a 1-2-1 pattern spread across two rows.
I made the *very long* journey from the door to my seat, 1A, and began settling in.
I'm more used to squeezing myself into a tiny coach seat, so this suite felt truly palatial. Oh, and the best part? I had three whole windows to myself for gazing at other aircraft before taking off.
I even got a glimpse of Korean's 747-400 while taxiing. It made me a bit sad to think that I could've been flying on its newer, more efficient cousin — the magnificent 748 — instead of the ubiquitous 777, but so it goes.
Anyways, back to the 777 — my seat measured 20.6 inches wide, obviously reclined to a fully flat bed for sleeping, and sported 83 inches of pitch, though in this case pitch didn't matter much since you're so closed off from everyone else in the cabin.
In between the seat and the windows were two compartments that you could theoretically use for storage, but one contained all the literature (menus, safety card etc.) for the flight:
...and the other had seat controls and a remote for the IFE system.
Each suite has its own air vents — a true luxury, because in many premium cabins you have all the fancy bedding but you don't end up using any of it because the cabin is kept too warm. Here, though, I was able to find climate bliss.
When it's fully flat, the seat is abundantly wide. The airline also provides a substantial pillow, mattress pad, duvet and blanket for sleeping. All of this was supremely comfortable and allowed me to sleep almost the entire way to San Francisco — I kept thinking that I wished the flight had been to the East Coast rather than the West, so that I could have a few more hours to sleep and take it all in.
The pièce de résistance of this suite was the fact that it was completely enclosed, meaning I could simply close the doors to my suite to shut out the rest of the world... err... plane. Honestly, I opened and closed the door multiple times throughout my flight, simply because I could.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting for me at my seat when I arrived was an amenity kit that featured special branding for the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, of which Korean Air was a sponsor. The kit contained all the essentials (including a full-size toothbrush) and even a shoehorn, which was a smart addition I thought, since I usually struggle with getting my shoes back on after a long flight.
There was also a pair of slippers waiting for me. The more I fly, the more I appreciate slippers — thanks Korean Air! I also received a pair of Bose noise-cancelling headphones for all my movie-watching needs.
The physical IFE system was great — it was a large screen that was responsive to input and it displayed sharp graphics.
Behind the scenes, though, things were a different story. There just wasn't a wide enough selection of entertainment to choose from. I did find one or two movies that I'd be happy with watching, but for those who don't plan on sleeping for a majority of the flight, this could be a problem.
The screen's crispness really shone through on the airshow, which was fun to follow as the flight progressed. Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you look at it) there was no Wi-Fi offered on this flight.
Food and Beverage
Simply put, this first-class flight had all the food. Really though, I was stuffed by the end. I've had generally excellent meals in business class on various carriers, but this flight brought that to another level. There was even a caviar course — though some at TPGHQ are used to this experience, it was a wholly new one for yours truly.
As soon as I got settled in to my suite, a flight attendant came over to offer me a glass of Champagne and warm Macadamia nuts. Korean stocked Perrier-Jouët Belle Epoque Rosé Champagne from 2006, which retails for about $350 on the ground — although I'm not usually a fan of rosé Champagne, you can rest assured that I got my money's worth.
Meal service started shortly after takeoff and you could choose one of two paths for your meal — Western or traditional Korean. Since I'd never flown with Korean before (or in international first class), I wasn't aware that there was a separate menu for the Korean dinner, so I began the meal on the Western path. But, when the flight attendant came to take my main course order, I asked if there was bibimbap available, and from that point on I got the Korean options.
The meal began with an amuse-bouche (I feel fancy for even typing those words) of seared scallop topped with a black mushroom and finished with a spicy orange sauce. As expected, it was a delicious few bites.
Next up was the caviar course, which was by far the most memorable part of this flight simply due to the fact that I had absolutely no idea what I was doing. The flight attendant placed it in front of me and I just kind of stared at the plate, looked up at her and then looked back down to the food — I clearly hadn't done this before.
She came back to check on me a few minutes later and saw that I still hadn't even made an attempt at it — she just laughed and asked if I needed help... yes, please! She gladly took mercy on my inexperienced self and gave me a lesson on how to set up the caviar to be eaten. Overall, I did enjoy the experience and the caviar itself, but I don't think that I'd go out of my way to book myself a first-class ticket solely because I'd get to eat caviar. And yes, I know that may be an unpopular opinion...
After the caviar came a salad course. It was served by way of a cart passing through the aisles so you could make your own salad. This was a nice touch, and definitely tasted much fresher than the vast majority of salads I've had on an airplane.
Then came... everything else. First, I was offered a choice of either a boiled beef shank cold plate or a bowl of wild sesame soup with stuffed bean curd. Neither sounded particularly appetizing to me, but I ended up going with the soup. It was certainly tasty, but I found the texture to be a bit off-putting.
With the Korean option, there was a choice between spicy braised hairtail (a fish dish served with zucchini, radish and potato) or the airline's beloved bibimbap. I definitely made the right choice here — the dish was delicious, and it was made even better by the amazing spicy sauce the airline provides. The main course also came with several side dishes, including a braised chicken stew served with mushrooms, a spicy vegetable soup and small sides of rice, seasoned seaweed, seasoned lotus root with vinegar and walnuts glazed with spicy soy sauce. I loved every one of the aforementioned dishes and frankly devoured them all.
Even though I was positively stuffed after my feast, it was time for dessert. Flight attendants rolled a cart displaying assorted fresh fruits, cheeses and wine through the aisles. I chose a little bit of both food options and thoroughly enjoyed them.
However, there was more. The final dish was a chocolate cake served with vanilla bean ice cream. I only had a bite of the cake with ice cream, and it was pretty unremarkable.
Throughout the flight, first-class passengers could choose from a wide variety of beverages, which are listed below. Also, in the (unlikely) scenario that you found yourself needing a snack during the flight, you could request at any time ramen with assorted sides, cookies, pecan pie or onigiri.
- Cocktails and Aperitif
- Gin & Tonic / Martini / Tom Collins
- Bloody Mary/Screwdriver
- Whisky Sour
- Kir Royal
- Dry Sherry Tio Pepe
- Dry Vermouth
- Choya Umeshu (only available on Japan flights)
- Spirits and Brandy
- Johnnie Walker Blue Label
- Glenfidditch Cask Collection Select Cask Single Malt Whisky
- Jack Daniels Whisky
- Remy Martin Reserve Cellar Selection Cellar No. 28 Cognac
- Absolut vodka
- Bacardi rum
- Beefeater gin
- Bailey's Irish Cream
- Crème de Cassis
- Crème de Menthe
- White Wine
- Albert Bichot Chablis Premier Cru 2015
- Mambourg Gewurztraminer 2015
- Kendall-Jackson Grand Reserve Chardonnay 2013
- Manz Herrenberg Riesling 100 2015
- Red Wine
- Haselgrove Col Cross Shiraz 2014
- Founders Reserve Porto, Sandeman
Several very short hours later, it was time for breakfast. Just like the dinner service, there were both Western and Korean options to choose from. The choices for the main course included:
- Korean style beef rib and cabbage soup with Korean side dishes
- scrambled egg on potato apple roesti with crispy bacon and cherry tomato
- mini French toast with maple syrup with caramelized apple
In addition, all meals were served with several options for yogurts, cereals, fruits and breads.
This time around, I went for a Western option — the French toast. To start, though, I had a croissant with butter and jelly as well as some raspberry yogurt. To drink, I chose guava juice, which has quickly become one of my all-time favorites.
I rarely choose a sweet breakfast option, but I found the French toast to be delicious. The caramelized apples on top were a welcome addition, too! After the meal (and about five more glasses of guava juice) I was full, awake and ready to return to the US of A.
Despite the subpar ground experience in Seoul (which should be vastly improved at this point due to Korean's new terminal at ICN) and the disappointment of not getting the chance to fly on the 747-8, I was blown away by this flight. It was my first time in a true international first-class product, and as an #AvGeek I was beyond excited to try out a fully enclosed suite. All of the flight attendants that I interacted with were attentive but not intrusive.
Would I fly this product again? If I had a surplus of Ultimate Rewards points to burn through, definitely. However, given how solid Korean's business product is (on its newer aircraft, of course), I think I'd book myself in business class and save the extra miles for a night (or two) at a Hyatt property or even a domestic flight on Southwest or United.