I recently had a chance to fly in Korean Air’s Prestige Business Class cabin on their new A380 flight from Seoul to New York. Korean Air’s wonderful hospitality aside, I have always been a skeptic of the potential success of this behemoth airliner. How many routes can support an airliner with 500, 600 or as many as 850 seats, depending on the configuration deployed by each airline? Airbus has sold less than 240 A380’s, compared with more than 1,400 Boeing 747s produced thus far. Additionally, Airbus had to shelve its plans for a freighter version of the super jumbo aircraft initially when Fed Ex and UPS canceled their original orders.
Another ominous sign, less than 20 airlines worldwide have placed orders for the A380 and no U.S. based airline has purchased the A380 to date. Yet, six major airlines are now flying the A380, with Korean Air being the most recent airline to join that club.
While Korean Air’s version of the A380 contains only 407 seats (fewer than any of the other five airlines now flying this airplane), other airlines have crammed more than 500 seats in their A380s and at least one airline plans to fill their yet to be delivered A380s, with more than 800 seats.
With so many seats to fill, I thought that the A380 would most likely serve markets in densely populated cities in places like China or India, and yet, all six of the airlines operating the 50+ A380 aircraft now in service, fly at least one U.S. route and A380s land regularly at five U.S. airports. (Los Angeles, Miami, New York – JFK, San Francisco and Washington – Dulles)
Every airline configures their cabins differently and Korean Air is the only airline, thus far, to devote the entire upper deck, a full 94 seats, to Business Class. With an all business class configuration upstairs, Korean Air’s A380 upper deck contains two lounges where business class passengers can stretch out and enjoy a cocktail or a snack. The lounge in the front of the business class section is an unattended space while the bar in the lounge in the rear of the airplane is staffed by a Korean Air flight attendant serving up a special menu of drinks and snacks.
The concept of lounges in the sky is reminiscent of the early days of the Boeing 747, where some airlines used the upper deck as a lounge – before times got tough and airlines began to fill that space with more seats. On my flight, only a handful of passengers seemed to populate the tended bar at any given time while the forward, “self-service” lounge was largely unoccupied when I wandered up front several times during the 14 hour flight.
For those of us who like to get up and stretch periodically on a long flight, the lounges are a welcome addition. Perhaps the use of the in-flight lounges will grow over time as more Prestige Class passengers become aware of that awesome amenity.
Another unique feature of Korean Air’s A380 is a duty free showcase in the rear of the aircraft on the lower level. In this space the airline is able to display some actual duty free products, extending and enhancing the duty free shopping experience.
During my duty free showcase visit, I felt like I had stepped into the fragrance section in a Parisian department store when the flight attendant tending the duty free shop sprayed various fragrances on little slips of paper for me to sniff. Unfortunately, I had to wend my way through a line of economy class passengers waiting to use the lavatory in the shared space with the duty free showcase.
Despite that line of economy class passengers waiting for the lavatories, Korean Air’s A380 economy section holds just 301 total passengers, while other airlines with economy class cabins on both decks of their A380s have crammed as many as 50% more, additional seats on their airplanes.
Like most major international airlines, Korean Air’s Prestige Business Class seats are perfectly comfortable, lie-flat seats and their entertainment system appears to be state of the art, though the Prestige Class seat and product on Korean Air’s A380 is the same product offered on their other long-haul, widebody aircraft.
While an entire upper deck devoted to business class can offer great advantages over smaller aircraft, it is extremely difficult to retain that special or exclusive feeling afforded business class passengers in a cabin that holds 94 passengers. Korean Air addressed this problem successfully by partitioning the cabin into three separate sections, creating the illusion that you are in a much smaller business class section.
Although I did not get to try the first class Kosmo Suites on Korean Air’s A380, a unique feature of these suites is a retractable partition to provide privacy on demand, rather than the rigid suite partitions deployed by some other airlines.
On this maiden voyage of Korean Air’s first trans-Pacific A380 route, all but two of the Prestige Business Class seats were filled, so perhaps there may be a lucrative market for this enormous airplane after all.