Walking through the Sincheon and Hongdae areas in Seoul late at night, four months ago.
I have a habit of grabbing one of those tiny jars of Häagen-Dazs chocolate ice cream whenever I'm passing by a lounge, and this time is no exception. I’m spending a few more minutes at the Korean Air First Class lounge munching away on my cold treat along with a plate of fruits, checking my phone to make sure I head off in time to gate 17 and my Hong Kong flight.
This lounge is not all that different form Asiana’s nearby first class offering and quite far from what you would expect at Lufthansa’s first class terminal and lounges. Still, it’s perfectly decent and trying out the shower facilities was great having had a bit of a non-optimized journey from Seoul to the Incheon airport. Time flies and I should get going, the font desk lady promptly rises from her seat, bows, smiles and says good bye when I pass by, as per Korean customer service protocol, and I manage to almost send myself tumbling down the escalator as I bump into a steel structure on my way down. Manage to stay stabilized, though.
A few more minutes of walking and I'm at the gate, making my way through the priority boarding lane, I turn left into the beloved first class jetway and at the very moment I step onto the aircraft I'm greeted by a flight attendant and escorted to seat number 3J. Korean Air has opted to have their A380 first class cabins on the main deck, providing a slightly less intimate feel than what you would get on a typical A380 with the first class cabin positioned on the upper deck. Adding to the lack of intimacy is the the somewhat clinical interior with its white, grey and trademark turquoise shades, but still, it's a new, fresh and perfectly decent first class cabin and the seats are comfortable with no blocked windows. Love that. This pic gives you an idea of what the first class seats look like.
As I settle down and put my stuff in the various compartments, a flight attendant walks by offering a pair of headphones, but they're similar to my own and we agree that I'll stick with the Bose set I already have. Then, a few minutes before pushback, the purser in charge and the first class cabin’s senior flight attendant both stop by to introduce themselves in a very polished, slightly formal way. It's done a notch above the first class experiences I've had in the past where the purser is the only one to do the pre-flight greeting. A few moments later we're clear of the jet bridge and this being an A380, I can’t resist bringing up the tail camera on the 23 inch flatscreen I have in front of me, watching as we move towards the runway. Love that camera.
The KE607 flight to Hong Kong only lasts about 3.5 hours and the meal service kicks in as soon as we've reached our cruising altitude, the schedule being a bit tight for a proper first class dinner service. I ask for some pink bubbly, yep, awesome, and ask to have the bibimbap main course option. By now I have had a bazillion different bibimbaps in the air but I simply can’t resist having the Korean signature dish one more time.
A younger flight attendant starts setting up my table and Korean Air has, by far, the most elaborate way of doing this, ever. All items are carried on a small silver tray and placed in front of me with immaculate precision and care. She spends a few minutes making sure everything is laid out perfectly, it feels like forever and I start getting a bit uncomfortable not knowing what to say or do while she executes her table setup procedure, I end up going with a cheerful »thanks!«.
First up is the appetizer, »Garlic cream cheese and yam terrine with crabmeat and persimmon jelly on goat cheese«. Nice looks, nice taste. I stay on the pink bubbly throughout the meal.
A »Carrot cream soup« is up next and seriously, this is one of the best soups I've ever had, be it on the ground or up in the air. Fantastic.
Once I'm done with the delicious soup, a salad with mixed greens arrives with a choice of yoghurt or korean dressing. Good crunch, decent taste.
And then, the bibimbap. Not quite as big of a meal as the one served in Asiana's first class, but it's still a lot of food. It tastes good, fresh and ends up being a solid bibimbap, though my favorite in-air version is still the one I got on a Lufthansa flight out of Seoul in business class a few years back.
What happens next is a bit interesting. They remove all traces of the main dish, make sure I'm comfortable, and after a while the dessert tray comes out, manned by both the senior flight attendant who presented herself right before pushback, and her younger colleague. I ask to have the green tea ice cream and some fresh fruit and the junior flight attendant is just about to put the ice cream in front of me when the senior woman intercepts mid-air, says something in Korean, and in a split second she rearranges the entire table setup – cloth, glasses, cutlery, everything – into absolute perfection. And then proceeds to serve the ice cream and fruit herself. I have no clue what just happened, but it was stunningly amazing. What a professional. The perfectionist in me gets all warm and fuzzy as I dig into the green thing. Lovely.
The ice cream has a somewhat funny taste to it, this being the first time ever I try the green tea variety. Still, a good experience and I love that they put a few cherries on the fruit platter. Good stuff.
By now I'm all full and our giant Airbus will soon start descending towards Hong Kong, so I jump out of my seat to explore the aircraft. I know the Korean Air configuration has a few extra surprises up its sleeve and I'm eager to check them out. There should be two bars and a tax free shop. Slightly insane, I know. I miss out on getting a drink as they are packing down things in preparation for landing, but I make sure to walk through both bars, located on each end of the all-business class upper deck. I skip the tax free shop and head back to my seat, strap myself in, and bring the tail camera back up. And whoa.
What a sight.
It's pitch black outside, but as we pass through a layer of scattered clouds the landing lights get switched on, and the tail camera captures everything perfectly as we're swooshing through the clouds, lit by the light beams, and the sensation is so hard to wrap up in words but it looks incredibly awesome, like an action scene straight out of a playstation game, with an insane sense of speed and kinetics as brightly lit clouds appear out of nowhere with our fuselage cutting straight through them like a rocket. The clouds soon disappear as the plane gets closer to HKG, strobing runway lights in sight, we touch down pretty hard, roll out, taxi, gate, disembark, bye, and boom, I'm in Hong Kong. And everyone in economy stayed calm, no fistfight this time around.
By now it's 11pm and I'm crazy tired, I pick up my bags, go grab a burger and then walk over to the Regal Airport Hotel. Can't wait to get some sleep.
I'm glad I got to try a first class product outside the good old Star Alliance network, and despite being a short trip, Korean Air did deliver a pretty great experience with a few touches I haven't seen elsewhere – such as the insane attention to detail during meal service, and some of the formalized passenger interactions. And of course, the two bars and the tax free shop add to the experience. Good stuff.
As always, if you're looking for a ton of pics, check out the trip reports over at The Australian Frequent Flyer, airliners.net (a business class trip report, but with a ton of good photos of the cabin, bars, tax free shop and more) and Life According to Kai (yet another business class one with a ton of photos).
I'm feeling great, walking down the short hallway from where my spa treatment just wrapped up, the sensation of insane levels of relaxation still making the surroundings a bit fuzzy. Love that feeling. Sipping on the bottle of water I just got from my therapist, I head back to the locker room, get myself a shower and a final dip in the onsen hot plunge pool, then grab my things and walk past the reception. Bye bye, see you next time, thanks, and I'm in the elevator, going back to my room to pack things up and head off to the airport.
Now what I usually would do is get the Park Hyatt people to drive me to the City Air Terminal about a block away, get everything checked in and jump on the next bus to Incheon or Gimpo. This time though, I figure there's enough time to roam about in downtown Seoul for a while before getting myself to the airport and my evening flight to Hong Kong. I leave my bags with the Korean Air check-in lady at the CAT, decline to have them wrapped – a service I believe is provided by both Korean Air and Asiana when travelling in First from Seoul – and then venture down into the Samseong subway station and… well.
It's an insanely hot summer day and the subway aircon is insufficient at best, not doing anything to prevent the constant feeling of being trapped in a boiling tin can. And then it turns out my nicely timed plan goes down the drain pretty much right away, I end up routing myself back and forth through the crazy hot tubes of Seoul's public transport, jumping off Line 7 at Sadang, dazed and a bit confused, following a bunch of people hoping that they, too, are about to get on the northbound Line 4. After a bazillion minutes I'm finally at Seoul station with no time to grab that relaxed afternoon dinner I was looking forward to, instead chasing down the maze of underground stairs and walkways and escalators and ticket gates and then, at last, I get to board the airport train without much time to spare, failing of course to board the express variety. But then again, I guess travelling sideways on a commuter type train with zero comfort isn't all too bad. At least I'm heading in the right direction, for once.
53 minutes later the doors open up onto the platform deep inside the Incheon Transport Centre (architecturally interesting, by the way, done by Terry Farrell back in 1996). My CAT pre-immigration check gets me swiftly through security and immigration and before I know it I'm having a nice, hot shower in the Korean Air First Class lounge. Lovely. And despite being short on time, I manage to down a few pieces of fruit and a tiny jar of Häagen-Dazs before heading off to my gate and the KE607 flight to Hong Kong.
More on that in a bit.
Love bumping into random collections of cute relationship padlocks, I ran across these at the Osanbashi Pier in Yokohama, Japan, and at the base of the N Seoul Tower in Korea.