With Korean Air no longer selling first class aboard its Airbus A330 jets from June 2019, passengers travelling to Seoul from both Sydney and Brisbane now have the opportunity to fly in that former first class zone, when holding a business class ticket.
In the section we're calling 'business class plus', jetsetters can enjoy the same inflight service as business class, but with touch more privacy given the bulkhead wall between what used to be first class and business class, paired with a longer bed and a noticeably larger entertainment screen.
It should be said that Korean Air's Airbus A330 first class seats were always very similar to business class – being the same basic seat aided by those experiential improvements above, and enhanced first class inflight dining and service – but by rezoning the former first class seats as business class, the business cabin gains 33% more seating, growing from 18 to 24 seats in total.
Australian Business Traveller was aboard one of the first Korean Air flights from Seoul to Brisbane after that first class section became an extension of business class, to bring you this review.
- Frequent flyer program: Korean Air SkyPass, SkyTeam. Korean has no Australian frequent flyer partners, so occasional Korean Air passengers could consider crediting their flights to partner programs like Emirates Skywards instead for booking Qantas flights with their miles, or schemes like Etihad Guest to do the same with Virgin Australia.
- Checked baggage allowance: 2x32kg bags, increased to 3x32kg for Korean Air's Morning Calm Club, Morning Calm Premium Club and Million Miler Club members, as well as other SkyTeam Elite and Elite Plus cardholders.
- Carry-on baggage allowance: 2x115cm bags at a combined total weight of 18kg.
- Priority airport services: Dedicated 'Prestige Class' priority check-in lanes, plus in-town check-in options at several places in Seoul: the use of which also extends access to the otherwise-private Diplomatic Passport security and immigration channel at Seoul's Incheon Airport, where I was through in moments as there was no queue.
Priority boarding was strictly enforced, with separate aerobridges for business class and economy. Priority-tagged baggage also arrived on the belt in Brisbane first.
Business class passengers can choose between two Korean Air lounges at Seoul Incheon Airport T2.
The first option is Prestige Lounge East, a 200-seat lounge found by turning left at passport control and taking the escalator upstairs near the airport's transit hotel...
... the other being Prestige Lounge West: a larger 400-seat lounge offering the same types of seating, food and beverage as the East facility – just on a bigger scale. As such, most travellers would simply choose the lounge closest to their departure gate.
Korean Air business class passengers who are also Morning Calm Premium or Million Miler Club members have the added option of the Miler Club Lounge in Seoul – a quieter space with improved privacy, food and beverage options: conveniently located directly opposite the departure gate as was used for this KE123 flight.
Out of Brisbane, Korean Air runs four non-stop flights each week, departing at 8:25am on Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays as KE124, reaching Seoul at 5:35pm after a journey of 10hr 10min.
Returning from the South Korean capital, KE123 is wheels-up at 8:05pm on Mondays, Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays, touching down in Brisbane at 6:50am the following calendar day after a similar voyage of 9hr 45min.
Korean Air also runs a similar flight schedule between Sydney and Seoul – a daytime flight up, and an overnight flight back – but as a daily service instead.
Aboard the Airbus A330 aircraft that flies to both cities, passengers seated in the former first class zone will notice the absence of central overhead lockers, designed to make this part of the plane feel more spacious...
... with mood lighting used at various stages throughout the flight to ease into sleep or for waking up in the morning.
The front row of the cabin – that former first class space – also retains some of the upgraded touches of that better-than-business-class offering, with the lighting here seemingly drawing from a wider range of colours and effects, versus 'regular' business class behind. Here's that normal business class area on the left, and the former first class zone on the right, as an example:
Despite being arranged in a 2-2-2 layout, Korean Air's 'business class plus' seats provide universal direct aisle access, with passengers seated over by the window having a dedicated path between seat and aisle, which is used without disturbing their neighbour:
This is also achieved by staggering those outer pairs of seats – the passenger by the window sitting further forward, the passenger by the aisle sitting further back, so both travellers have the same practical space – with the window seats (1A and 1H) being the pick of the bunch, thanks to this privacy divider which creates your own mini-suite.
Transforming into a fully-flat bed at the press of a button, the airline provides a decent-sized pillow...
... with my window-side bed measuring at 195cm from tip to tail: about 5cm longer than the standard business class seats behind, which passengers pushing the 6ft mark are sure to appreciate (myself included). Seat width in both sections is 51cm (20 inches).
However, there's no mattress pad or bedding on offer – only a blanket – which I draped over the seat to soften the cushioning, as the cabin was already on the warmer side. Pyjamas are also BYO.
A fixed footrest forms the end of that bed and also serves as a quasi-cover for keeping a laptop bag or similar below it, given the reduced space in the overhead lockers given their absence in the middle...
... and next to that, you'll find a literature pocket with the safety card, reading material, and as I found, a good place to store the inflight menu when it's not needed.
Cabin crew hang jackets on boarding, which are returned to this hook on the wall nearby, keeping your garment out of the way...
... and by making use of the privacy divider between the seat pair, leaning back keeps your face out of sight from those passing by in the aisle: valuable for those who need a little extra privacy.
As mentioned earlier, your seatmate remains free to use and adjust their seat without blocking your access out to the aisle, thanks to the dedicated walkway out from the window...
... and as to the seat itself, you'll find all the controls you need located in the armrest – shortcut keys at the top for the most common positions: press momentarily and release, and the seat continues moving into position – as well as adjustment keys for a more customised seat position, as well as for the motorised privacy divider, and an adjustable reading light located behind you.
AC power is easily locatable, with no obstructions around the power point causing issues with larger-type plugs and transformers. Just keep in mind that this sits around knee height when coming or going from the seat, and is easily knocked if you're not careful – not a problem when you remain seated, however.
There's a small storage area next to the seat cushion where you'll find slippers, an amenity kit and your water bottle, as well as USB charging outlet and a headphone plug. I found these a little hard to spot and had to use the torch function on my smartphone to find the outlet (a black inlet on a black background looks only like a black square from a distance), but once these outlets were put to use, their operation was problem-free.
Finally, a single solid tray table emerges from the side, which is nice and sturdy for dining or work.
The only trick is actually selecting these 'business class plus' seats in the first place. Korean Air tells Australian Business Traveller that often, these seats are "assigned at the airport depending on availability", and that "different classes and sales conditions within the business class... may affect the seat selection for those seats".
Unlike Malaysia Airlines which now markets its former first class seats as 'Business Suites' with a higher price tag attached, Korean Air doesn't sell its better-than-business-class seats as a separate fare type or cabin, so there's no additional cost to sit here if you're already flying business class.
However, it's reasonable to expect that a business class passenger travelling on a higher-priced airfare and with top-tier Morning Calm Premium Club or Million Miler Club status may have better luck in snagging a seat in row 1 than a non-status member on a business class sale airfare – but that's not to say the latter is excluded, if a seat up front remains available at check-in or is offered for selection online.
Being a mid-evening departure from Seoul and a morning arrival into Brisbane, dinner is served after take-off with breakfast available prior to landing.
The service begins with a pre-take-off drink – a choice between Champagne, juice and water. Saving the Champagne for later, I began with a simple water...
... followed by Champagne in the sky: Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut NV, and an amuse-bouche of smoked salmon tartar with a lavosh cracker – the idea being that you use the cracker to scoop up the salmon, which proved delicious and fresh.
Next, an appetiser of lemon and herb marinated prawns with mushrooms. I suspect this was plated on the ground and some early turbulence in the flight caused that presentation to move around a little, but the flavours were there and the vinaigrette was a nice addition (about half the packet was more than enough):
That's followed by a choice from these four main courses:
- Korean Bibimbap offered with minced beef and seasoned vegetables, accompanied by sesame oil and Gochujang (Korean hot pepper paste)
- Korean style Bulgogi beef with rice and mushrooms, served with side dishes
- Roasted beef tenderloin with green peppercorn sauce served with potato, oven-dried tomato, roasted eggplant and broccoli
- Mixed seafood with beet emulsion served with saffron risoni, asparagus and cauliflower
I tend to lean towards the 'local' dining options of an airline's home country when travelling with overseas-based airlines, and having enjoyed the Bibimbap on my earlier flight to Seoul, I opted for the Bulgogi instead.
I'd been enjoying Bulgogi beef in various forms almost every day I was in Korea, so the dish was an enjoyable way to finish that part of the trip, and came served with soup, pickle and seaweed.
I paired that with a glass of Brothers In Arms No.6 Shiraz Cabernet 2007, which I kept through to the cheese plate: offering Chaumes and Carré de l'est cheeses, served with grapes and crackers.
For those still hungry, there's a fruit plate available to follow, along with ice cream and mocha pound cake, but I opted-out in favour of a liquid dessert of Baileys on the rocks, which pleasingly arrived as a very liberal pour.
Fancy a midnight snack between all that food and breakfast? There's an extensive range of 'any time' refreshment options available throughout the flight:
- Ramen with side dishes
- Baked cookie
- Margarita pizza
- Onigiri (Japanese rice balls)
- And, something generically named "snack": presumably, chips and the like
Being an under-10-hour overnight flight that already offers a dinner of up to seven courses plus a full hot breakfast, that should be more than enough to satisfy even the hungriest of flyers!
For whisk(e)y drinkers, the full menu offers four types – Chivas Regal 18yr, Johnnie Walker Gold Label, Glenfiddich Cask Collection Select Cask Single Malt, and Jack Daniel's – aside the expected selection of spirits.
Fast forward to breakfast, and the menu looks like this:
- Selection of yoghurt flavours
- Main course of either a Korean seafood bean paste soup with rice served with side dishes, or a Mediterranean-style omelette with button mushroom stew served with fingerling potato, pork sausage, broccoli and tomato
- Seasonal fresh fruit
- Bread selection: pumpkin bread, brioche or croissant with jams and butter
- Juice, coffee and tea
Even not having eaten the entire line-up of options for dinner, I wasn't particularly hungry when the lights came on, so opted for the omelette mainly to taste but mostly just ate the croissant and yoghurt, with two cups of coffee for an early morning pick-me-up:
The main dish was rather standard and nothing to write home about, although the pork sausage and slivers of onion were nice. If taking this flight again, I think I'd opt for the simple 'continental breakfast' also listed on the menu, which is the same as the bullet points above but sans a main course.
As the full breakfast service begins 2.5 hours before landing, I expect this would also provide the opportunity to get a little more sleep.
If you're curious, the meal service in these 'business class plus' seats is the same as in regular business class, so there's nothing extra gained by flying in the front row, or missed out on if you're travelling in the rows behind.
Entertainment & Service
These front-row seats provide an HD inflight entertainment screen measuring 23 diagonal inches, which responds to both touch and commands from a remote control.
In terms of screen size, that's a noticeable step up from the 17.5-inch screens in the other business class rows – this used to be first class, after all – and made for crisp, clear viewing, whether from the library of movies and TV shows, the inflight map...
... or even the aircraft's external cameras – not something commonly available on Airbus A330s, but a welcome discovery when browsing the menus!
Despite being a touchscreen, it's well out of reach when seated by the windows, making this touchscreen controller of much better use. You can use its screen to browse content and select titles, or switch it to a more typical 'remote mode' where the screen changes to a simple set of arrows, used to navigate options presented on the main screen.
On the entertainment front, the range of TV shows available was rather limited – and even when a show did appear, it was typically just two episodes from an older season, although the movie selection was a little wider without being extensive.
More pleasing was the line-up of classical music, which could be navigated by composer. From the big names of Beethoven and Brahms through to a wider library spanning the likes of Bartók, Berlioz, Borodin, Khachaturian, Saint-Saëns, Shostakovich and many more, I enjoyed listening to a variety of works on my inbound flight to Seoul: a perfect backdrop while getting things done on my laptop.
The noise-cancelling headphones supplied by Korean Air were acceptable – although I rarely find airline headphones to beat my own powerful pair, and this remains true here – while the amenity kit (found in the seat pocket) offered the expected items with the addition of a shoe horn:
Service-wise, cabin crew on this flight were friendly and approachable, and as I also found on my Brisbane-Seoul journey, the Head Purser walked through the cabin personally greeting each guest and bowing during the greeting.
One drink order went forgotten during the busy dinner service, but was quickly met with an apology when raised, and I appreciated the crew asking whether I wanted to be woken for breakfast before I nodded off to sleep (I got around four hours in between the meals, with the flight also arriving a tad early).
Overall, I can see why this seat wasn't a strong performer when sold as 'first class' – after all, it's the same basic seat as in business class, making the former price difference more about meals and service and thus harder for some travellers to justify – but now as an extension of the business class cabin and one that's given at no extra cost, it's clearly a better match to travellers' expectations and most travel policies.
The only downside to taking row one is that you're directly behind the forward galley, which I found a little noisy when trying to doze off. In this respect, some travellers may be better-off with ear plugs, or perhaps choosing a 'business class plus' seat on the daytime leg from Australia when there's more time spent awake to enjoy the larger screen, and a business class seat further back on the overnight flight for a slightly quieter sleeping environment.
In a few years' time, Korean Air will ultimately replace this mix of 'first class' and business class seating zones with an all-new business class seat covering the entire cabin, but for now, being able to fly in what used to be first class remains a prized perk, for those who make the cut at check-in, of course!
Chris Chamberlin travelled to Seoul as a guest of Korean Air and IATA.