Korean Air’s Bizarre New 787 First & Business Class Cabins

Filed Under: Korean Air

I’m a big fan of Korean Air, and in particular of the fact that they’re a Chase Ultimate Rewards transfer partner. Korean Air SkyPass makes it easy to book award tickets in Korean Air first class, which is probably the best value and most readily available transpacific first class award out there.

The next plane to join Korean Air’s fleet will be the Boeing 787-9. Korean Air has 10 of these on order, and the first one should be delivered shortly. The first longhaul 787-9 destination will be Toronto as of June 2017, which is quite a long flight.

Well, Korean Air has just revealed their 787-9 configuration. The plane will feature 269 seats, including six first class seats, 18 business class seats, and 245 economy seats. The first thing I noticed about the configuration is that it’s a fairly premium-light configuration, which counters the trend for the airline (then again, perhaps the reason they’re losing money is because they have too many premium seats, and aren’t able to sell them).

Anyway, notice anything interesting about the premium cabins on Korean Air’s 787-9 seatmap (ignoring the graphics they use to represent the seats for a moment)?


Here’s what Korean Air’s 787-9 first class seat will look like:


And here’s what Korean Air’s 787-9 business class seat will look like:


Yes, they’re the same seat!

Here’s the description of their 787 Sleeper First product:


Meanwhile here’s the description of their 787 Prestige Suite Business product:


Korean Air will have Apex Suites on the 787-9. The window seats in this configuration are my favorite business class hard product out there. So it’s a great business class product. However, it’s an interesting decision to install a first class product that’s identical to a business class product on a longhaul flight.

In fairness, many of Korean Air’s A330s have a similar configuration, with the same seat in first & business class. However, those planes are primarily used for shorter routes. When we start talking about 14 hour flights (like what the 787 will operate), personal space really does matter, and the Apex Suite doesn’t compare to Korean Air’s other first class products.

On the most basic level, the A380 has spacious and open first class seats.


Meanwhile the Korean Air 747-8 and select 777-300ER aircraft feature fully enclosed suites.


So installing an Apex Suite as a first class product on a brand new plane represents a pretty big downgrade.

Bottom line

The 787 is a fantastic plane, and it’s great to see that Korean Air will be installing Apex Suites in business class, given what a great product it is. However, it’s a bit surprising that they’ll also be installing Apex Suites in first class. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I can’t think of any other airline that installs virtually identical seats in first and business class on longhaul aircraft, and relies entirely on the soft product as a point of differentiation.

  1. I bet KE has an insane number of contracts from major conglomerates and KE’s just misleading the top-tier employees into thinking they’ll enjoy first class when they pay for first class. April fools, but every day of the year.

  2. I’m booked for the inaugural flight from Seoul to Jeju and let me say I am thrilled to try out their new first class (note the sarcasm)

  3. Well they run the A330s on major routes too sometimes, don’t they? I seem to remember it on the LAX-GRU run at one point. Still, it is weird either way.

  4. I think theyre doing this for the same reason European airlines have the same seat for Y and J on intr-Europe flight – the ability to flex the cabin layout based on demand. They seem to have very low demand for F internationally so they can easily either not sell F at all on a particular route (and sell all J and F seats as J), or if no F seats have been sold for a particular flight, op-up/paid upgrade people to these F seats, with J service, when Y is oversold/they are looking for additional revenue.
    It wouldnt surprise me if they are on the cusp of eliminating all F across the fleet and couldnt make a decision before committing to these 787 layouts so are doing this as a stop-gap while they make a final decision.

  5. Another instance where a thorough review of first class and business class side by side is needed.

    Maybe you should make that a regular feature since first class on many airlines is becoming scarce.

  6. @Chris – The pictures aren’t even accurate as 787’s don’t have manual pull down shades. I’m assuming these pictures are from their Apex suites in their 747-8 and select 777-300ERs. There may not be any bulkhead which would make it possible for what Ben was saying about having flexibility depending on flight and route to have an all J cabin.

  7. I think you can say ICN-SYD is a pretty big route for KE and last time I checked they used similarly configured A330’s on that route (during the northern summer season)

  8. Ben,

    This is really interesting and thank you for sharing.

    I think you’ve picked up on this on numerous occasions when talking about the hard product: First class is not really that much better than business class nowadays, its more the soft product.

    Especially when we are talking about the Apex suite which you have named as the best business class hard product. Add on the fact that they are not having to certify two different aircraft seats, paying almost 3-4X the amount for a FC seat, its quite a understandable that they will go down this route and differentiate through service.

    If they decide that having an F product in the long run, this aircraft is essentially future proofed.

    I think we will be seeing more and more of this in the future.

  9. The seat may be the same, but the differentiator between the two cabins is the soft product. First Class will have better/more food, better wines, better pillows, etc. etc. etc.

    Flew SIN-ICN on the A330 in J which is basically in a similar layout and was wondering what the difference was myself. Now I know.

    Still, for a 787, this is a disappointing cabin layout. Great seats in J but if you are gonna do F, do it right.

  10. FWIW, that seat map shows 271 seats. Assuming that this could be a drafting error – as someone pointed out above – an actual 1-2-1 layout in F would bring the seat count to the 269 specified for the type.

    Just my two cents.

  11. I couldn’t be less excited for KE’s 787 delivery.
    IMHO, the 787 is the most overrated plane out there.
    Add the fact that KE is playing games with F seats on this bird, the overall package is really really not that exciting.

  12. Very interesting… I agree that the best business class hard products aren’t any worse than most F seats. After all, a seat really only has to be so wide. However, what I can’t get over is how large the J cabins are becoming. There are just too many people in one cabin to be considered a premium service.

  13. I’ve flown KE long-haul in Business and First (I have trip reports on my blog) and the soft product upgrade between the two isn’t that big….
    – salad cart where you can choose your toppings
    – giant piece of ice cold foie gras terrine and two pieces of bread to try and spread it on.
    – nicer amenity kit
    – pajamas
    – ex-ICN you get a nicer lounge

    The only reason I spring for it is for the much larger seat and the private-feeling cabin on the A380. If i’m on the 747, I love the upstairs Business Class.

  14. I know from friends who work at KE that they’re toying with abandoning first altogether, or just keeping on theirs 747-8s and A380s (like Asiana). But also, KE’s had this weird pseudo-first for years for years on some 777s and 330s. I’m just shocked they wouldn’t roll out their new suites for the 787, as they did on the new 747-8.

  15. SIX across in First ?!?!?!?!? 2-2-2 Configuration on a 787 ?!?!?! Absurd !!! I’ll bet there’s something wrong with the pictures KE loaded onto its website. Now that Ben points it out, they will correct it or maybe even re-configure the cabin.

  16. Even if the soft product is different, I still think this is pretty shameless of KE. Just look at the size difference on the seat map when in fact it is really the same seat!

  17. The Apex suite looks like a monster! How many of them could they fit in the pointy end of a 787? That might have something to do with sticking with the older seat.

    I flew the KE A 330 in first from ICN to SGN. The seat (1A) was horrible even for a six-hour flight. I never thought I would suffer from claustrophobia in first class. A 2-2-2 configuration should be outlawed in first. On the other hand, the Kosmo suite in first on the KE 777-300 ATL – ICN was a outstanding.

  18. Just to let you know KE had a record breaking year in 2016 financially (the fuel prices helped a lot)

  19. It’s appears to be the same arrangement they already have installed on the reconfigured A330s. F cabin has a bulkhead dividing the two, and the seats are very similar but have different fixtures around the TV and ottoman area.

  20. I think the second comment by @betterbub said it about right. Usually, CEOs of conglomerates, as well as Ministers of Government get to fly first class – and they probably don’t care about the hard product – it is the “prestige” of being in “first class” and feeling special – not being mixed up with those “commoners” (Board of Directors, or deputy ministers of government, high-ranking managers) that matters a lot to them. So – KE is probably catering to such demand – and trying to make the most out of it.
    (Note: Conglomerate CEOs in Korea are CEOs because they inherited the company – and they usually have strong desire to be treated differently from those from “common” background.)

    KE has been going premium light after their attempt at all-business class upper deck of A380 kind of failed – they cannot find routes that will fill up 91-business class seat cabin, and involuntary upgrade is very common on A380 routes. I won’t be surprised to see KE installing some economy seats on upper deck when they reconfigure A380. KE has also decreased business class seat count on reconfigured 77W and 744.

    I wonder if KE will start eliminating first class cabins – until now, it is one of the few airlines in the world that keeps first class cabin in “every” widebody aircraft – due to high demand from both government and conglomerate contracts mentioned above.

  21. I echo the comments above. The reason why KE has first class across its entire widebody fleet is to serve government officials and executives from their chaebols (aka conglomerates).

    I just flew First on the 747-8 from SFO-ICN last week, and load factor was 5/6. I know the pax next to me was a KE pilot flying home, but the others appeared to be chaebol executives. The BA lounge at SFO (used for KE flights) was full of middle-aged Korean businessmen, so I felt a bit out of place. I wasn’t all that impressed by the service – it was perfectly acceptable for First Class, but couldn’t help but think that the flight attendants were fawning over the chaebol executives and paid more attention to them because that’s KE’s bread and butter for their premium cabins. That, plus the language barrier, made KE service in First one step below the service I experienced on SQ on the same trip.

  22. I take the point on F, this oik never having been so privileged, but that J class looks way more inviting with all-aisle access than the ancient 2-3-2 clamber-over-your-sleeping-neighbor hard product in the 777/380 on the ICN-JFK rotation.

    Lower the cabin thermostat a degree or three and fit individual fresh air vents and I’d be a happy little J-class clam in that 787.

    I can see KE heading for an Air NZ-style Biz Premier, Premium Economy, Steerage layout on at least some routes. That is seriously going to annoy employees of a Korean company I know where the long-haul policy is ‘next class up from Economy’ and worker bees are very happy there’s no Premium Economy on KE, the mandatory airline for travel to head office.

  23. Koreans are communists at heart – vast majority are – so it’s no surprise that they want to provide EQUAL TREATMENT by their own interpretation and standard. Even the government offices are far better off than private enterprise ones(who’s paying for these? people’s taxes). They despise those who can afford luxury yet are so envious at the same time. If there’s a luxury to be had, they want to make sure that it be accessible to the wider public.But such things come with price. they don’t care as long as it be spent from tax money or OPM. Korea is a land of angry labor unions and disgruntled working class looking for social upheaval and it shows on every facets of their society.

  24. The Apex Suites were originally designed as a high density first class product by B/E Aerospace. The seat is spacious but the width is closer to business class. Privacy is not as good in the aisle seats compared to the window seats.

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