This is the first part of a two-leg journey from London to Manila. The legs involved in this journey are listed below. Click on the other leg for more details about it.
As disappointed as I was that my seven-year stay in Britain was drawing to a close, one parting gift was I would get a chance to fly home using business class yet again on another airline. It took me over a week to decide which airline I would ride. Initially I was leaning towards Asiana because I would be on a 5-star carrier and its new A350. Also, the price of £2,500 one-way for that was not so bad given that flights to Manila were pricey for obvious reasons. It also would allow me to go lounge-binging again since it was Star Alliance and there were two lounges to enjoy: Lufthansa and Singapore Air. However due to factors beyond my control I was unable to book on time. There were flights left earlier in the week but due to other matters, those were a few days too early for me. Turkish Airlines was an alternative but due to it being a 3-star airline, it left me with some doubts. Etihad was also a possibility but it was a bit too pricey. Don't get me started with Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines. Other than the fact that they cost twice as much, the extremely short layover time meant it was not worth it. Yes, for business class flights, I value the quality time spent at the hub and soaking up a carrier's signature lounge at that hub.
At the last minute however, a seat opened up with Korean Air. Prices were more or less similar to Asiana. Plus, one gets to stop by Seoul-Incheon, which I know has an excellent airport. I would be getting about 3 hours and 45 minutes worth of stopover time, plenty of time to enjoy the airport and/or the lounge. As soon as I got the payment method sorted out, we booked it. I felt too that Korean Air would make for an interesting experience since it would be my first time in 34 years to fly with this carrier. Korean Air was in fact the very first carrier that I ever flew with, so there was some sentimental value.
As I was doing my research on whether Korean Air was a reasonable alternative to Asiana, one thing that I stumbled upon was the fact that Korean Air is in the process of considering whether to acquire Asiana. It is fascinating in that it is a case of a 4-star carrier acquiring a 5-star carrier. But as the process is unlikely to materialise until at least 2024, we will cross the bridge when we get there. It will be business as usual for both carriers until then, at least in terms of their distinct identities, service offerings, amenities, alliances, etc.
One other quirk that I discovered for this particular journey, the seats that are normally reserved for first class (also known as the Cosmo 2.0 suites) are available to ticketed business class passengers apparently for no additional cost. To be clear, the "soft" product, (e.g. catering, amenity kits, beddings) would be exactly the same as those sitting in the "normal" business class seats.
I was able to initially secure such a seat on the shorter Seoul-Manila leg but I monitored if an open "first class" seat for the longer London-Seoul segment was available for a few more days. Luckily, it paid off and I reserved such seats for both flights. I then further changed the seat as I got at first a "middle" "D" seat and later found that an "A" seat became available. I wished though that it were seat 1A instead of 2A so it would be the same as the Seoul-Manila flight. I have been tossing and turning of whether it would be worth it to change to PAL's A350 given the relatively low cancellation costs. But the fact that I can score a "hard" first class seat on Korean Air all but clinched my decision to stay with my originally-booked airline.
It turns out that Korean Air is not alone in its trend to suspend the sale of first class for the moment: other carriers are following suit. The reality of the global pandemic has shed light on the fact that first class is a service that requires too many contact points, something which epidemiologists worry about.
Leaving Britain for good means you may need to pack heavy. And for the next three or four days, it was an absolute nightmare figuring out how to make the most of one’s business class baggage allowance without going over. And it is a very expensive business to travel with five pieces of bags as they had to be moved at least three times!
On the day of travel, getting to the airport meant we were tangled up in traffic. I left shortly before 14.00 local time (five hours before the flight) and the taxi trip to Paddington station took almost an hour. Consider that Paddington station was less than three miles away from my hotel. But Black Friday and a strike involving the London Underground or Tube made things worse. Talk about an uneventful last day in Britain which does not even consider the impending news of a new COVID variant!
Upon arrival at Paddington station, I grabbed a trolley and managed to fit three of my four bags into it. The fourth bag was easy to pull out. To save on costs, I decided to travel using the TFL Rail, formerly known as the Heathrow Connect. Unlike the Heathrow Express, it had several stops along the way. Journey time from Paddington to the station serving Terminals 2 and 3 is 30 minutes. I had to put my two big bags at the corner of the door and my eyes were glued to it for most of the train journey. I had to lug my bags to the nearest trolley point upon arrival at Heathrow station. The trolley seemed smaller than its counterpart at Paddington.
The good news was that when I got there, there were no queues. The bad news was that immediately, I got news my first bag seemed overweight. They gave me an option to repack or pay an excess fee. It took a half hour to transfer items and figure out what to throw away. It felt really panicking. Although I did my research on the baggage allowance, the heart of the issue was that I might have misinterpreted what the hand luggage allowance included. Strictly speaking for business class, a backpack counts as hand luggage. The “personal item” only applies to economy class (in addition to the one hand luggage). Ultimately the check-in staff let it slip that I take the backpack out and take it as hand luggage along with everything else without much fanfare. Taking my bags out, the heaviest checked bag was within the ideal allowance. In the course of repacking, I panicked and briefly misplaced my passport.
TIP: When in doubt, always ask beforehand what the hand luggage allowance includes. In business class, what seems to be a "personal item" is counted as hand luggage, especially with Korean Air.
Luckily I found it fairly quickly. I showed the staff the required documents, including my PCR Test and barcode needed to enter the Philippines. It would't be the only time I would part with my passport.
Despite having access to fast track, security was a bit slow. There was a bottleneck of bags in front of me waiting to be screened. Maybe this is why I now appreciate Korean Air’s hand luggage limit. Despite the bottleneck at security and the many items I put forward for screening, I got my items without much scrutiny.
I then made my way to the No 1 Lounge. The ambience is okay and I used it on a previous occasion. I found the food selection limited though. Just one kind pasta. There was basmati rice and a form of chicken meal. There were also biscuits and muffins. But nothing else much. It was crowded and many sections were cordoned off, including the shower room. Although there are COVID considerations, staff could easily clean and disinfect these areas in a short period of time, plus opening a few more sections of the lounge could make social distancing manageable. In other words, I was not missing very much considering the “delays” to getting to Heathrow and the slight snafu at the check-in desks. But I was forced to start a Zoom meeting with a few fellow language learners a bit late and with shortened meeting time.
I arrived at the gate and there weren’t many people left to board. The staff asked me to present my passport and RT-PCR test result. I took a photo by one of the walls that depicted a London road. I entered the boarding gate but one annoyance I had was they used only one boarding gate rather than two. It would have helped speed up the process if both were operational.
Just at the foot of the aerobridge, the staff scanned my boarding card and showed me to my seat. Luckily for me it was the seat that I originally booked.
As my seat is normally a seat used for first class, it features loads of storage, a wide display, one AC power port, one USB power port, and a mini closet that closes. It felt wide, comfortable and very private. One criticism I have about it though was that the area where you charge your USB-chargeable device cannot technically be used to store stuff. It would help to have the USB charging port in the proper storage area for the phones and smartwatches. It comes as well with a closet enough to hang two shirts or coats. The ottoman in front of the passenger allows us to store our smaller bags under the seat.
Waiting for us on our seat was a bottle of water, pillow, duvet, slippers, and amenity kit. The amenity kit featured eyeshades, hand cream, body lotion, toothbrush and a dental hygiene kit. It was interesting that the amenity kit bag wasn't the one made out of plastic, which was heavily criticised. Instead, I was pleased to receive a more traditional looking amenity kit.
The flight attendant assigned to our section took our main course orders. I told her I would go for the tenderloin and the omelette. She gave in to my request to serve my meal after almost everyone else is done.
I had to finish a few matters as the plane was taxiing to the runaway. They included responding to a message and downloading a few videos. Before we knew it, we were taking off.
Five minutes after takeoff, the seatbelt sign was switched off. I wanted to test the controls and more importantly, the door. I was struggling at first to close it but then a flight attendant helped me by pushing a ‘secret’ button a bit away from the door.
The content of the IFE was considerably limited compared to Emirates or even Cathay Pacific though it was not bad. It had some music to my liking. But I was more disappointed in the fact that it had no provisions for wifi, something that was fast becoming standard on many other carriers.
As I was watching others enjoy their meals, I just continued doing some work on my iPad and staring at the moving map.
I moved around from time to time. I even visited the economy class section and the 'actual' or 'normal' business class section.
Nearly two hours passed, almost everyone else has finished their meal. I requested it was time for me to have mines. The cabin was dimmed. It showed how my request was a bit odd. But I took the crew up on their offer for a beverage.
The appetiser was salmon. From the get go, it was enjoyable already. I knew this was going to be something I would enjoy. The tenderloin was also inviting and mouth-watering. One of the best business class dinners I have ever tasted.
I had ice cream and camomile tea for dessert. Cheese was also offered. They were really delicious and I finished almost everything.
When the desserts were done, I headed to the lavatory to dress up and brush my teeth. The lavatories also contained mouthwash and razors.
I then prepared the seat to be in bed mode. With one press of a button, the seat transforms immediately into a bed. The panel also has a lounge mode so you can recline if you wish or customise the angle. I grabbed a pillow from an empty seat (yes there were several empty business class seats so in effect, I had two. Unfortunately the bed cover was not provided as it was technically not a first class service. There are carriers like Cathay Pacific though that provide beddings for business class.
The flight felt much much faster than it actually was. Even though I was in one of the most comfortable seats, I did not want to miss every moment of this flight so I slept only 2 1/2 hours. A flight of just 10 hours would not do justice to what's on offer for this suite.
With under four and a half hours left in the flight, I requested the cabin crew for the signature cookie refreshments. That and another cappuccino coffee to go along with it.
For the next two hours, I would switch between playing with the bed and working on a something.
Shortly before the second meal service, I took the liberty of trying a 'normal' Business Class seat. It was a 2-2-2 configuration but each passenger has direct aisle access. So there are slight differences between the "aisle" and "window" seat. The seat was had a flat bed but it felt narrower and slightly more claustrophobic. The seat controls were similar with the first class seat except for the lack of "dining mode" which in first class is similar to take-off/landing mode but with the seat further closer to the table. But I didn't think it was too bad. You can however raise a divider electronically if you need some privacy.
When we had over two hours to go, the crew started serving us with breakfast. I chose the omlette option. It felt delicious. I finished almost everything except the fruits.
For the remaining time, I continued to read off my iPad. I also managed to assemble some KPop music to play whilst viewing the airshow during descent. I played around with the airshow whereby one can customise what to view. Some cities had a Korean Air icon next to their name which symbolised that they are a city which Korean Air serves directly.
As we descended, I discovered a feature where one is able to find out the details of his/her own connecting flight if there is one. It will take details from the passenger's itinerary and map it to his/her seat. In my case, it told me the details of the connecting flight to Manila.
Similarly, I found it quite impressive that shortly before descent the cabin crew assigned to me knew what my next flight was and wished me an onward journey to Manila. It's these little things that makes the service a little more personal.
I realised that our inbound flight for Seoul would dock at the same gate as the outbound flight for Manila. Given that the aircraft type is the same, it would likely mean we will likely use the exact same aircraft.
These are rated from 1 to 10 with ten being the best score. Also, please note that given the COVID-19 pandemic, expectations have been adjusted accordingly. This covers aspects of the flight experience that Korean Air and its ground agents are responsible for with a focus on Business Class.
- Check-in (9/10): The staff was pretty helpful to spare me a £150 excess baggage fee. Any stress here was somehow my fault.
- Lounge (7/10): The No 1 Lounge was pretty crowded. The food selection was fairly limited. And the shower facilities were closed.
- Boarding Process (8/10): It was pretty smooth. Not much issues. However, I question why Korean Air uses only one boarding door instead of two.
- Seating area (10/10): Luckily for me, I got to sit in a seat that was otherwise marketed as first class. It had doors that closed, a wide seat that reclines to become a full-flat bed. Massive storage compared to a "standard" business class! I don't think I have a right to complain one bit with this.
- Food (9/10): I find the food scrumptious and in terms of taste, among the best I ever had. The selection was to my liking. My minor critique was why do away with the ‘real’ glassware? They use such glass-like materials for coffee and tea anyway.
- Cabin Crew (10/10): The crew was very helpful and accommodating of my preferences such as to have my meals after almost everyone else has finished. They helped me with operating the door and stowing my luggage at a more convenient point. There was also a high level of personalisation with them wishing me an onward flight to the city of my final destination. I felt spoiled by the hospitality.
- Punctuality (10/10): We arrived with plenty of time to spare.
- In-flight Entertainment and Connectivity (6/10): The IFE firmware was pretty responsive. There was one USB power port and one standard AC outlet for those who want to use their laptops or charge their tablets. Contents were not as massive as Cathay Pacific or Emirates. But the real let down was a lack of in-flight wifi.