Friday, February 21, 2014

CoachFlyer KE768: AOJ - ICN on Korean Air's Boeing 737.

Travel date: January 2014
Flight: KE768
Route: Aomori (AOJ/RJSA) - Seoul/Incheon (ICN/RKSI)
Carrier: Korean Air Lines (KE/KAL) d.b.a. Korean Air
Aircraft: Boeing 737-8Q8(WL) HL8224
Class: Economy
Direct distance: 1,283 km (798 miles)
Flight time: 2 hours 34 minutes 

With our flight being the sole international route from the airport, check-in, security check and immigrations were a breeze at Aomori Airport (AOJ/RJSA). Boarding began at 1335, and the doors were closed at 1352. Aomori, the northernmost prefecture of Honshu and one of the country’s snowiest prefectures along with Hokkaido and northwestern Japan, was seeing a blizzard on this day, but with the airport located on a mountain, it is not something rare at all. That is one of the reasons why Aomori Airport is one of only seven airports in Japan fully equipped with ILS Category IIIb, and also boasts Japan's fastest airport snow plowing system which airport officials have dubbed 'White Impulse'.
Our Boeing 737-8Q8(WL) HL8224 arriving at Aomori from Incheon. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

De-icing took some time, and push-back didn't start until 1404, nine minutes behind schedule. All announcements were made in the order of Korean, English, and Japanese, but the safety procedure video lacked English. Seven minutes later, we started moving, but visibility wasn't looking good. At 1420, we started our takeoff roll from Runway 24, but immediately after, the thrust reversers and spoilers were deployed, and we realized that takeoff had been aborted. Passengers, wondering why the aircraft could not take off, did not receive an explanation until five minutes later while waiting on the taxiway that there had been a gust warning. 10 minutes later, we tried our second takeoff run, and this time, at 1436, out aircraft lifted to the air. After a very bumpy climb, the seat-belt signs were turned off about seven minutes later, and the crew started preparing for in-flight service.
By the time boarding was ready, a blizzard had come. Poor visibility. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Our aircraft, Boeing 737-8Q8(WL) HL8224, was delivered to ILFC on July 19th, 2011 and immediately leased to Korean Air. It is one of 19 B737-800s the carrier currently operates. At 1450, the crew started serving meals; sauteed chicken with rice served with Kimchi and seaweed. Their tube-packaged Korean chili paste is always a nice accompaniment. Our Captain made his welcome message to the passengers, but nothing about our delayed departure or the weather issue was mentioned. With strong headwinds, our cruising ground speed was 730 kph (450 mph) at an altitude of 9,700 meters (32,000 feet). The meal was followed by rounds of coffee and green tea, and then duty free sales dubbed ‘KAL Sky Shop’ were started. The majority of passengers seemed to be Korean, many on the way back to their home from package tours in Aomori.
Don't forget their tasty Korean chili paste (red cap)! (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

In June 2013, Korean Air reported they were considering axing the route after load factors were in the fifties, but the airline and Aomori’s prefectural government, along with local authorities who feared the impact on tourism of losing the prefecture’s only international flight, carried out various incentives to lure passengers. Flights were moved to Wednesdays, Fridays, and Sundays which enabled weekend trips instead of the previous Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, airport parking fees were lowered, and local transportation companies came up with more package tours. Load factors improved and are reportedly still around 60%, however, Korean Air is still keeping the route. On-going political tensions between Japan and Korea have a relatively large impact, especially on the number of outbound passengers from Aomori.
Our aircraft's Boeing Signature Interior. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

At 1535, cabin lights were dimmed and the pale blue mood lights were softly turned on, giving a relaxing feel. However, the cabin crew started to chat in the back of the aircraft, and their voices could be heard in rear rows. The Boeing Signature Interior (BSI) certainly gives a very different impression compared to the normal interior; a spacious cabin with a relaxing atmosphere. This B737 was also equipped with large seat-width-sized personal LCDs and an on-demand entertainment system running Korean Air's 'Beyond' product at every seat, and that also helped to give an impression that this was an international aircraft, and not just another tightly-configured Boeing narrow-body. Our aircraft flew south off the west coast of Japan, overflying Noto and Oki, then heading across the Sea of Japan (East Sea) for the Korean peninsula. Unfortunately, most of the view below us in Japanese airspace was cloudy. 
Looking to the north. The mountains of North Korea in the horizon. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

We entered Korean land from Pohang around 1630, and headed northwest towards the nation's capital. A few minutes later, the cabin crew came down with a rounds of water, orange juice, and fruit punch. We passed west of Andong and Chungju, before starting our descent from Suwon, south of Seoul, at 1648. 10 minutes later the seat-belt signs were turned on, and we passed Incheon Airport (ICN/RKSI) to our right. Heading north, we made a sharp turn to the right, enabling us to get a glimpse of the beautiful mountains of North Korea on the horizon. At 1707, we made our last sharp turn to the right, for a final approach to Runway 16. Gears were lowered, and the Boeing 737 touched down at 1710, local time. Total flight time was two hours and 34 minutes. We arrived at remote Spot 822 at 1719, 24 minutes behind schedule. Buses were quick and we were inside the terminal in five minutes.
Sunset seen from Spot 822 at Incheon. (Photo: Ryosuke Yano)

Korean Air provides an efficient option for long-haul travel from its 14 destinations it flies to in Japan, as these flights can feed their global network from their Incheon hub. Crowded and heavily-regulated Tokyo/Haneda (HND/RJTT) has been gradually increasing international flights, finally admitting Incheon's threat, but is still far from being called a true global hub, so many outbound passengers from areas other than Tokyo still do need to make the two-hour ground transfer to Narita Airport (NRT/RJAA) if transiting in Tokyo. Service-wise, Korean Air has a state-of-the-art hard product, but I personally feel the soft part often leaves something to be desired. The crew should have explained the takeoff abort better and at least offered a small apology, even if it was due to a weather issue. Starting to chat in the back when passengers were dozing off is not a good timing, even if it was time for the crew to rest from in-flight services.

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