This summer, my partner Natalie and I decided that we wanted to visit one or two cities in Asia during the short window that we had off. I researched the airlines, routes, and cities that we were interested in flying to and ended up choosing Seoul and Tokyo for stops. I had accrued about 200,000 points through Chase credit cards and started looking through redemption options. A friend of mine pointed me towards Korean Air, since they were partnered with Chase for 1-1 transfers and had an excellent 62,500 mile redemption (63,000 since I could only transfer in 1000 point increments) for business class to Asia one-way. These flights had the option to select a multi-day stopover in Seoul, so it precisely lined up with our travel goals.
I booked two one-way flights to Tokyo Narita (NRT) in Korean Air Prestige class with a five-day stopover in Seoul (ICN). I ended up booking a return with United Airlines on an Economy Saver redemption for 35,000 miles. But I’m not writing this to talk about United economy; flying on the upper deck of both an A380 and Queen of the Skies 747-400 is much more interesting.
The trip started with drop off at the LAX Tom Bradley International Terminal. We proceeded to the ticket counter and found a dedicated line for Korean Air Prestige class. The ticket agent quickly checked us in, took our bags, and gave us directions to the lounge just inside security.
Prestige class grants automatic access to the Sky Priority security lane, however this is not nearly as good as airlines who participate in the TSA Precheck program. It took about 20 minutes to make it through security and we went straight to the lounge.
Onboard Experience: Boarding and Takeoff
This flight was operated on Korean Air’s flagship A380 aircraft. They have a total of 10 in the fleet and the airline advertises with them heavily, despite the 747-8i being recently added, with newer interiors and features. Most of the aircraft were delivered between 2011-2013.
Boarding started on time at one hour before departure, and there was a dedicated line for Prestige and First class passengers, while economy queued orderly in the center of the terminal.
First class is on the main deck while the upper deck is entirely Prestige (business) class. We were quickly seated and immediately experienced the excellent service onboard the aircraft. We were seated in seats 10A and 10B, which are just in front of the upper entry way. A quick left turn through the door and we were at our home for the next 13 hours.
Korean Air has configured their A380s in a 2-2-2 arrangement on the all-business upper deck. First class is located near the nose of the main cabin but has exclusive access of the grand staircase at the front of the aircraft. This spacious layout adds up to 94 business seats up top and a total of 407 seats; the least of any A380 operator.
Shortly after arriving at our seats, our flight attendant introduced herself by name. Each seat was prepared with a pillow and thick fleece blanket. While not quite on par with the bedding offered by many airlines in business class, the blanket proved to be very warm and was enough for a few hours of restful sleep.
The aircraft was equipped with Prestige sleeper seats positioned with a generous 74 inches of pitch. There were three preset angles between takeoff and fully flat, as well as full control over leg rest height and extension, as well as seat back angle. The window seats have access to two bins of storage which are spacious enough for a small backpack or briefcase, and all seats have their own 110V power outlet and USB for charging. The early boarding and dedicated jetways allowed plenty of time for pre-departure service.
The amenity kit was branded as DAVI and had a full assortment of personal care products. The upper deck lavatories were stocked with mouthwash and razor blades and were continuously cleaned by the cabin crew during flight. Also handed out were noise cancelling headphones with custom connectors for the seat. And of course, slippers!
Takeoff out over the ocean was smooth and emphasized the grand scale of the A380 aircraft. I enjoyed watching the exterior tail camera while on the ground at LAX to get a picture of the surroundings.
Once the aircraft leveled off, meal service started with a choice of wine. I chose the Chateau Beneyt Bordeaux 2015 and was treated to a tasteful and sophisticated full-bodied red which was kept topped up during the one-hour-and-twenty-minute meal service.
A delicious caprese salad with choice of bread was served first, followed by a delicious potato and watercress cream soup for the western meal choice. For the main course, I chose the salmon with green beans served over buttered linguini. Dessert was a choice of three cheeses, grapes, and a chocolate mousse cake with coffee. The cabin crew worked as a team to bring the dishes out on time and did not rush me as I took every minute to enjoy the delicious food that was being served.
My partner Natalie chose the Korean bibimbap meal and the flight attendants graciously showed her how to prepare their signature lunch item. Both meals were fantastic and food quality was quite good. Over the next hour, the LED cabin lights were dimmed and shades closed as most passengers on the upper deck took some time to sleep.
In-Flight Entertainment: The Celestial Lounge (and Seat-Back Screens)
I ventured back to the Absolute Vodka co-branded Celestial Lounge in the rear of the aircraft for a couple of drinks and was greeted by a smiling flight attendant who would make any type of vodka drink to be enjoyed. Curiously but not surprisingly, any non-vodka drinks were required to be served at ones’s seat but they offered to take down my seat number and deliver it to me. I had one of the signature cocktails which was quite good and provided a night cap.
As I returned back to my seat, the cabin was completely darkened and I also noticed how much quieter it is at the front. Since the upper deck is all business class, it is definitely desirable to book seats as far forward as possible for both a better ride during gusts and turbulence and reduced roar from the four Engine Alliance GP7200s on the wing.
Pro tip: the bathroom at the nose of the upper deck is big enough to actually change in before bed.
After a few hours of restful sleep it was time for dinner. The LED lighting was set to slowly brighten and simulated a sunrise in the cabin. After about 10 minutes, most of the passengers were awake and another hot towel started meal service. Lunch is definitely the focus meal of this flight; however, we were in for another excellent meal for dinner. A light salad with vinaigrette dressing was first followed by the Korean-style spicy codfish dinner that I had ordered when I first got on the flight. A small fruit plate finished things off and meal service was wrapped up with about three-and-a-half hours left on the flight plan.
As we started getting close to Korea, I took some time to explore the IFE system. I didn’t spend much time using the system and didn’t watch any of the media onboard during the flight; however, I will say that I do appreciate the privacy screens on each monitor. They reduce the viewing angle such that the passenger next to you cannot clearly see your screen.
This does a few things: when seated next to a stranger who has decided to stay up for the whole flight, the glare from their screen will be significantly darkened and reduced. Second if you don’t want to be caught watching the vast selection of Korean soap operas by your business partner next to you, you will also be in the clear (I’m not crying, I just got some of the amenity kit’s eye cream in both of my eyes). Either way, it’s a useful addition to the large screens in front of you.
Korean Air A380 Prestige Class: Worth It?
All together, flight KE18 from LAX to ICN was a great experience and a phenomenal value at 62,500 points. I am really convinced of the passenger experience benefits of the super jumbo Airbus A380 and I will seek out opportunities to fly on this big bird in the future. It really is that good. That being said, it is no small feat to check in, board, and care for 400-600 people in a single wave and the pressure that many seats puts on an airline to fill on every flight is more risk than many can bear. Now consider the similar or better seat-mile costs on a 787 or even trans-Atlantic on a 737MAX or an A321neo. If you can get the same economics for less everything, why take the risk?
Bonus Mini-Review: Korean Air 747-400 ICN-NRT
Now on to the Queen. I mentioned that I booked a one-way to Tokyo by way of Seoul. I already knew LAX-ICN was scheduled on the flagship A380 product but the ICN-NRT leg had a few options. Flight KE703 ended up being the best option for its convenient 10:10 am departure time, and since there was plenty of availability in Prestige on a two-hour flight, I didn’t really spend much time thinking about that leg of the flight. The route is typically operated by a Korean Air A330.
Fast forward to check-in and the ticket agent points out our seats on the 747 seat map that was on the counter. 9A and 9B, just like we booked online so I figured that the Prestige floor plans were the same. While sitting at the excellent KAL lounge in ICN, I started tracking my aircraft and saw it listed as a 744. Strange because I knew it was an Airbus but I started to suspect a plane change. I started checking the flight history and they were substituting all sorts of metal on the route from the standard A330 including a 77W, 748, 772, and 744 in the last week. I walked off to the transfer desk and asked to be seated up top on the 744 and the agent happily obliged, printing me new boarding passes with no hassle at all.
Every year a few more 744s are taken out of service. While it will be 25+ years until regularly scheduled flights on the 747 type are phased out, I was incredibly excited to fly the legendary 747-400’s upper deck before retirement, even if it was an older onboard product and only a two-hour journey. With only four people on the upper deck, it truly felt like flying private. The service was excellent and it solidified my opinion of Korean Air as five-star, service-focused airline. I firmly believe that this is the golden age of credit card points earnings and redemptions and opportunities like this will not be around forever. Save your points, transfer wisely, and enjoy this altitude life.