A decidedly blah Korean Air experience – Part 1 JFK to Manila

The Asian airlines have quite the reputation going for themselves.  Phenomenal service is considered the norm, the minimum that one should expect while flying with them.  The lounges are supposed to be better than those of the American carriers and the in-flight product is supposed to as well.  As I am sitting on my fourth Korean Air flight of the week – two in coach and two in business, two long haul and two regional – I am seriously wondering where this reputation comes from.  The entire experience has been most notable for its lack of anything exceptional.  Maybe I’m being too judgmental.  Maybe the expectations I had were unreasonable.  But I don’t really think so.

The trip started with a 12:50am departure from New York City to Seoul.  That is sufficiently late that I wasn’t really expecting to eat a full meal on the plane right at departure.  I would be sleeping.  I somewhat expected that their business class lounge at JFK airport would have some snacks or light finger foods of some sort.  I was horribly overly optimistic.  The selection of snacks rivaled that of Continental’s Presidents Clubs, hardly the standard bearer when it comes to munchies.  And the alcohol selection was – while self service – miserably poor.  There was Scotch, brandy and whiskey.  And beer.  No other liquors to be found.  Top it all off with the fact that the lounge was impressively crowded and it all adds up to a lounge that I see no reason to visit again.

Mid-flight breakfast

Back to the flight.  With the early morning departure I was asleep within about 15 minutes from wheels up so I have no idea what the first meal option they served was.  The second meal was served 6 hours into the flight – right in the middle – disrupting any chance of getting a full night’s sleep.  I was roused by the sound of the carts rolling by and became coherent enough to grunt and nod yes when asked if I wanted breakfast.  Sure, it is just airline food, and coach food at that for my outbound flights, but I’m not really sure that is was meant to be served at that point in the flight.  That also meant that the following 6 hours were food-free, right up through the 4am arrival in Seoul, where there were no real food options to speak of available.  Fortunately I had liberated a couple packets of Fig Newtons from the lounge at JFK. 

The legroom destroyer

The coach seats were fine as far as coach seating goes.  Like most planes these days the in-flight entertainment system has some heavy-duty gear that sits under a seat at some point blocking leg room and Korean’s 747s are no exception.  Fortunately for me that blockage is under the middle seat and I had a window so I was unencumbered. The entertainment system is decent, with a wide selection of music and movies, though none I really wanted to see. There are about 30 in English, mostly new releases. I did watch Back to the Future at some point, though I was still pretty much in a sleepy haze. At one point I wanted to watch the in-flight map and track our journey. Instead I found myself watching a rotating series of ads for hotels in Seoul, Los Angeles, Waikiki Beach and a few other places. There were also a number of ads for Korean Air, their Skypass frequent flier program, their AVOD system and SkyTeam. There was a notice that all flights are non-smoking and a cute teddy bear wearing a seat belt, reminding us to buckle up. Each display page was on the screen for about 15-20 seconds and the total loop was around 8 minutes long. Of that time about 3 minutes was actually the in-flight map. Rather pathetic, really. On the plus side, I now have a list of about 8 hotels that I won’t give my business to since they interfered with my in-flight map watching ability.

At least the sunrise (or sunset, I’m not entirely certain) I saw during the flight was rather pretty.

Sunrise (or sunset??) somewhere over the Pacific

Transiting Seoul was pleasant for the decent shower I was able to get (though no toilet in the shower room; saves space but can present issues when trying to perform the three “S” of morning ablutions) but wholly unremarkable in every other way.  The alcohol selection was similarly limited to that available in New York (no vodka for a bloody mary??) and the food options were arguably worse.  This from their flagship lounge at their hub in their home city.  At this point I grabbed another beer from the cooler and went from being relatively neutral on the whole thing to rather unimpressed.  The food did get better for short stints at a couple points throughout the day but overall it was not what I would expect from an Asian carrier that presents itself as offering a premium product.  It is certainly worthwhile to get out of the lounge and out of the airport if you have the time while transiting Seoul.  Staying in the lounge for more than about 3 hours could lead to bouts of depression and general malaise.  It is not recommended.

The flight from Seoul to Manila was uneventful though that likely comes from the fact that I slept the entire time.  The flight attendants did stop by to mention that they tried to serve me dinner but I was asleep.  Such is life.  Two flights and three meals served and I had only actually seen one of them.  And eaten zero.

At this point in the trip the good stuff happened.  I was underwater for four full days of diving that could not have been better. 

Read more in Part 2, coming soon.

Never miss another post: Sign up for email alerts and get only the content you want direct to your inbox.

Seth Miller

I'm Seth, also known as the Wandering Aramean. I was bit by the travel bug 30 years ago and there's no sign of a cure. I fly ~200,000 miles annually; these are my stories. You can connect with me on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn.