As Good as Economy Class Gets: Flying Korean Air’s A380 From Seoul to JFK
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To The Point
Korean Air’s coach class, on the biggest passenger jet in the world, is a far better experience than long-haul economy on most other airlines. Pros: Great legroom, food and service for economy. Cons: Messy boarding, no Wi-Fi.
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Until not long ago, I’d never flown onboard an Airbus A380. As a frequent flyer and AvGeek, that’s a shameful omission. A recent trip to Singapore, however, provided the chance for me to correct that — and for under $800, it would be an easy fix, too. Even though the long trip from Seoul (ICN) to New York (JFK) was in coach class, I was eager to finally fly on the world’s largest commercial airliner.
This flight was the return leg of a trip that brought me to Singapore on all Delta metal — the round-trip cost a total of $762. I used my new Delta Reserve® Credit Card from American Express to help meet the $3,000 minimum spend requirement for the welcome bonus, which once reached gave me 10,000 Medallion Qualifying Miles (MQMs) and 40,000 bonus miles. I credited the flight to my Delta SkyMiles account, and I walked away with 6,906 MQMs and $222 MQDs. My flight was booked through Delta and thus earned MQMs based on Delta’s usual earning chart, but Delta and Korean signed a Joint Venture agreement on May 1, which means you can now credit to Delta and earn MQMs even if you book through Korean Air.
If you want to use points for this flight, a good place to start is Korean’s own SkyPass program. You can transfer Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Korean at a 1:1 ratio and then book an off-peak one-way economy flight for 35,000 miles plus about $125 in taxes and fees. During the peak season, the price increases to 52,500 miles (but the taxes and fees remain the same) for the one-way award. Additionally, you can book Korean Air flights through Delta’s SkyMiles program. Though Delta doesn’t publish an award chart, there’s quite a good amount of low-level economy availability on Korean’s nonstop flights between ICN and JFK for just 35,000 miles and much less in taxes and fees — about $42.
Airport and Boarding
I landed early in the morning from Singapore (SIN) and didn’t have much time before my onward connection to JFK, so I headed straight to the gate. With Asiana Airlines and Korean Air both based at ICN and flying the Whale, the airport is a good spot if you’re after images of the giant double-decker. As for my Whale, I found her waiting at Gate 17 in Korean Air’s former Terminal 1. Soon after my flight, the airline moved to the all-new Terminal 2.
Bearing the Korean registration HL-7627, my A380 was a 2014 build, delivered new to Korean. (Nobody flies secondhand A380s yet; Portugal’s HiFly will begin to do so later this year.)
Gates for A380 flights can get quite crowded, with each one of the giant airplanes transporting easily twice the passengers of an average Boeing 767. The gate was thronged when I got there, and shortly afterwards a gate agent announced, with apologies, that boarding would be delayed because of unspecified “ground support” reasons. When I got back to the gate after taking a stroll through the terminal, there was already a long line for boarding.
When I joined the much shorter line for priority boarding, which I was entitled to as a Sky Team Elite passenger, an agent insisted that I move back to general boarding since I was in economy, and wouldn’t budge.
With three jetways to load from, two for the lower deck and one for the business-class only upper deck, first and business went through one and economy went through another. Prestige (i.e. business) class passengers could also take the right-hand jetway to go directly to the upper deck.
Cabin and Seat
Not only was I on my first A380: I was also on the the roomiest three-class A380 in the world, with just 407 seats split into 12 First class suites, 94 biz and 301 economy seats. That’s about 100 fewer seats than the average of other airlines flying the A380. Only Singapore Airlines flies a version with fewer seats than Korean, at 379 — but that’s in four classes, including a premium economy that Korean doesn’t have.
According to its seat maps, Korean has 33 to 34 inches of legroom in economy on the A380. Compared to 31 or 32 inches in most international economy classes these days, that’s a difference you can feel. I was in 38A, which felt spacious for standard coach, but I did not bring a tape measure to determine whether it was a 33- or 34-inch seat. The last section of economy, rows 52-59, has 34 inches throughout according to Korean Air’s seat maps.
An underseat power outlet and a USB hookup, plus an adjustable headrest, helped make the seat as good as I’ve ever experienced in long-haul coach.
Pillow, blanket, a water bottle and headphones (I used my own Bose noise-canceling set instead) were waiting at every seat. Like on my overnight connecting flight from Singapore, a flight attendant made her way to my seat to greet me by name and thank me for being an elite passenger. A remarkable touch in economy class, especially considering that I wasn’t even one of the airline’s own elites and this was only my second-ever flight on Korean. I would be given the same treatment on another Korean Air flight in coach, Taipei to Seoul, soon after this flight.
A sticker on seat 37A in front of me reminded the crew that its occupant had requested a special meal.
In a detail that stood out, the safety video featured crew members bowing, as in the image below taken on the connecting flight from Singapore.
We did not get a welcome, nor any other communication, from the captain or anybody else on the flight deck until after takeoff. We were wheels up after a quick taxi to the runway and an amazingly smooth, unruffled takeoff roll — the A380 gave a sense of unshakeable solidity and immense power. Seated above the vast surface of the left wing, I saw it flex upwards, going from drooping to straight, as we picked up speed and lift took hold.
The only problem with that wing was that it blocked my view, but the solution was at hand: Forward- and downward-facing cameras linked to the in-flight entertainment system! I got a good look at South Korean towns as we climbed, slowly — with a full load of passengers, plus cargo and the fuel for a long flight ahead, we were still at 12,000 feet after 10 minutes.
The 10.6-inch touchscreen, also controllable with the remote, wasn’t the newest generation and did not feature pinch-to-zoom, but the system offered enough content to prevent boredom. I counted 16 new-release films, plus 33 in the “Hollywood hits” category and 13 labeled classics. In-flight Wi-Fi wasn’t an option, but I appreciated the chance to disconnect, watch three movies, listen to music and read. (Your feelings / need to stay connected may differ.)
Watching the speed reading on the inflight map was its own entertainment. East of Japan headed east-northeast, the jetstream — the super-fast winds blowing eastward in the upper levels of the atmosphere — plus a monstrous 300,000 pounds of thrust from four engines propelled our A380 to a speed over the ground of 726 mph, or 1,168 kmh. That was the fastest ground speed I ever recorded on a flight.
Those winds may have played a part in another form of entertainment, one that however didn’t leave the passengers of flight KE81 asking for more. Half an hour after takeoff, the captain came on the PA to introduce himself and his cockpit crew, and announce that we expected bumps ahead.
Boy, was he right.
Seven hours later, just after a bumpy crossing from Alaska into Canada over the high mountains of the Yukon Territory, we were tossed for several minutes by roller-coaster turbulence. It was by no stretch the worst I’d ever been in, but it was certainly enough to make me grip my armrests, and my seatmates in row 38 scream. A smaller plane than our million-pound giant might have fared far worse.
Food and Beverages
One hour after takeoff, we were presented with three choices for lunch: “Chinese style five spicy beef,” curried chicken with rice, or fish. I had the beef, served with noodles and broccoli. A garlicky bite and layered texture put my entree squarely at the top end of coach-class food. This wasn’t the bland filler designed to keep people in economy from starving on long flights: This was food that could have been conceivable at a good mass-market eatery on the ground. A salad with shrimp and cold fusilli pasta with pesto came pre-dressed and also had an enjoyable, oniony kick. And all this with real cutlery and a real glass.
This was the rare coach-class lunch with personality, one that would have been enhanced by the free wine — which I had to skip, unfortunately, due to an incipient migraine. I didn’t touch the cake that came with the lunch tray, either.
Just after the flight attendants served the midflight snack, the turbulence hit, making it impossible to photograph. It was a ho-hum square of pizza plus a bag of peanuts, and as people tried to finish eating — incredibly enough, nobody I could see had pizza and beverages all over them — the captain came on the PA again to apologize for the rough ride. “The turbulence we experienced was quite rare and unexpected,” he said. He added that it might continue, but on this he turned out to be mercifully wrong.
Things improved vastly with the dinner service, three and a half hours later, served with about 90 minutes to go and smooth air around us. Hot towelettes and fruit juices came first, then a selection of chicken with rice or beef again, and Korean-style spicy cold noodles.
In my experience, when in doubt on what food to order on an Asian carrier’s long-haul flight, observe your Asian fellow passengers and have what they are having. Those I could see unfailingly asked for the noodles, to a one. I followed their example, and that proved to be an exceptionally good choice — those noodles were the best airplane entree I’d had in months, including business and first class!
You had to self-prepare the noodles by squeezing the spicy paste out of a tube, then mixing them up with your chopsticks. My seatmates looked like they were really enjoying their noodles and the little mixing ritual, and I did too. A miso-like soup and a banana completed a dinner that was a lot better than the usual coach-class starch assault.
Soon after dinner, the second sunrise of the day greeted the cabin as passengers lifted their window shades, and we landed in at JFK at the same time we left, having crossed the International Date Line eastbound.
Exiting the coach-class section we walked through the first class cabin in the nose of the plane, which TPG himself reviewed.
Aside from the turbulence, which of course wasn’t the airline’s fault, this 12-hour, 43-minute ride on the biggest passenger plane was far more enjoyable than one might expect when facing 7,000 miles in coach. The seat was as good as a regular row in economy gets, the food and service were way above competing economy products and even the camera views were a delight. I would do this again on Korean without blinking.
All photos by the author, including featured image of a Korean Air Airbus A380 at New York JFK.
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