Is Korean Air (Nearly) Discontinuing First Class?

Filed Under: Korean Air

It increasingly looks like international first class may be a casualty of the current pandemic. That’s at least true in the coming year, as we’ve seen several airlines remove first class from their schedules, largely because they’ve grounded parts of their fleets.

Korean Air is the latest airline to pull first class inventory, but there’s probably a different story here…

Korean Air pulls all non-A380 first class

In the past few days Korean Air has updated its schedule, and has pulled first class from a vast majority of routes. The only Korean Air routes to currently show first class for sale are those flights operated by Airbus A380s.

Again, this isn’t just temporary, but rather the airline has completely pulled first class for all the way through next summer, and I imagine that’s not a mistake. Previously Korean Air had first class on several other aircraft, most notably the Boeing 747-8, as well as many 777-300ERs.

It’s a bit ironic that the A380 is the only plane where first class is still for sale, since Korean Air’s A380 features a significantly worse product than you’ll find on most 747-8s and 777-300ERs.

Korean Air A380 first class

Korean Air 747-8 first class

Korean Air has a fleet of just 10 Airbus A380s, which the airline flies primarily to Los Angeles, New York, London, and Paris.

Korean Air A380

This follows Korean Air’s previous first class reductions

This isn’t even the first time that Korean Air has taken an axe to its first class product. In May 2019 Korean Air announced it would stop selling first class on dozens of routes, With this, we saw Korean Air eliminate first class on a majority of 787s and A330s, as well as on select 777s.

What made this interesting was that aspects of Korean Air’s first class didn’t make much sense to begin with. For example, on the 787-9, Korean Air’s first and business class seats were identical.

Korean Air’s 787-9 first class

Korean Air’s 787-9 business class

What should we make of this development?

How should we read into Korean Air pulling first class inventory from all non-A380 routes? There are several ways to interpret this:

  • Korean Air plans to remove first class seats from 777-300ERs and 747-8s; this seems unlikely to me, since removing seats costs money, and airlines aren’t spending money right now
  • Korean Air expects demand for first class to be so low that it won’t even sell the seats anymore, and would rather seat business class passengers there so it doesn’t have to offer an elevated product; this wouldn’t come as a surprise, since it’s what Korean Air has done for other planes
  • This is a temporary glitch, and doesn’t represent Korean Air’s intent; this is possible but seems unlikely to me, as this has been the case for several days now
  • Korean Air isn’t sure which planes it will use on various routes, so the airline wants to manage expectations; this also seems unlikely to me, since most long haul routes will be operated by planes that feature first class cabins

I think the most likely explanation is that the airline just has a very pessimistic view of demand over the next year, and simply won’t even bother selling first class.

Korean Air wouldn’t even be the first South Korean airline to do something like this. For example, last year Asiana Airlines stopped selling first class, and instead rebranded it as “Business Suite.”

Asiana rebranded its A380 first class as “Business Suite”

Bottom line

Korean Air has pulled all first class inventory, with the exception of routes operated by A380s. Only time will tell what Korean Air’s real intent here is, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see the airline just stop selling first class due to lack of demand.

There’s already precedent for this in South Korea pre-pandemic, as we saw Asiana rebrand its first class as “Business Suite,” and we also saw Korean Air stop selling first class on many routes last year.

Perhaps the only surprise here is that Korean Air plans to continue flying its A380s over the coming year, as several other airlines plan on grounding them…

What do you make of Korean Air’s first class inventory changes?

  1. If it’s true, I wouldn’t weep about it. Their Apex business class is excellent and the soft product isn’t far different from the F experience. Probably something about blocking upgrades though

  2. Thanks for the post, Ben.
    I received an email from Korean Air just a few days ago. My First Class booking was downgraded to Prestige Class, ATL-ICN for October. It’s still (as of now) being operated by a 747-8, and my seat assignment (as of now) is still 1A.
    I was offered a full refund of miles plus fees, or a change of itinerary to a later date, free of charge.

  3. It’s a pity but not really a surprise. Even before they pulled F on their 787/330 fleet, the seating has been the same in F and J. Obviously, the food and drinks were superior, but admittedly, KE also offers high quality in J. The same is true on their 748, wich has the Apex-Suite in J, which is a very similar product to their F seat.

  4. @Michael
    KE will not be providing First Class service but agents know how to force the booking into J fare class which will allow you to remain in the First Class cabin but with Business Class service.

  5. I admit this is a fascinating development. My worldview is from the US (so I recognize that has limits), and I would think travel with the mandatory quarantine at Ramada would diminish nearly all transit between countries. Cutting the A380 would be my first choice.

    But if I were somehow inclined to do this, to avoid infection and the inevitable fact that people will take their masks off for meals and the restrooms during a 13 hour flight… first class would be my first choice.

  6. @ Ben — I hope that at least some F is maintained by SQ, LX, LH, CX, NH, JL, QF, AF and BA. Oh, and how could I forget AA? As long as AA maintains international F, all is well. 😉

  7. I also hope F will be maintained and offered. I’m guessing those who usually pay full fare first class may be opting to charter private jets instead.

  8. Guessing same as when they eliminated first on some intra-asia routes. I flew a 772 on a J ticket in the F seat. Lack of demand, so remove the class so that if/when demand comes back you haven’t devalued the product prices.

    Seems doubtful they’ll reconfigure A380 and 748 you couldn’t really fit that many more apex suites in the nose than the current F.

  9. Taiwanese airlines have given up on F long time ago but have focused on improving J experience. Korean airlines should have done the same long time ago.

  10. Where is the 747-8 flying these days? During the past few months, I was noticing it flying into ORD instead of ATL.

    I have to take a trip to Korea. I could not find any 747-8 or A380 routes out of JFK, ORD, or ATL. Everything was 777-300ER v1 or v2.

  11. AF is still selling La Premiere but serving J meals and no lounge or ground service. So just the bigger seat.

    LX like LH is doing proper onboard F service.

  12. I received a call yesterday from Korean Air regarding my January flight CGK-ICN-IAD flight operated by 777-300ER first class downgraded from F to J, but the agent was kind enough (Yasmin from KUL office) to change my route CGK-ICN( J class service but F Cosmo 2.0 seats kept) re-route ICN-JFK in F on A380. I know the A380 seats are by far less attractive but any chance to fly A380 nowadays will give me more enjoyment than anything!

  13. This could be really sad.

    I reviewed Japan Airlines First Class a while back on a Boeing 777-300 and it really puts U.S. air carriers to shame.

  14. TG did/does the same: they sell F/Cl seats as C/Cl without refitting the cabins. Maybe demand will recover, maybe F/Cl is a product of the past.

  15. Lucky, they are still selling First on both LAX and JFK to ICN, 77W for the next few months

  16. It’s strange as I consider their first class 747 product far outshone anything else but you never know what the future holds

  17. Another option: for the next year, they know they simply *can’t* offer the service standards expected of first class (e.g. cooked meals, frequent, personalized service by the flight attendants, etc) so why sell it and have a bunch of upset customers?

    These days, business class meals often consist of simple, prepackaged meals served in a single plate, to minimize infection risk. If you know you can’t do more than that, then what’s the point of offering first class?

  18. what a shame. korean air keeping the 747 relevant with their excellent F product on their 747-8i (LH and CX disappointed with their 747-8’s)

  19. Ah. Skyteam. There’s delta awesome service and handling of covid and there’s skypesos that I can’t redeem for first class. Other than la premiere, barely running Garuda 777 and KE. Only China Eastern have first now? Great when flying to China but again not redeemable. Sometimes I wonder why I’m a diamond medallion. Hmmm

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