Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Growth Takes Wing at Korean Air

For all its rapid growth and high quality, many travelers may not yet be aware what a player Korean Air has become on trans-Pacific routes. Held back by a shaky safety record in the 1990s, Korean admirably reinvented itself and now has a strong safety record - along with gracious and attentive customer service in the air and on the ground. Relatively quickly, it has become the airline with the most destinations in Asia on flights from the Americas.

I flew with Korean two years ago for the first time. I went from California to Kuala Lumpur and back to California with a stayover in Seoul. I was impressed. I recommend checking out Korean ( if you're going to or coming from that part of the world.

As this year's summer and fall travel seasons approach, Korean is ramping up service in North America. The SkyTeam alliance member is launching new routes, flying new aircraft and taking advantage of its home hub airport - the superbly run Seoul/Incheon International, which wins or challenges for no. 1 in traveler polls every year as the world's best international airport.

I sat down recently with Korean Air's Ashley Chung and independent public relations exec Amy Goldsmith, who helps spread the word about the carrier with business partner Penny Pfaelzer. We chatted about what's on the airline's flight plan this year.

A lot, it turns out:

* On May 9, for example, Korean is going to daily flights, up from five a week, on reconfigured Boeing 777s between San Francisco International Airport and Seoul/Incheon, even as it goes daily, up from six times a week, between Seattle-Tacoma International Airport and Seoul/Incheon International.

* In June, Korean will launch service to Tokyo and Hong Kong on the superjumbo Airbus A380

* In July alone, Korean will: bump up frequencies to five a week, from three, at Dallas-Ft. Worth; fly 10 times a week from daily (along with and first- and business-class upgrades) at Chicago; go daily from five a week in Vancouver, Canada; launch service to Bangkok on its new A380s; and launch a new night-flight five times a week from Los Angeles International Airport.

But that's not all they have in mind.

* In August, Korean will fly A380s three times a week from New York's John F. Kennedy International, then ramp that up to daily in September. That will make Korean the first airline to use the superjumbo between the United States and Asia.

Still more:

* Korean will launch daily A380 service from LAX in October.

Korean says its 400-450 seats - along with biz-class only on the A380's enormous upper deck - will make its product the roomiest A380 in the sky. Although it's just speculation, aviation-watchers have predicted since the aircraft entered service in October 2007 that some airline is bound to cram 800 people or more onto the plane. It evidently won't be Korean.

One would have to think an uneasy economic recovery in the U.S. and volatile oil prices during the present Middle Eastern and North African turmoil could slow all airlines' growth. To date, at least, Korean appears determined to implement its plans. As it is, the Asia-Pacific region has been leading the global recovery, according to metrics from the International Air Transport Association (IATA) and Sydney's Center for Asia Pacific Aviation (CAPA)

Oh, and did I mention the company has a business-jet service, too? These flights connect with Korean's regularly scheduled mainline flights. Chung said the service, while not brand-new, has flown largely beneath the radar so far - a fact the company desires to change. You call Korean, decide when you want to fly, book it - and pay them, of course - and you're good to go. The Flex Jet service is operated by Korean on snazzy small jets with a passenger capacity of eight.

It's all very ambitious, but Korean has pulled off strong growth and simultaneous upgrades in comfort and safety over the past decade. All told, this is an airline that's going places.

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