I had a chance to try Korean Air’s Prestige Class (Business Class) from New York JFK to Seoul (ICN) and onward to Bali (DPS). Despite the carrier’s own insistence that they are superior, I didn’t find them to be anything other than average (maybe below) and I challenge anyone to disagree with my assessment.
Originally published: March 10, 2019, Updated: Apr 26, 2021.
The Soft Product
I had my issues in one of their lounges with a particular vigilante, but I would prefer to put that aside to remain neutral for the purpose of this post. There is nothing special about their lounges, not their outboard stations like JFK, nor their main hub locations in the beautiful new Terminal 2 and Seoul Incheon airport.
In JFK at the business class lounge, where they host both a 747-800 and an A380 daily, saran wrapped sandwiches and Cup o’Noodles busied elites and business/first class customers before they depart for their 14-hour flights to Seoul. That’s a lot of premium passengers, the Airbus A380 alone has 106 business or first-class seats (on both the main and upper deck) while the 747-800 holds 54 in flat bed business and first-class cabins. That’s without elites that may be traveling in coach but qualify for the lounge or the Priority Pass holders that have access during specific times of the day.
That’s not to say that American Airlines Admiral Club holds much stronger offerings than some bland soup, cubed cheeses, and mixed nuts, but it just doesn’t stack up to modern competition like United’s new Polaris lounges. The Japan Airlines lounge in Narita, the ANA lounge in Haneda and Cathay Pacific’s lounges in Hong Kong all come to mind as fair competition and Korean Air doesn’t hold a candle to those.
Baggage Handling and Checkin
Checking into our flight, we were lucky to have a connection with Delta or we may have been waiting at JFK awhile for an agent to show up. Again, nothing out of the ordinary there, but nothing special either. In Bali, when we checked in (an outstation of course) they did have Korean Air staff as opposed to a third-party service like some carriers use, but that staff failed to scan and load one of our bags. There was no indication given as to why. This happens on other carriers too, but that’s the whole point – they are just as bad or as good as the competition, average.
When we arrived at JFK and waited an hour and 15 minutes for our bag to not ultimately arrive we had a couple of observations. More than 30 minutes into the process of bags rolling onto the conveyer belt, new bags were still arriving with priority, Morning Calm (loyalty program), Prestige, and First Class flags. I don’t understand the point of tagging a bag with a priority tag if the bag doesn’t come off close to the front half of the rest of the bags, nor (in our case) make the flight at all. This is not unique to Korean Air, United, and American struggle with this in my experience too. But they are no better at it than anyone else and that is decidedly average.
We were greeted by a pair of Korean baggage staff employees, one may have been a third-party and the other a Korean Air manager. The third-party employee (assuming so to give Korean the benefit of the doubt) didn’t bother to investigate our tags and instead simply suggested that someone else had absconded with our luggage never to be seen or heard from again. Comforting.
The Korean Air manager said he would look into it but we had to be fairly persistent and produce the sticker tags from our tickets before he typed them into the computer. He then indicated that the bag had never been loaded and he didn’t know where it was. We filled out a form in which we had to surrender the sticker and had I not taken a photo of it, we would have no indication as to what that tracking number was.
I pulled out an email I received from the VP of Sales and Marketing for Korean Air to ensure that a solid effort was made, and it was. The bag was located inside of 12 hours and shipped to us two days later. A fine response once the stakes were raised, though had I not already reached out to staff at Korean Air from my prior issue, I am not sure the response would have been as quick and thorough. I fear that for other customers, they may not have the same result.
Food on Board
The food was fine. The nuts were served in a bag which is not a problem for me but apparently has been reported to be beneath some former management at the carrier. I had unremarkable Korean bibimbap and a steak, remarkable solely because they nailed the temperature, a feat that is too difficult for most US carriers. Again, unremarkable in the rest of the world. In fact, Cathay Pacific serves – as a snack – an incredible wagyu cheeseburger that was as good as anything I had in a restaurant on the ground. While I enjoy warm cookies, the snack menu with Korean Air doesn’t compare to Asian peers. Just average.
It’s worth noting as well that I went through the process of nearly an hour-long call with Korean Air phone support to select seats and meals for our flights. Three of six meals for our daughter were correctly delivered, a 50% success rate or the literal definition of average.
Our seats, however, were correct as we selected them, but we could not do this online despite Korean owning the itinerary. So, they didn’t really fail and some other airlines have difficulty especially with mixed carrier itineraries allowing this, but they didn’t excel either. Average.
The Hard Product
I would place the seat in Prestige class below the competition for a couple of reasons. It’s not quite fully flat. It’s inexplicable because even with the seat fully extended there are still a few inches (maybe 6-8) for the seat to further extend forward. It’s close – if I had to guess I would say it’s 170 degrees – but it’s a noticeable difference from fully lie-flat seats that occupy the market on competing carriers.
Further, and perhaps most importantly, the seats did not have direct aisle access at all locations. I criticize United for doing this on their new 787s as well. The entire rest of the market has shifted to direct aisle access and even United has seen the folly of their ways and corrected it for Polaris, updates to 787s are in the works.
Stepping over a stranger or being stepped over by a stranger in a business class seat while sleeping is not something that should occur in the modern era and does not on most other carriers. Even Delta has a closed-door suite, and American’s 777-300ER product that licenses their design from Cathay Pacific are decades ahead of Korean for comfort and ease.
Lastly, privacy is a concern as well. A thin divider drops down between newly mated bedfellows that does not deliver much privacy. If you’re seated at the aisle, there is a little barrier between your face and a clanking cart if you turn away from your seat partner and sleep on your side facing the aisle. It feels very public in a way that other carriers have long since left behind. Below-average and falling even further behind as carriers continue to update their products and Korean Air does not.
Business-class passengers are paying thousands, sometimes more than $10,000 more than equivalent economy class seats for their flight on Korean Air, this is simply not good enough.
The amenity kits were ok. There was nothing outstanding nor any missing elements, the design was fine though not particularly unique. They were… average.
But what about the onboard amenities? The A380 has a bar in the back and a lounge in the front, that has to be superior, right? While I can’t compare to American carriers (they don’t own the equipment), and ANA is using their A380s for medium-haul densely packed tourist flights to Hawaii, the Singapore A380 comes to mind as does Emirates, Etihad, and Qatar.
Matthew can speak further to the Lufthansa A380 and how they used disused space like the front of the aircraft where seating is not a possibility. I imagine that there is nothing particularly great about the LH A380. But the Korean Air business class cabin does not inspire.
Emirates, Etihad and Qatar offer bars and Emirates has a shower on board. It’s more novelty than anything else, sure, though after arriving in JFK without an arrival lounge (meaning no shower for us) we would have gladly taken one if Korean Air offered it. Again, they aren’t the worst in the sky, but just average.
I have made my case and I think it is a good one. Korean Air is not terrible and the issues I encountered could happen at any airline (though in all my years of experience I have never encountered another vigilante in the lounge.) But they are also not great, and their position that they would never offer flights (like the one I bought) in business class for $2000 because it’s so cheap for their product – is disconnected from the market. They simply do not understand the competition or don’t care. Regardless, they are utterly average in business class, whether they decide to call it Prestige or not.
The meal service was substandard, flight attendants were adequate, not legendary, noise-canceling headphones were basic, and as a business class product – it was average to below average. Perhaps in the first-class Kosmo suites where a window seat matters and the product is an “Apex” suite, that could be a better example of a business class flight than Prestige which is more or less Premium Economy Plus.
I beg of you to prove me wrong in the comments.
Is there something I missed? Is Korean Air superior to the competition in a way that I have not recognized? Are they average in your experience when comparing to other like carriers?
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