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Seoul Connection: A Review of Korean Air's 787-9 Dreamliner in Business Class

Dec. 13, 2018
15 min read
Seoul Connection: A Review of Korean Air's 787-9 Dreamliner in Business Class
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[tpg_rating tpg-rating-score="79" ground-experience="7" cabin-seat="18" amens-ife="10" food-bev="22" service="22" pros="Tasty food, attentive service and a nice new Dreamliner." cons="Privacy somewhat lacking, limited IFE options and uncomfortably warm cabin." /]

When we set out to determine which international business-class product would reign supreme for the inaugural TPG Awards, we ran into a huge problem: There are so many great business-class products flying around, how could we possibly settle on one?

We narrowed the field considerably by specifying that the candidates must feature a suite product and must fly that product to the US. We settled on four: Delta One Suites, Korean Air's Prestige Class with Apex suites, Japan Airlines' Apex suites and Qatar's Qsuites.

Though this review covers a flight between Toronto and Seoul, Korean flies Apex-suite-equipped planes (747-8s, 787s and some 777s) to several destinations in the US. This Toronto (YYZ)-Seoul (ICN) flight just happened to work best with a tight schedule and was considerably cheaper than most options that left from Korean's US gateways.

A Korean Air 787-9 pictured at Incheon Airport (ICN).


Korean Air awards used to be a great use of Chase Ultimate Rewards points, until the two programs parted ways at the end of this summer. Without the ability to transfer UR points, it's become much harder to book awards with Korean. The only practical option is to transfer Marriott Rewards points to Korean at a 3:1 ratio, meaning you'd need to transfer a total of 158,000 Marriott points (you'll get a 5,000-mile bonus for every 60,000 Marriott points you transfer, meaning you'd earn a 10,000-mile bonus on the first 120,000 points transferred).

We booked very close to departure, and award flights weren't even available, so we started digging around for an acceptable cash fare. Every flight from a Korean US gateway that featured aircraft with Apex suites was exorbitantly expensive.

Once I widened my search, however, to Toronto, the news got better. I was able to find a reasonably priced itinerary from New York (LGA) to Shanghai (PVG) via Toronto to Seoul with the leg from YYZ to ICN operated by Korean's 789 with Apex suites. We paid a total of $2,332 for the whole trip with the Platinum Card® from American Express so we could earn 5x points on the purchase, thanks to that card's bonus category on airfare purchased directly through the airline. In total, we earned 11,660 Membership Rewards points, worth about $222 according to TPG's latest valuations.

Since this was a paid flight, I was eligible to earn airline miles for this trip, too. Thanks to the recent improvement in Delta and Korean's relationship, I earned a considerable amount of MQMs, MQDs and redeemable SkyMiles with Delta, which aided tremendously in my quest to reach Diamond status this year. I walked away with a total of 10,170 MQMs, 2,663 MQDs and 18,605 redeemable SkyMiles — not too shabby!

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[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Ground Experience" tpg-rating="7" tpg-rating-max="10" tail="HL-8085" age="1" late="27" departure="13" departure-2="02" duration="13" duration-2="36" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

I arrived very early in the morning at Toronto's Pearson International Airport. So early, in fact, that the check-in counters weren't yet open. I walked around in the presecurity departures area to find a bite to eat before the check-in area opened at 9:10am.

At 9:15am, I made my way to the counter and noticed that while the line was only one person deep for business class, the economy line was already snaking into the main departures hall, as a school tour was checking in all at once to go back home.

I basically begged the check-in agent to find me a window seat, knowing that the middle seat I'd been assigned would be significantly less private, but the cabin on the 789 was small and every seat was taken. Middle seat it was. The rest of the check-in process was easy as could be, and since it was still early in the morning, I was through security in no time at all and on my way to the Air France-KLM lounge that Korean Air business-class passengers had access to.

I arrived at the lounge just after 9:30am, with just about two full hours to go before boarding. I presented my invitation from Korean Air as well as my boarding pass for entry, and proceeded into the still mostly empty space.

I was thrilled to have my pick of seats, and I quickly set the majority of my stuff down at a table that had plenty of outlets and provided lovely views of the apron.

The space itself was fresh — I could tell it had been redone recently. Light wood trim was used throughout the space and contributed to the modern vibe I was getting.

Food and beverages were set up in the middle, with standard lounge food being the main attraction. Think pastries, juices, a few hot dishes and not much else. I’d entered the lounge just after it'd opened, so things were still getting set up — including the sparkling wine. I browsed the selections but ultimately decided to pass entirely (except for plenty of water), since I knew that I’d be eating quite a bit on the plane.

There were gentle reminders all around the lounge that it belonged to Air France-KLM, like the glamorous, vintage-inspired AF advertisements.

Overall, the lounge was a nice space to kill some time before my flight. There weren't any amazing features, but there were, however, plenty of places to sit, and great views of the apron and city in the distance.

[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Cabin and Seat" tpg-rating="18" tpg-rating-max="25" configuration="2" configuration-2="2" configuration-3="2" width="21" bed="75" tray="12" tray-2="19" lavs="2" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

Immediately, I noticed that the business-class cabin felt on the small side. I’d only flown on Korean’s 777 before, and when I passed through the biz cabin on that aircraft, it felt huge. This isn't a necessarily a bad thing, either, just something I noticed right away as I boarded.

The business cabin was certainly bright and airy and featured Korean’s ... interesting ... turquoise-colored seats.

TPG’s Zach Honig was able to get inside KE’s 789 last year, so I knew that the first-class cabin sported the exact same seat as business, but I still chuckled to myself when I saw it in person — it just seemed so silly. I found my seat — 7E — in the middle section of the cabin. Immediately, I was jealous of those passengers who were able to score window seats — those were far more private than mine was and definitely were the best in the house.

My particular seat, while very comfortable and more than adequate for my transpacific journey, didn't feel as private as it could have been. It wasn’t staggered against the adjacent seat, like those on either side of the cabin. The privacy divider between my neighbor's seat and mine definitely helped, but I couldn't help but thinking about how much more secluded I could have been at a window seat.

I do think my experience on this flight would have been drastically different had I been able to secure a window seat, but so it goes. It’s unfortunate to have such a big discrepancy between a truly fantastic seat and one that leaves you wanting more, even though they’re the same product. I definitely learned my lesson here: Book as soon as possible so you can have your pick of seats.

Photo by Zach Honig/TPG.

My other main gripe with my seat was that it didn't have a lot of storage space. Besides a ledge on the side of the suite and a space under the footwell for my shoes there was just one area where I could place things. It already contained a lot of amenities, though, so space was limited there, too.

Built into the ledge next to the seat were the recline and light controls for the suite as well as the touchscreen-equipped remote for the IFE system.

On the plus side, I loved the amount of space I had — the footwell issue found with so many business-class products wasn't even a consideration here. While in bed mode, it was plenty wide. I could toss and turn as much as I needed to in order to get comfortable.

All in all, my seat was comfortable and reclined to a fully flat position, and I was able to sleep for several hours, a huge win in my book. But after hearing so much about the Apex suites, I was disappointed to be in a less-private center seat. Though, again, at least some of the blame for this could be placed squarely on me not booking with enough time in advance.

[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="10" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="17" movies="79" tv-shows="65" live-tv="Yes" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

Waiting for me at my seat were a smallish pillow, thick blanket, noise-canceling headphones and a pair of slippers.

The amenity kit was from Davi and very similar to the one I'd received on my first-class flight with Korean. The kit itself was made with the familiar brown fabric, and inside it were several amenities including eye gel, lip balm, face cream, a shoehorn, toothbrush and toothpaste, hairbrush and eye mask.

I'm forever grateful to airlines that provide slippers to passengers, as it's a always a pain to put my shoes on just to go to the restroom or for a quick lap around the cabin.

The noise-canceling headphones did their job admirably, and I'm growing ever more appreciative of this perk of premium travel, as traveling with AirPods alone requires yet another device to properly function with IFE systems that have a 3.5-mm headphone jack.

The IFE system itself is one area where Korean Air could definitely make an effort to improve. The interface wasn't the most intuitive I've encountered, and I think it would have been wise for the airline to install the 23-inch units like it did in first class (though that, of course, is one of the very few differences between the two classes).

I struggled to find a movie that really intrigued me, but I did eventually find an interesting documentary program on the art community in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, that kept me occupied until I was ready to get some sleep. The system featured a touchscreen, but it was quite a distance from where I was sitting, so I controlled it with the wired remote instead.

Wi-Fi wasn't offered on this flight, which can be both a blessing and a curse, depending on the day. This time, it actually turned out to be a blessing, as I was able to tune out completely, focus on reviewing the flight and, most importantly, sleep!

[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut" dine-on-demand="No" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]

Food and beverage service started just a few minutes after I boarded. Flight attendants came around and asked what I'd like for a predeparture beverage. Alcohol wasn't served on the ground, but the guava juice that Korean served was absolutely wonderful. The juice was served with a packet of honey-roasted peanuts.

Flight attendants started the full meal service promptly after takeoff. For the first course, they came around with a cart of several wines, Champagne and liquor. Korean served Perrier-Jouet Grand Brut in business. It offered a selection of beers from around the world, and, as for wine, whites included 2014 Sumaq chardonnay from Chile and t (what a name) from Canada. Choices for red were 2015 Sebastiani Sonoma County merlot from California and 2016 Sumaq syrah. Sandeman Founders Reserve port was available at dessert, as well.

You could also request the following cocktails and aperitifs from flight attendants: gin and tonic, martini, Tom Collins, Bloody Mary, screwdriver, whisky sour, kir royal, Campari and Tio Pepe dry sherry. The following spirits were offered: Chivas Regal 18-year whisky, Johnnie Walker Gold, Glenfiddich single malt, Jack Daniel's, Remy Martin cognac, Absolut vodka, Bacardi rum and Beefeater gin. Liqueurs included Bailey's Irish Cream, Cointreau, crème de cassis and crème de menthe.

I asked for a glass of Champagne and still water, and was presented with the amuse-bouche -- a single marinated shrimp. It tasted great but it looked a little sad resting in the dish all by itself.

I was offered a choice of Korean or Western dishes for lunch, and I went with Korean. The appetizer, which was the same for both options, was seared tuna slices with sesame dressing, and was delicious. It wasn't drenched in dressing, but you could tell it was there.

The main event was the bibimbap, which was served with minced beef, seasonal vegetables, sesame oil, Korean hot-pepper paste (that stuff is gold, I'm telling you), pickled vegetables and a beef soup on the side. (The bibimbap didn't have the usual egg.) I totally enjoyed the bibimbap, just as I had during my first-class flight, but wasn't a huge fan of the soup. Regardless, Korean gets high marks for the main course — it really was delicious.

Dessert was a cheese plate with a few grapes, then chocolate ice cream, served in an oh-so-luxe Styrofoam container.

During the flight and between meal services, you could request cookies or ramen. I was pretty stuffed, but I did manage room for a chocolate-chip cookie, which I devoured before remembering to photograph it.

About two hours before landing, "dinner" was served. First, I was served a fresh salad of a decent size, a nice change from the typically minuscule salads I've gotten while flying.

For the main course, there was braised chicken thigh with bulgogi sauce served with white rice; a roasted cod fillet with white thyme sauce served with spaetzle and vegetable ratatouille; and shrimp wonton noodle soup served with sides. I chose the chicken bulgogi, which doesn't look like much in the photo but was actually amazing — a perfect comfort food prior to landing.

[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="22" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="No" turndown-service="No" /]

I experienced excellent service from the moment I boarded until I left the plane. Flight attendants went out of their way to make sure I was comfortable and had everything I needed. This is consistent with two other experiences I've had with Korean Air, too, so I know this isn't just a fluke.

If you're flying with Korean, you can expect to have great service, especially in a premium cabin. The only thing I could knock the airline for is that there were no extra pillows stocked, which was a bummer because the one provided was very small and just not all that great. Plus, the cabin was kept way too hot, for my taste at least.

Overall Impression

I had a great business-class flight on Korean's 787-9, but I think it could have been even better had I been able to move to a window seat. I was comfortable, enjoyed two great meals and experienced top-notch service. The airline could work to improve its entertainment options, for sure, but luckily the sparse IFE wasn't too much of a detractor this time around. I'll certainly look to continue to fly Korean Air in the future — and would love to try out this product again ... in a window seat, and, while we're at it, on the 747-8.