I know it may be hard to believe, but there was a time when I knew almost nothing about airlines, I didn’t obsess over which airframe and in which particular seat I would be traveling and *gasp* I was perfectly happy to fly across oceans on American carriers.
The real start of my awakening to the airline world began on a trip to Asia in 2009. During that trip, two of the segments I flew were on a Korean airline called “Asiana.” I had never even heard of Asiana (OZ) before, but my travel agent assured me I would like them.
At the time, Continental (my carrier of choice) still had a quasi-recliner product in their BusinessFirst cabins. I believe it offered somewhere between 156 and 164 degrees of recline. Far from full flat. I flew on a Continental Boeing 777 equipped with this product from EWR to NRT to start the trip, quite a long haul.
You can imagine my surprise, when a sub-3hr flight with Asiana featured angled lie flat shell style seats in business class. I was blown away that a short haul flight would feature better seats than what I had just flown close to 14 hours on.
If Asiana delivered that level of comfort for such a short flight, I assumed their long-hauls must be an experience, and I resolved to try to work them into a future trip.
In early February when I began planning this NYC detour, I knew it would be a long shot to find an ANA seat from NYC back to Asia. This was a First Class award, which means my other options across the Pacific would be limited. I fired up the ANA availability tool, and sure enough, there was a first class award seat available with Asiana for the direct JFK-ICN flight. It must have been fate.
After taking care of my mundane CLE obligations and ensuring my future as a licensed lawyer, my quick turnaround was over and it was time to start April off the right way. I would be departing on April 1st, landing the afternoon of April 2nd in Seoul.
My family drove me out to JFK to see me off. At the check-in desk, there was a line for the Business check in, and much to my surprise a woman already at the First Class desk. She took ages to sort out her issue and seemed to be getting a bit rude with the desk staff. When it came time to board she was of course seated in Business and not First. I guess when she went to check-in someone must have been on line for the Business check-in and she must have felt she was too important to wait, so she decided to clog up the first class queue. Bitch.
Asiana’s ground handling at JFK isn’t so hot. I can understand not having a dedicated lounge at JFK since there is only one Asiana flight a day, but for F passengers it would be nice if they at least set up an agreement with the Virgin Clubhouse Lounge like Singapore does with their F passengers. As it stands, Asiana F passengers get access to the Swiss International Air Lines Business Lounge, which is one of the most pathetic and sorry lounges I have ever been through.
When you are sending your first class passengers to a lounge that is inferior to the intra-asia business lounge in Vientiane, there is an issue.
The lounge is uniformly white and the one nice feature is that there are windows looking out over the field. There’s wifi and a limited selection of drinks. The lounge is very small and I don’t recall any food being on offer.
Like all of the other lounges at Terminal 4, you have to leave the lounge THEN go through security before getting to your gate. This leads to a guestimation game where you need to decide how much time you need to get through security without marooning yourself at the gate for too long before boarding.
This was a hilarious security check. Many of the passengers on my direct flight to Seoul spoke absolutely no English. They were constantly setting off the metal detectors and trying to put illegal liquids and such through the machine. When the TSA agent at the metal detector tried to pantomime a question asking male passengers if they had removed their belts, most of them would start taking their pants off.
Old Korean men paused in front of metal detectors trying to take their pants off with confused looks on their faces being yelled at in increasingly loud English by TSA agents with high school educations and sub-80 IQ’s is pure comedy. Sure…if you yell in English louder they will probably start to understand.
The standout incident at the security check point didn’t involve any Koreans or language barrier issues however. In a very professional manner, two of the TSA agents were loudly talking shit about an obese hispanic woman wearing a midriff shirt. The woman overheard the comments and went to a male TSA agent and asked that he kindly “tell your colleague to shut the f*ck up.” This set the female TSA agent off like a mad dog. She started ranting “Why you tellin’ him that? He don’t own me, he ain’t tell me what to do. Only my husband tell me what to do, you best shut the f*ck up b*tch,” and so on. Enlightening to know that apparently this agent considers herself to be the chattel of her husband. Overall, very professional behavior from the mouth breathing drains on society we entrust with our security…why does the TSA exist again?
Sadly, the altercation did not devolve into the knife fight I was hoping to see, so I repacked my carry-on and took off for the gate.
I had judged my egress from the lounge poorly, and I was left with 15 minutes of standing around by the gate before it was time to board. Asiana to their credit did pre-board F passengers (something Singapore NEVER does on flights ex-JFK).
Asiana’s first class on their Boeing 777-200ER aircraft [MORE PHOTOS AT THE END] is the first two rows of the plane. Eight seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. Currently Asiana only serves select U.S. destinations with first class (NYC & LA). Asiana is returning first class service to the ORD market as well, with newly refitted planes that feature a “new” first class seat…sounds like an excuse to fly JFK-ORD-ICN on my next trip to Korea.
I have read various complaints that Asiana’s seat is not “private” enough, and although it is far from the fanciest first class product I have ever sampled, I found it to be very cozy and comfortable. In fact, I would say this flight to Seoul was one of the more enjoyable flights I have ever taken.
We were 7/8 or perhaps full in F. White amenity kits emblazoned with “Asiana” on them were distributed. I think they were meant to feel like leather, but I doubt they were real leather. We also received slippers and the nicest pajamas I have received from any airline. Asiana PJ’s come in a gold colored silky zip up bag and the garments themselves are top quality. I would say only Swiss F PJ’s are close to being as nice.
For some reason, the stewardess told me that Asiana can’t serve alcohol as a pre-departure beverage while on the ground at JFK. I took a glass of water as my pre-departure beverage and soon we were taxiing towards the runway. Not long after takeoff, the first meal service began, I chose the Korean option as my main:
During the excessively long and gluttonous meal service I watched Secretariat as it was the only halfway decent IFE option I hadn’t already seen, and nothing was pre-loaded on my laptop/iPod. It was ok, not the worst movie i’ve ever seen.
Once the movie wrapped up, I was exhausted from all the food Asiana had stuffed me with, so I went to sleep. I probably slept eight or more hours. By the time I came to, we were less than two hours away from Seoul.
This is the amazing thing about First Class air travel, and why I try to convince all of my friends/family to get into the mileage game. You get onboard, sit in an extremely comfortable chair/bed (similar to your couch or bed back home) and then you watch movies while people bring you free, high quality food and alcohol (much as you might do at home on a lazy sunday ordering in delivery food). The difference is, at the end of your 12-14 hours in First, you’re on the other side of the world.
Before arrival, there was a second meal service:
During the first meal service, the Korean bibimbap option was fantastic. Asiana have a very spicy hot sauce they serve in special little Asiana branded tubes, similar to travel tubes of toothpaste. It’s very spicy, and it gave the bibimbap a nice kick. No matter how much of the fiery red paste I dumped into the clear soup that I took as my main course during the second service, it just didn’t have any flavor, and I would advise against it.
The only thing I could compare it to, would be a celery soup I had at a restaurant in Warsaw once. Basically it tastes like seawater. I don’t know about you, but a large bowl of hot seawater is not an appealing prospect to me.
I scrambled to get a photo of our flightpath on the airshow with the crappy camera on my blackberry and managed to succeed before we set down on a gray and rainy afternoon at ICN.
I was one of the first off the plane, but the immigration queues were outrageous, and ICN has no priority immigration lane for First and Business passengers. I could forgive Asiana for having lousy ground handling at an out station like JFK, but at their home, hub airport of ICN, to not have any sort of fast track for first class passengers is pretty crappy.
It took probably an hour to get stamped into Korea. As the flight landed after 5pm, and I was due to leave the next day, this was a large inconvenience. I had some Won left over from my last stop in Korea, so I engaged a taxi and set off for the long drive to the hotel. While the ground handling in JFK and ICN leave a lot to be desired, Asiana’s airborne product is absolutely first rate, and I am looking forward to my next JFK-ICN flight with them in December.