Alternative title: Asia's invisible airline
So, after spending a month in the UK helping my folks and catching up with friends, I was feeling definitely ready to get back to Sydney and see my (much) better half. I was originally booked on the 1st June flight, but due to some issues at home, I'd decided to delay my trip back to Australia for another week.
I had heard bad things about Asiana's website, and after using it, I can see why people complain about it. It's pretty clunky to say the least. For example, to assign yourself seats, you not only need to be a member of their frequent flyer program (and that number must be in the booking), Asiana Club, but you can also only use certain versions of Internet Explorer. Still, once I had jumped through those hoops, I was able to take a look at the seat map online and was pleased to discover that the 8th June flight to Seoul, and 9th June to Sydney were both scheduled to be Quadra Smartium seats.
What is this "Smartium" all about?
Good question - it's perhaps the most pointless of names for a seat, but there is some logic to it, at least according to Asiana. They announced their new business class product in July 2010, the full name for them being "OZ Quadra Smartium." This is broken down as follows:
OZ = Their flight code
Quadra = Quadrant - four smart features
Smartium = Smart + "ium" (place), indicating the intelligent placement of Asiana Business Class seats
The four smart features that they talk of are:
Full flat bed
Direct aisle access for every seat
Whilst much of this could be described as "marketing guff," the hardware is actually pretty impressive. I believe that they are the same seats that Etihad have on their aircraft, though am happy to be corrected on this.
More information on the seat: http://us.flyasiana.com/Global/common/quadra/info.jsp
And, just for reference, here's a picture of the "old" C seats
Photo © Matthew Lee - Contrails Aviation Photography
Photo © Michael Fritz
In addition to the two seating configurations, some aircraft are fitted with AVOD and some not. Therefore OZ currently have 3 longhaul configurations - not ideal.
Now at this point, I'll add a disclaimer that I added to my TG F report - I am not a photographer. I don't even have a proper camera - everything shot with my phone. The reports below give some much better shots of the product and ICN airports. Sutrakhk's report in particular is relevant as it is the only report on here that I can find that features the new seats.
Other great reports:
On Asiana Business: Chicken Soup For The Seoul (by airpearl Jun 20 2010 in Trip Reports)
First Time To Japan Part IV: OZ ICN-PEK In New C (by sutrakhk Sep 20 2010 in Trip Reports)
LHR-ICN 777-200 HL7442
Photo © Allen Zhao
Photo © Pieter-Jan Van De Vijver
Asiana has a pretty small operation at Heathrow, at least compared to most of the other asian airlines. They currently have 5 flights a week between Heathrow and Incheon, operating daily except Mon & Fri. It seems as if they started flying to the UK in 1995. It seems (according to the photo database) that they operated 747's to London until 2004. They started introducing the 777 and it seems during 2008, all flights were operated by the 777 which continues today.
I mentioned way back about the fact that I said they were an "invisible" airline. Whilst I think that their profile is on the rise, their small operation in the UK plus the fact that ICN is not considered the most direct stopover point on the kangaroo route - it's too far to the east and north. None of my friends had ever heard of OZ and even some of those who work in travel didn't recognise the name of the airline.
So as I dislike long goodbyes, and I was unable to get a lift the 30 miles or so to Heathrow, I decided to arrive relatively early at Terminal 1 via the Heathrow Connect. Check-in screens told me that I would be checking in with the BD in their premium section. I was a little early but was first in line when they opened the desks at 5.15pm. Whilst the online check-in seat maps had shown Smartium seats, I was still conscious that there could have been a swap. However, when I asked about this at check-in, the BD agent didn't know if they were old or new. I didn't have the energy to explain, so thinking that I'd find out soon enough anyway, I left it and went on my way. However, on the way out of the check-in area, I spotted a guy wearing an Asiana name badge and pin, and he was happy to confirm that the aircraft today was indeed fitted with the new seats. Nice.
T1 these days is such a breeze. People seem to delight in moaning about LHR and perhaps as connecting passengers, they may have a point. However, my experiences as an O&D passenger have always been good, and occasionally exceptional. With my C class boarding pass in hand, I headed straight to fast-track security. Security was quite busy, and people were cutting into the fast-track lane as the rope barriers were not secured correctly. However, there was still only 4 or 5 people in front of me, so I was through to the lounge, despite being selected for "swabbing" (or whatever it's called) within 5 minutes of leaving the check-in area.
I did a little shopping at HMV (couple of DVD's - cheaper than here in Oz) and some Cadburys (just tastes different here) and then headed for the London Room, bmi's flagship lounge. I was greated by a friendly agent, who advised me that the food they have there was pretty light and if I wanted a meal I should head to the Star Alliance lounge, also adding that it was closer to the gates that they would be using. I thanked him, advising that I'd rather use this one as I find it much more comfortable. I am not keen on the Star Alliance lounge - the lack of natural light makes it feel like an underground Ikea showroom, though I grant that their F&B selection is better than the BD lounge.
Being early evening, the lounge was heaving. I've usually been in the lounge much earlier in the day, departing on UA flights to the west coast. Now I was in the middle of the evening rush, and you could tell. Whilst most seats were taken, I have to give credit to BD. There were plenty of staff heading around the lounge, regularly clearing plates and glasses, and even offering magazines to those seated - a nice touch.
The prized comfy recliners by the windows were all taken, but I managed to snag a seat at the bar facing the window - a close second place to those comfy chairs. I grabbed a couple of drinks, some soup and a roll and started to relax.
Side note: there was a guy, drinking Guiness and snapping away a few seats down from me. It must have been an a.nutter. If you were at the BD lounge LHR 8th June around 6pm, own up! I was the ridiculously good-looking gent in the blue shirt at the end of the bar.
I whiled away an hour or so, snapping the OZ aircraft that I was to travel on as it trundled past the window.
I decided to grab a shower at the lounge (I didn't even know that they had them there until the lounge host pointed them out to me). The showers were pretty good. They were of the multiple jet variety, something like this...
Unfortunately the jet was positioned as such that when I turned it on, it hit me right in the goolies. A good idea in practice, but I wasn't able to adjust the direction of the nozzles so ended up making do with the overhead shower. Perfectly fine. Feeling fresher, I headed back down through the departure lounge (pretty quiet by now) and to the Star Alliance lounge for a Bulmers. It just doesn't taste the same over here.
I saw that the gate was open so headed down towards the aircraft - a good ten minute leisurely stroll. I can't believe the amount of work going on near T1 - so many aircraft stands that were in operation 9 months ago when I was last back are ripped up.
Boarding was announced at about 8pm, with C class, Star Gold & special assistance invited to board first. I was greeted by name at the door and escorted to my seat. I was offered assistance with my hand luggage (something I really appreciate but find it hard to accept, given the weight of my carry-ons and my size and height relative to theirs. My mum taught me to be a gentleman!) First impressions of the cabin were very positive - plenty of staff & nice fresh colours of cream and light brown.
(Again, I thoroughly recommend Sutrakhk's excellent report, detailed at the top of this report for photos of the seat)
The seat itself is pretty good. I'm a big guy, but found shoulder space, seat width and even bed length to be very good, especially for a business class product. The seats that are very close to the window all require you to "squeeze" through between the back of the seat in front, and the cocktail table in the aisle. It looks narrower than it is, but more than a couple of times I was clumsy and ended up knocking something off of the table. No big deal. The seats themselves are rather private - I certainly felt I had more privacy in these than in the TG F seats I have flown a few weeks before. The seat has three presets - Takeoff/Landing, relax and bed, and there are some adjustments to be made in between. Lumbar support is also adjustable. I did miss the in seat lumbar massage function though. Seat belt is a three point - traditional lap belt plus an over the shoulder that clips on to the lap attachment. Interestingly, the safety video made no reference to the need to use the shoulder strap in business class, and many in the cabin had to be prompted.
All seats have a power supply and a USB port so you can keep things charged. There is a large screen which features AVOD entertainment, a three-pin headphone socket (that only requires two to work) and a large fold out table that is plenty big enough for working or just for dinner. Below the screen is a footrest with storage space underneath - further storage is pretty limited and already filled by the in-flight magazines and safety card. Waiting at the seat was an amenity kit, a pair of slippers and a very low quality pair of headphones that were not noise cancelling.
I was soon settled and offered champagne, and within a few minutes, doors were closed and we were pushed back from the gate. There was no etiquette guide video as mentioned in other reports. A quick taxi out to the end of 27R and a few minutes waiting and we were off.
We were held at around 6,000ft as we crossed back over north London, flying near Northolt, Wembley and Elstree before being cleared to climb to cruising altitude. As we passed 10,000ft, the belt sign was turned off and the crew were released to start service. Drinks and hot towels were offered and menus distributed.
So it was dinner time, and the menu detailed both Korean and Western options.
I started off with a Vodka & Diet Coke and found a movie that I'd like to watch. (Any guesses what the film is?)
Asiana's video entertainment is not market leading. They had a choice of 4 classic films, approx 20 western blockbuster type films and then options to suit Korean, Japanese & Chinese markets. There was also a selection of comedies, documentaries and so on. The selection was what I would describe as adequate. I liked their audio collection though, some great albums and some nice easy listening "whale music type" tracks to help me sleep - and they worked.
So, back to dinner...
and Korean option...
I ordered the salmon starter and carrot soup from the western menu and thought I'd try the Bibimbap as I've not experienced much Korean food.
Table set and starter arrived.
Doesn't look much like salmon does it? I wasn't that fussed as I love prawns anyway, and it was tasty, but when I was brought the bowl of porridge, I realised that the crew member had heard me order the bibimbap and was trying to serve me the whole of the Korean menu. I asked if I could swap it for the soup and was told that they should have spares and fetched it for me.
It had the look and texture of sick quite frankly, but was very tasty indeed. I realised that perhaps one is expected to order entirely off of one menu or the other, but not mix between the two. Perhaps that was a one off, but it did seem a shame to me that you couldn't mix and match between the two.
Anyway, the bibimbap soon arrived.
From other reports Asiana usually have a guide on how to eat this mixture of ingredients, but there were none present on this flight, at least for me. They did have a guide in the menu, but the crew take them from you after you have ordered which I don't like as you don't really know what is on offer for both food and drink - I took the photos of the menu for this report as well as referral during the flight.
I asked a crew member on how best I should attack this, and tucked in. The broth and rice, fish and chilli paste were great, but the large bowl of veg and beef were airline cold, and even after combining with the hot broth, it just resulted in a luke warm meal. It would have been better if it had been room temperature, but I can't say I was a major fan. Still, I tried something new.
They served me with some exotic fruit, again from the Korean menu which I passed on - didn't see signs anywhere of the western cheesecake desert, but I did have some cheese...
Coffee was served with some nutty, sugary-type things that were absolutely delicious. Could easily have had a few more of them, and would be perfect crumbled over ice-cream.
I digress - meal over and time to relax. I started flicking through the rest of the entertainment system, looking at the city guides, arrival info and so on. I found this nugget of information about Incheon which made me smile.
Who knew that there were "ultrasonic and mega aircraft" flying to/from South Korea?
I relaxed back and watched a couple of the few films that I was interested in, and dozed a little with the ambient music playing via my noise cancelling headphones. Lucky I had them as there was a guy who snored very very loudly. Never mind infants, perhaps MH should ban snorers!
Soon enough, as we approached Beijing, lights were turned on (no mood lighting) and a light lunch was offered.
Cabin crew approached and offered the menu, then stood waiting whilst I chose. I hate that. I would much rather have the menu to look through and make a choice at leisure - you certainly wouldn't have that in a restaurant.
In the end, I went for, and stuck to, the western option of sesame prawns with a tomato salsa and curried scallops with a cheese pasta.
Washed down with Perrier - my body is a temple
The starter was nice - I love sesame and the prawns were juicy and flavoursome. The main was great - the scallops were nicely spiced and the sauce was rich. Very good.
Fresh fruit and coffee rounded off the better of the two meals on this flight.
Landing at Incheon, Seoul. Thankfully, no one was firing at us.
Incheon is a dream. We parked up at gate 49, right at the end of the terminal. Transfering was great - I was amongst the first few off of the aircraft which helped. It was a short walk to security, through and that was it. No forms to fill in, no cavity searches. 30 seconds and that was it. Even got a smile from security. Nice.
A lazy wander through to the centre of the terminal and to the Asiana business class lounge, one level up from the departure concourse. Plenty more shots of the lounges in the other, better illustrated reports. I went straight to get a shower and had my first encounter with a toilet from this part of the world.
I pressed a couple of buttons but wasn't brave enough to push any more. It was a novel experience to have your behind blow-dried, well at least it was for me. Memorable.
The showers were nicely appointed, with full size products waiting which was nice, rather than getting undressed and realising that there is no shaving foam, for example. I did think it a bit strange that they didn't have any shower gels or shampoos, but large bottles of Dove moisturisers. My Korean is rusty though, so perhaps they were not what I thought they were.
I headed out to the lounge and found a seat near the window. The lounge was less than half full, though it would get much busier into the early evening.
The "famous" piano
The selection of food and drink was more than adequate. There was two salad leaves, some corn salad, dressings and croutons. They had sandwiches that were later replaced with some steamed vegetables and BBQ chicken. In addition, there were peanuts and chips and salsa. Beer was available on tap and there were fridges with various wines and soft drinks. Cultural difference - Coke, Sprite and similar are in cans that are similar in shape and size to Red Bull cans. Cool. As well as all of this, there was an instant noodle station. Staff were constantly hovering around the area cleaning up after people. Very good service. Later in the afternoon, a "Chef's Corner" was set up with a mobile cooking station, I presume serving bibimbap. Very nice touch.
Soon enough, my flight was due for boarding at Gate 31 so off I headed.
I was very pleased to see that I would have the same aircraft, and therefore, the Quadra Smartium seats on this flight too.
ICN-SYD 777-200 HL7442
I was getting tired at this point, so was waiting close to the gate so that I could get on, changed into PJ's and bed down for the long overnight flight to Sydney. It was great to see all of the Asiana gate agents walk out in front of the podium and bow in unison to the waiting customers. Very nice.
This leg was even lighter than the first, with only 8 or so of the seats occupied. Ouch. I know load doesn't necessarily equal profit as many high economy fares could have been purchased, but when you shrink your C cabin to improve the product to command higher yields, it must hurt. Still, it's only one example - it must make them money as they fly daily to Sydney from Incheon. Interestingly, they codeshare with QF on this flight, although I guess either KE or OZ would be "unusual" as neither are alliance partners with QF.
I quickly changed and was greeted back at my seat with a glass of bubbles. Nice. I was also given headphones (not used), amenity kit and slippers. I had read that you would only get kits ex ICN, but that wasn't the case for me as I'd had one ex LHR too.
No videos of this takeoff - cabin lights were not dimmed at all so you would have only seen reflection.
I remembered this time to take photos of all relevant pages in the menu!
So, I'd learned from previous experienced and went for the Western menu. I can save trying Ssambab. for a later date.
Grilled Prawn with Couscous and baby leaves
That was one of the biggest, weirdest looking prawns I had ever seen. Was real tasty though.
This was followed by a Mushroom Soup which was delicious, but due to turbulence, I kinda rushed as I was worried I would end up wearing it!
I chose the Toscana Beef with Marinated Radicchio.
I had heard that South Koreans love their beef and I was keen to try it. It was very good - hearty but not particularly elegant, though nothing wrong with that. The beef was covered in herby, cheesy breadcrumbs with bacon crumbled over, and served with roast potato. The thing on the right that looks a bit like a turd was the radicchio - never been a great fan of it, but it was one of my five a day, so I ate it.
Now, Asiana also bring round a tray of condiments to your seat after serving your main. Nice touch. They have these tubes of chilli paste, and it is delicious!! I later mentioned it to one of the crew members about how much I liked it and they came back with a small bag full for me! Nice.
I followed this with a little cheese and fruit and I tried the desert (Apple Tart) as well with a nice black coffee.
I didn't finish the tart as I don't have that much of a sweet tooth but what I tried was OK.
BTW, I LOVED their cutlery. Weighty, nice to hold and the knives were sharp.
The obligatory legroom shot - I know it's pretty meaningless without scale, but I'm 6ft 2in and stretched out in a reclined position. Pretty comfortable for most I'm sure.
Relaxing with Matt Damon & The Adjustment Bureau. Not a bad film.
I slept for a few hours with the ambient music on my headphones and woke as we were flying over northern Queensland.
I drifted between sleep and consciousness for another hour or so before we were woken for breakfast.
Started off with some nice fresh fruit, yoghurt and a croissant. The fruit still tasted fresh and the croissant was very good - warm and flaky.
I chose the omelette to follow, which was again very nice. I wasn't able to finish it though. I eat on flights partly from boredom, partly curiousity (particularly economy - what's underneath the foil?!!) and partly from hunger. I'd had enough of travelling and wanted to get home.
I was so excited about seeing Sydney from the air for the first time as a place that I would be able to call it "home," not to mention I had missed my husband loads and couldn't wait to get back, looking down and thinking he was somewhere down there.
I can actually see my apartment building - second bay below the bridge on the right hand side is about where I am.
Flying past the airport....
We flew south of the airport, made a sweeping turn and landed to the north on 34L
A smooth landing on a gusty, cool morning and I was home. Strangely and a bit disappointingly, Asiana did not issue express lane passes for immigration. Perhaps they don't take part in the scheme? It wasn't that big a deal - there were 3 people in front of me in immigration so I was through quickly. My bag was probably one of the first 30 or so on the belt and there was no wait at customs. Nice surprise though - hubby was there to greet me, despite telling me he had to work. Fibber.
So all in all, what can I say about Asiana? In many ways, I loved their service. They were without exception polite, smiling and extremely willing to please. I think in a few areas there could be some improvement. The menu thing bugs me as I've mentioned, but they could be a little more attentive and alert to meal preferences, and also for the desire to match your food with your wine. For example, I ordered a Vodka and Diet coke before my meal LHR-ICN and wasn't offered another drink with dinner - it was assumed that I wouldn't want wine as I was on the hard stuff. I could have asked, fair enough, but I don't think that mistake would have been made in C on SQ. Had I had wine, I am pretty sure that they would have refilled the same wine, but may not have had the impulse to think that I may have wanted to swap from white (say with a fish starter) to red (with the beef main). I know this isn't first class, so perhaps those services are reserved for their top product, but certainly could be an area for improvement. The issue regarding swapping between western and Korean menu could be an onboard policy, or possibly a language issue that was in part my fault.
Ground services were pretty impressive. OZ have a seriously impressive hub in ICN, and their lounge is well equipped. Ground staff were unfailingly polite and helpful, charming even and I never encountered a serious language barrier that wasn't overcome with smiles and patience.
The seat was very impressive. It really is a very comfortable place to spend a long haul fight. In particular, I loved the privacy that they offered. Yes, you do feel a little hemmed in, and you can feel a little restricted in terms of movement, but you can't have everything. The seats have a little more storage than, say the UA C seats, but the biggest deal for me is that you never have to climb over anyone to get to the aisle. That's a massive plus factor and would alone be a reason of choosing OZ again over other carriers. The choice will be even easier once the entire fleet has the new seating.
Asiana may be somewhat overlooked in Europe, but if you have the chance, I can't recommend them enough. Nothing's perfect, but great service, a brilliant hub and excellent C seats mean they probably deserve their Skytrax rating.
Thanks for reading my second and possibly last trip report. Firstly, I can't believe how much work they are, so kudos to those who do them. Secondly, I probably won't be travelling in C or F for a while and I don't see much point in doing Y reports as I am on airlines that have been well covered. We'll see - I'm flying LAX-BKK with TG in Nov (in Y) which hasn't been reviewed as far as I can see, so I might do that.
Anyways, thanks for reading my ramble and I appreciate any comments you have.