I arrived at JFK's T1 via private car at about 11:50am for my 2:00pm departure. Korean Air (KE) offers a first class check-in area, staffed by two agents. Both first class agents were assisting passengers (likely from the business class queue) when I arrived. One wrapped up quickly and immediately helped me. I was on KE82, Korean’s daily A380 service from JFK to ICN.
As part of the check-in process, I had to sign a form for my upgrade to first (I was upgrading from full-fare J). They had the form ready for me. (More on the easy upgrade process below.)
Clearing security at T1 was a breeze. While there was a bit of a queue in the economy line, the premium security line was emty. I stayed to the left, and was able to use the normal metal detector, avoiding the full body scan.
SkyTeam has three lounges at T1, each within 30 yards of each other. Each of AirFrance, Alitalia and Korean operate lounges; SkyTeam could achieve some meaningful synergies by consolidating their lounge offering at T1. Korean's lounge is broken into a first class section and a business class section.
I was invited to use the first class section of the Korean lounge. I asked if my travel companion (my boss!) who was in business class could join me in the first class lounge - this was permitted.
We had some beers and nuts while we both participated in a Sunday conference call. I won on the beer tally, 5 to 3. Thankfully, the call was also successful.
Off to the side of the first class portion of the lounge was a small conference room with a television. The room comfortably sat eight people. Evander Holyfield was in the conference room, with one other person, who appeared to be his handler. He left at the time of normal boarding for our flight, though he was not seated in the first class cabin. He may have been in business class on the flight, or perhaps on another flight altogether.
There were also two doors off to the side of the first class lounge, one marked A and the other B. I suspect these were small VIP salons that “your people” could arrange for you to sit in, though I guess nor Mr. Holyfield!
Aircraft views from the lounge
When I arrived at the lounge, I was told to wait until the end of boarding, and I would be escorted to the plane.
Whereas there were only six passengers in the first class cabin, there were well over a fifteen in the first class lounge (not including the Holyfield party). I'm not sure how the people beyond the six accessed the lounge - either Korean allows its top elites first class access, or perhaps they were accommodating passengers from one of the other carriers that has access to the lounge. In any event, other than us taking a conference call (reasonably quietly), the lounge was much more pleasant than the very crowded business class lounge.
Indeed, about 15 minutes to the scheduled departure time, a young lady from the airline came into the lounge to escort us to the plane, as boarding was concluding. This was quite sociable, and avoided any need to queue for the plane while also not putting us at risk for missing the flight. While I know how to board a flight on my own, it is nice to be looked after and not have to worry about the time or any lines.
I think there were only two jet bridges in use, one for the front door on each level. As such, it seems economy passengers also used the same door, and all would have walked through the first class cabin. As I was crossing the threshold onto the plane, there was a gentleman in front of me who had an economy boarding pass.
Once I arrived at my seat, a flight attendant came by immediately to assist me with my coat. Although she offered to try, I did not let her help with my bags, placing them in the overhead locker myself.
Korean’s first class is on the lower level of the A380. The shell of the plane is bowing outward, so the cabin is wider at your head than at your feet. There is a bit of unused space between the window seats and the wall. I’ve read a number of reports where people found this bothersome; I don’t know why.
Pre-departure beverages were limited to non-alcoholic drinks. I had a sparkling water.
Aerosol mineral water was provided
The first class cabin was 50% occupied, with six passengers in total.
On other carriers, I've been able to invite passengers from other cabins to join me for a meal. I asked if i could invite my colleague from business class and was old a firm "No." Upon further consideration by me, I realized that the foot stool area in the KE first class seats – though plenty large – did not have an extra seat belt. BA, QF and AA first class seats all had an extra seat belt for a guest to join and sit securely with you. It would have been nice to dine together, but it wasn’t meant to be.
No boss for lunch, so I'll put my feet up!
You can see there is no seat belt for a guest on this plane
A small amenity kit was offered, as were some cream colored pajamas. I changed into the pajamas before we departed; they were quite comfortable and were very soft. I think I was the only passenger in the cabin to actually put them on.
Downtown - Freedom Tower already at its full height
Alitalia in SkyTeam livery
Some bumps going into the clouds
I had some champagne after take off. Laurent-Perrier Alexandra’s 1998 Rosé was served on the flight. Though I’m quite a fan, and it is quite prominently featured in Heathrow’s Concorde Room, I don’t recall being served a rosé on a flight before. I was pleased. This bottle retails for about $300 on the ground.
Dinner was served in six courses. I was very pleased with the menu, and the service.
Though caviar is offered on some flights, my flight's menu had foie gras as a starter. I'm a big fan of good caviar (I used to participate in Petrossian’s “caviar-of-the-month” program, etc), so I was a bit disappointed that it was not available on this flight. The foie gras, however, was excellent. It was served with a cold Sauternes (2006 Ch. Rieussec), which is the perfect accompaniment.
The wine list was also notable - not that it had big name wines per se - but it had some very good selections. The red I had, 2009 Ghost Block Single Vineyard, was a powerful but not overbearing pure California Cabernet. I will try some on the ground - I suspect it might be a little too powerful on the ground - but in the air, it was excellent. The wine retails for about $100 on the ground.
The AVOD system was very good (which is the case on most (all?) carriers’ A380s). The system was responsive (so many are sluggish on older aircraft) and it had a good variety of eastern and western content. The screen was quite large. I watched a show or two during the meal.
The screen that was displayed during PA announcements included the Korean FA's signature scarf!
After dinner, I met my colleague for a drink (ok - 3 drinks) in the upper-deck aft lounge. The lounge was fairly busy. We were able to get seats - but by the time we left, it was standing room only. Perhaps 15 passengers were visiting the lounge when we left. The lounge had a nice buzz to it and provided a nice way to unwind after a meal. It was probably a bit too loud for the people in the last row in business class, frankly. Pictures of the upper deck fore and aft lounges can be seen in my prior review.
Upstairs to business class
My colleague said he visited the lounge about three hours after we left and it was similarly full, but with an entirely new crowd of passengers.
After post-dinner drinks, I returned to the first class cabin and tried to set my seat flat - but it only partially reclined. Uh oh! Several FAs tried to help me, but were also unable to get the seat to go flat. Thankfully, due to the 50% load, they set up a bed for me in seat 1J. I did not test my seat before departure - had the cabin been full, I would have been very, very disappointed. This served as a good reminder to test power seats before leaving the gate.
My backup bed was made with a reasonably thick bed cover and a blanket. I took some pillows from my seat and one other and made a very comfortable area. I am about 6’ 4” tall and found the bed to be sufficient for me to lay out straight. It was also wide enough to lie in a number of different positions (compared to BA's or UA's first class seats, where they are a fair bit narrower).
I slept solidly for about 5 hours.
Within minutes of waking up, I was offered some noodles, which I enjoyed. The FAs did a good job of being largely out of sight, but kept a watchful eye on the cabin from the galley immediately behind the first class cabin. (I caught her peeking through the curtain once.)
I also visited the small first class bar. I made myself a drink and enjoyed a savory snack or two.
The rest room was kept immaculate throughout the flight.
Landing into Incheon was uneventful. Four different flight attendants came by to thank each of the passengers personally for flying with Korean. They were all quite effusive with their thanks.
The entire flight experience was quite relaxing. As we were taxiing, while I was happy to have arrived, a few more hours wouldn't have been a problem, either.
The only neutral point was the quality of the first class lounge at JFK – it was much more private than KE's business lounge, but was probably on the level of offering found in AA’s Flagship Lounges. The only negative item I can point out was the non-functioning seat. (I’ve had this on other carriers in first class, too, before!) Had the cabin been full, this would have been a big issue. As it turns out, having a separate bed and seat worked out quite nicely for me.
I'd flown this route on KE's 777 in business, and the other way (ICN-JFK) on their A380 in business, and was pleased both ways. The first class experience on their 380 was a solid notch above traveling the route in business class. While nothing about the experience was over-the-top (ie: no showers on the plane, no VIP Mercedes ground transfer), the Korean first class experience was truly at a world class level.
* * * * *
To sit in first class, I had upgraded my J (full-fare paid business) ticket to first over the telephone with Korean’s US reservations office in advance of the trip. Korean had excellent availability, and each of the three KE JFK-ICN flights on my day of travel had first class award/upgrade inventory available. I was able to search for this inventory on ExpertFlyer, which was very convenient.
I used 30k Chase Ultimate Rewards points to upgrade my one-way ticket. Setting up a new Korean mileage account was very quick online. It was also easy to link the Korean account to my Chase account and the points transfer was instant. It even surprised the KE reservation agent that they appeared while we were on the phone.
I was told that I needed to fill out some forms to complete the upgrade at the airport and indeed I was asked to sign a form. This was not cumbersome for me, as the check-in agent filled out the form for me, but an unusual procedure compared to what I'm used to with most other carriers. I understand if you are redeeming KE points for someone else, their procedures get even more cumbersome.