Friday, June 5, 2009

Korean Air's Comeback Kids

INCHEON, KOREA - Time was when Korean Air couldn't buy a break. Troubled by high-profile disasters, South Korea's biggest airline was dogged in the 1980s and '90s by a poor reputation.

What a difference a decade makes. Korean brought in international aviation experts to consult with company leaders, raised the bar on its product, retooled its once-hidebound corporate culture and is now one of the world's most respected and forward-looking airlines.

I'm seeing the results first hand, having flown from New York JFK to Incheon International Airport, just outside Seoul, Korea's capital and largest city, on a beautifully appointed and well-run Boeing 777. I flew in business class - which KAL calls Prestige - and it was a delight. The food and beverages - who would sneer at Laurent Perrier Champagne and spicy Korean beef? - were first-rate. The flat-bed seat on this triple-7 was just this month made flatter, wider and longer. The LCD monitors at every Prestige seat were enlarged and graced with sharp definition. There were dozens of movies, games and TV shows, accessed through a remote or touch-screen. Best of all, the superbly trained staff was attentive without being intrusive.

I met afterwards at KAL's headquarters on the edge of Seoul with two KAL executives: Steve Sukwan Kim, general manager passenger marketing development team, and Arnold(Boyoung) Song, team leader of the U.S. route management team.They said the carrier would press ahead with cabin upgrades, the purchase of new aircraft and other plans, despite the weak global economy and weakening of South Korea's currency, the won.

Although it's not widely known, KAL operates more trans-Pacific flights between Asia and North America - about 90 departures per week this summer - than any other airline. The carrier flies often to neighboring China and Japan and promotes Incheon International as a major hub and transfer point in East Asia. The sparkling, seaside airport was opened on reclaimed land in 2001 and has expanded continuously since then, with still-more growth in the works.

Kim said KAL expects to take possession of its first superjumbo Airbus A380 in December of 2010, and receive the fuel-efficient Boeing B787 Dreamliner by 2011. KAL, Kim and Song said, will make first use of the A380 on flights to Los Angeles International Airport and JFK. They wouldn't disclose how many seats will be on the huge aircraft, but they did say they won't be putting closed-door suites in first class.

"The cabin crews say it makes it too hard to communicate with passengers, and the passengers feel uncomfortable,'' Song says.

He said KAL plans to spend $200 million USD over the next several years upgrading the seats in all three classes and is considering whether to add a premium economy class. In the present collapse of premium international business travel, many airlines have done well with premium economy, given that companies have forced executives to trade down and/or cut back on air travel. Indeed, business class on my New York-Incheon flight was only about one-third full.

Despite sagging load factors, "We won't consider cutting business class fares,'' Kim says. "We want to maintain a certain level of fares in business class. But we will offer them more.''

This is not the time for Korean to cut back, as many other airlines have done, the two men say. Celebrating its 40th anniversary this year - the former national flag carrier was privatized in 1969 - the company wants to look forward, not backward.

Korean has had a hard history until this decade. In 1983, in a notorious Cold War attack, a Soviet fighter shot down a KAL flight over Siberia with much loss of life, and in 1997 a KAL jetliner crashed near Guam, killing over 200 people.

While no one can afford to be complacent about safety at any time - witness the recent Air France tragedy over the Atlantic - Korean has improved its safety record dramatically, in line with its other broad and deep improvements. The carrier is now one of the world's 20 largest airlines and is actually no. 1 in volume of cargo . In the estimation of this frequent flier, KAL is one of the 10 best airlines for customer for service in the world. The turnaround is quite remarkable. Korean Air's comeback kids have something to be proud of.

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