Flight of flavor: A review of Korean Air’s business class on the 747-8 from Atlanta to Seoul
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Last year, for the first-ever TPG Awards, I was assigned to fly Korean Air’s business class, as it was in contention for the award for best international business-class product. Korean didn’t end up winning, but it’s certainly a contender once again for this year’s awards.
When I flew Korean last year, it was on the carrier’s 787-9, and I was disappointed, though much of that was probably because I’d waited too long to book and ended up in a middle seat.
This year, I wanted to give Korean another go — this time on its 747-8, which seemed to be the aircraft that would provide the best business-class experience the carrier had to offer, thanks to its spacious cabins and two decks.
I had to make my way to Australia so I could catch a flight in Qantas’ first-class cabin on the A380 from Melbourne (MEL) to Los Angeles (LAX) that I was able to book for 70,000 Alaska miles, and I figured I’d take the really, really long way there in order to review several different products.
I ended up flying from New York LaGuardia (LGA) to Sydney (SYD) by way of Toronto (YYZ), Atlanta (ATL), Seoul (ICN), Shanghai (PVG) and Taipei (TPE), flying Korean Air on its 747-8 on the leg between Atlanta and Seoul. Here’s what my flight was like.
Korean doesn’t fly its 748s to many U.S. destinations, and even some of the cities that see that aircraft only do so for part of the year. When I traveled, Atlanta was the only airport that was getting the 748 regularly, so my sights were set on a trip that would route me somewhere — anywhere — in Asia through Atlanta and Seoul.
Korean Air is no longer a transfer partner of Chase Ultimate Rewards, which used to be our go-to way for booking Korean flights, so we knew that we were going to have to get creative when looking for an itinerary that would allow me to review this flight.
Predictably, beginning my journey anywhere in the U.S. turned out to be outrageously expensive. I have had good luck finding relatively reasonable SkyTeam business-class fares when the ticket starts in either Toronto or Montreal (YUL), so I used the ITA Matrix to piece together an itinerary. Sure enough, I was able to find a decently priced (for business class, at least) itinerary to Shanghai that would allow me to fly the 748 between Atlanta and Seoul.
We paid $2,330 for the one-way ticket with The Platinum Card® from American Express in order to take advantage of the card’s 5x bonus category on flights booked directly through the carrier or with Amex Travel. In total, we earned 11,650 Membership Rewards points for this purchase, which are worth about $230 according to TPG’s current valuations.
If you want to fly Korean Air in a premium class, you can transfer your Marriott Bonvoy points to Korean’s SkyPass program and book flights that way, but with what’s not the most favorable transfer ratio, you’ll want to be 100% sure that you want to use your Marriott points that way before making the transfer.
This trip began with Delta’s first flight of the day from Toronto to Atlanta, to give me the best chance of making my flight in case things went sideways. But if things went according to plan, I’d have plenty of time in Atlanta to give the full ground experience a try. Luckily, the flight gods were looking down favorably upon me that day, and the trip got started without a hitch.
As soon as I landed in Atlanta, I made my way out of the secure area so that I could begin the whole process again as if I were originating there. I was very early, so the check-in area was pretty much deserted.
Obviously, it was Delta-centric, but Korean Air had three staffed check-in desks (one for passengers in first and business class, one for its Morning Calm elite members and one for economy) but no dedicated self-check-in kiosks. It was adjacent to Air France-KLM’s check-in area, though, so passengers were to use those kiosks to check in for their flights. I found it strange that there was only one desk for economy passengers, but maybe as the flight got closer more economy lanes opened up.
There were hardly any other people in the check-in area, so I breezed through security in no time at all, and I checked my bag all the way to Shanghai, as I didn’t want to deal with it as I was reviewing the flight.
There’s technically a priority security lane at ATL that I could have used, but it was still closed, since there were so few people going through security at all at this point.
Korean’s daily flight departs from the F gates at ATL, which is designated as the international terminal, though I have had some domestic flights depart from F gates in the past.
After my less-than-five-minute security screening, I headed straight to Delta’s F Concourse Sky Club, which I’ve visited numerous times on various domestic U.S. and international connections.
The lounge itself was quite large and clearly designed for large numbers of passengers, which makes sense given the tremendous number of flights Delta operates each day from ATL.
The space was spread over two floors and included a covered Sky Deck outside.
In the center of the first floor was the buffet, which had plenty of options for a preflight snack or meal.
Next to the buffet was the full-service bar, where you could order complimentary beer, wine and spirits or try specialty cocktails and other beverages for a charge.
I spent the majority of my time in this lounge in the long and skinny seating room flanking one side of the bar. I settled into a cozy leather armchair and set up my laptop so that I could get some work handled before getting on my flight, which didn’t have Wi-Fi, for 12 hours or so. The Wi-Fi in the lounge was strong, and I had plenty of options for plugging my devices in — traits that I’ve noticed consistently at pretty much all of the Sky Clubs I visit.’
About an hour before my flight was scheduled to board, I wandered into the shower area to freshen up before the long-haul flight to Asia. There were several shower rooms available, and I was able to access one right away after checking in with the attendant.
Each shower room had a toilet and was equipped with a a few towels as well as a bath mat. There was a sign letting guests know that both dental and shaving kits were available and could be requested from the attendant. Toiletries were from Malin+Goetz and came in larger multiuse bottles in the shower itself.
Finally, after my shower, I spent a little bit of time on the Sky Deck, since the weather had improved considerably since I’d arrived earlier in the morning. It was still drying out after an early-morning rain shower, but it was a fun place to hang out for a little bit and watch the morning aircraft movements.
While I find Sky Clubs to be generally consistent in quality, this one in the F Concourse at ATL was slightly ahead, thanks to its Sky Deck and large footprint. I realize that I wasn’t actually flying with Delta, but Korean doesn’t have its own lounge in Atlanta, so this experience was based on the ground game of its close partner Delta, which I find to be middle of the pack in terms of the long-haul international business-class experience. Had I been flying, say, Lufthansa, from Houston (IAH) or another one of United’s hubs, I could have accessed the Polaris Lounge, which provides a dedicated premium ground experience for premium passengers. Until Delta decides to compete in this regard, it — and SkyTeam and its joint venture partners operating from a U.S. Delta hub — will always rank lower than its peers.
I departed the Sky Club about 15 minutes before boarding was scheduled to begin so I could check out the gate area and secure a spot at the front of the priority line. I wanted to be one of the first on board for this review.
My flight departed from Gate F1, which turned out to be a schlep from the lounge. Once I arrived, I could immediately tell that there were not enough seats or power outlets for a full 747, as many people were standing waiting for boarding to begin.
The first boarding announcement was made about 20 minutes after the scheduled boarding time, and then Sky Priority boarding was not announced until 20 minutes after that. Despite the delay, I was thrilled to be boarding this 747 for the flight to Seoul.
Cabin and Seat
Business class (called Prestige Class by the airline) is spread over two cabins on the 747-8. It occupies the space directly behind the nose of the aircraft before the economy section (Rows 7-10), and then the entire upper deck.
If you’re flying business on this aircraft, the upper deck is definitely where you want to be. First, the upper deck is arranged in a 2-2 configuration, whereas the lower deck gets a 2-2-2 setup. And second, you get to climb the stairs! Enough said.
After ascending the staircase, it’s practically a whole new world. The upper deck feels way more private, as there are only 22 seats located up there. Some people have described the upper deck of the 748 as feeling somewhat like a private jet, and I can’t disagree. It’s certainly the closest I’ve ever gotten to a private jet.
Korean uses Apex Suites for its newest business-class product, and short of a suite with a fully closing door like Qatar Qsuite or Delta One Suite, they’re about as private as it gets in business class — if you’re not in the middle section.
Each grouping of two seats on either side of the airplane is staggered, so you’re never looking directly at the person sitting next to you. Also, there’s a large privacy shield that can be raised after takeoff that pretty much makes each seat completely private.
Luckily, there is no middle section on the upper deck of Korean’s 748, so everyone has a very private almost-suite with direct aisle access through a small passage at the very front of each seat.
Another great feature about these upper-deck seats is the positively cavernous amount of storage they provide at each window seat. Thanks to the shape of the cabin, there are two large “lockers” between each window seat and the fuselage. They were big enough to hold my sizable backpack with ease.
Other than the lockers that are only at window seats on the upper deck, there isn’t much storage to speak of when it comes to Apex Suites. The seat itself almost touches the sides of each “suite” and so, beside a few narrow ledges and the space under the footrest, your stuff will be very much in your field of view.
The seat controls are placed logically in the front of the armrest, and the IFE remote is below them. Each seat features a USB and AC power port, though I only used the AC outlet because I found it much more conveniently located than the USB, which was buried in the literature/headphone/amenity kit pockets.
Of course, the seat reclines into a fully flat bed, and I was able to get several hours of solid sleep during my flight — a testament to the bed’s comfort. The only thing that was uncomfortable was the cabin temperature, which was really warm.
I found my seat to be very comfortable overall, though I was lucky to be on the upper deck in a window seat. Don’t get me wrong, you’ll still be comfortable in a middle-section seat, but with Apex Suites there are winners and losers when it comes to individual seats. Comparing this most recent experience with the last one I had, I came away much more impressed than I had been after my middle-section Dreamliner flight.
Amenities and IFE
Waiting for me at my seat upon boarding were an entirely too small pillow and a rather shabby-looking fleece blanket. The pillow wasn’t nearly big enough to be comfortable, but the crew was happy to give me another, which made things better. The fleece blanket was really hot and looked like it was at least a couple of years past its prime.
Also at the seat were a pair of slippers, amenity kit and pair of noise-canceling headphones, which I found to actually be pretty good.
The amenity kit, however, itself is another area in which Korean could improve. The case itself was a totally nondescript and frankly ugly soft-sided bag that held a dental kit, an eye mask, a comb, a shoehorn and hand cream, body lotion and lip balm, all from a brand that I’d never heard of. The only thing that stood out to me there was the shoehorn — I can use all the help I can get putting on my shoes again over my swollen feet after a long flight.
When I flew Korean business class a little less than a year ago, I was underwhelmed by the inflight-entertainment selection, and this year was no different.
The system was intuitive enough and could be controlled either by touch or by the wired remote, which also had a small touchscreen built into it. But the IFE just didn’t have a ton of options — especially on such a long flight. I admittedly am on the pickier side when it comes to movies, but I struggled to find two movies or TV shows that I genuinely wanted to watch.
I probably should have tried harder to sleep, but given the midday departure from the U.S., I wasn’t exactly tired. I would have loved to fill the time with work, but there was no Wi-Fi, so once I finished what I could do offline, I couldn’t go any further. I spent some time watching the airshow, of course, but that can only keep one entertained for so long.
It’s this area of the flight that could be improved most with Korean. The lack of entertainment options and weaker amenities aren’t a deal breaker for me, and I would certainly fly with Korean again despite this, but compared to the top players in the industry, Korean has a lot of catching up to do.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
While I was settling into my seat, flight attendants came around with water and guava juice — no alcohol was served on the ground. I remember being a big fan of the guava juice on previous Korean Air flights, and it was just as delicious this time around. In fact, I asked for a refill, and the flight attendant was happy to bring me another glass.
Korean offers two different paths for dining: Korean or Western. The amuse-bouche and appetizer are the same, but if you choose a Western main course you also receive a soup course and bread. If you choose the Korean option, you receive traditional Korean side dishes, or banchan, with your main.
The full cabin service got started 25 minutes after takeoff with flight attendants bringing warm towels around. Shortly after, F.A.s came through the cabin again, this time with Champagne and an amuse-bouche of seared tuna with asparagus and a balsamic vinegar-and-olive oil dressing. Korean stocks Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut in business class, which retails for about $50 on the ground.
As I was served the amuse-bouche, the F.A. asked me whether I’d like to have a Western meal or the Korean for my main. I’d had the bibimbap on all my previous flights with Korean and consider it a highlight, so I didn’t hesitate to order it again.
Next up was the appetizer course, which was a Caprese salad with Italian dressing. I was a little surprised to see a Caprese salad as the appetizer, but it’s one of my favorites, so I wasn’t complaining. The cheese was fresh and the tomatoes ripe — it made for a refreshing start to the meal.
Next up was the main course, bibimbap, which was served with soup on the side. If I’d chosen a Western option, I could have had either a grilled beef tenderloin with port wine sauce, potato gratin and roasted vegetables, or a roasted salmon filet with herb cream sauce, white and wild rice, green beans, red onions and roasted cherry tomatoes.
I love Korean’s bibimbap, and was glad I stuck with this dish yet again. The highlight of the dish is arguably the gochujang, which is a Korean hot pepper paste that’s delightfully spicy and adds a great kick to the bibimbap.
After the main course, the flight attendants brought a cheese plate. It was on the smaller side, but I was getting full at this point, so it was the perfect amount.
After the cheese, finally, was dessert. There was a choice between a passion fruit and raspberry cake or ice cream. I went with the cake, which I really enjoyed. It wasn’t too sweet or too large a portion but just enough to satisfy my sweet tooth after all the savory food I’d just had.
The first meal service was complete a little under two hours after takeoff, and I fell asleep for a few hours but then was awake for the duration of the flight. About an hour after waking up, I was feeling peckish, so I cracked open the menu once more to see what was on offer. I could choose between chocolate chip cookies or a bowl of ramen. Having just had a sweet dessert, I decided to go for the ramen.
I pressed the call button, and an F.A. was over in a matter of seconds to assist me. I placed my order and she explained that it’d take about 20 minutes to arrive, and asked if I wanted anything to drink in the meantime. I asked for a Diet Coke, which was brought back to me immediately.
Like clockwork, the ramen arrived just shy of 20 minutes later, and was delicious. It was spicy and filling — great comfort food while watching a movie.
The cabin lights were turned back on about two and a half hours before landing, and the crew began coming around the cabin to take orders for the last meal of the flight, which was classified as a dinner because of our late afternoon arrival into Seoul.
First was a salad served with tomatoes, feta cheese and balsamic vinaigrette. It was fresh and had plenty of feta, which I always appreciate.
For the main course, there were three choices: Korean-style spicy cod with rice and mixed vegetables; chicken thigh with a garlic demi-glace, fingerling potatoes, grilled zucchini and roasted bell peppers; and udon soup with seafood and vegetables.
I went for the chicken. Though the dish appeared to be on the small side, it actually was plenty of food, and pretty delicious, to boot.
This meal was finished up with a small plate of fresh fruit.
I have high expectations for the food on board Korean Air, and this flight lived up to those again. It’s not the most opulent meal you’ll have in the sky, but the bibimbap especially is a fun, uniquely Korean and, most importantly, delicious experience to have on board.
While certain aspects of the flight experience lag behind the competition, I’ve never had an issue on any of my three Korean Air premium flights. The flight attendants took care of me throughout the flight and did everything they could to make sure I was comfortable. They were eager to bring me a second pillow so I’d be more comfortable when trying to sleep, and responded to any requests immediately.
One particular service element that stands out from other airlines is that the crew hands out a facial mist after the meal service. This isn’t all that common, and even though in real terms, that face mist doesn’t do a whole lot, it feels premium and like you’re really getting pampered.
This flight on Korean Air’s 747-8 was a great one overall. The seat felt significantly better than my last experience in an Apex Suite on Korean Air, the food was predictably delicious, and the service was spot on.
However, the airline is certainly behind the eight ball in the amenities and IFE department: There wasn’t a whole lot available to keep me occupied and the amenity kit itself was a letdown, especially compared to other carriers.
This wouldn’t deter me from flying Korean Air again, and I in fact like the carrier quite a lot, but in order for it to compete with the top in the class, it’s going to need to make improvements to its inflight offering.
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