Over the course of 2018, I was fortunate enough to fly on a range of aircraft on airlines across Europe and Asia. However, two unfortunate events – my iPhone automatically resetting and a mugging which saw me part with this device for good combined with my failure to upgrade my iCloud account saw me loose virtually all of my photos from my two trips to East Asia that year. These including flights on Boeing 747-400s with Asiana, Korean Air and Lufthansa, sampling the delights of Japanese airlines ANA, Japan Airlines and Starflyer and my two trips with now-defunct Korean start-up airline Air Pohang. Thanks to the fact that I had randomly uploaded pictures from one of my two flights with Air Philip, I am able to bring you this report and so I hope you enjoy!
About Air Philip
Seeing as Air Philip’s fleet of Embraer 145s had only graced the skies of East Asia for a little over seven months before the airline’s halting of operations, you would be forgiven for never having heard of the carrier. Yet, despite this, within Korea, the airline’s significant amount of investment in increasing brand awareness ensured it near impossible to pass through Gimpo Airport in the second half of 2018 without seeing the airline’s pilot uniform donning poster boy, Korean American actor Daniel Henney. Meanwhile away from Gimpo I spotted the airline’s advertisements in prominent locations, one example being in the departure hall of Youngsan Station in Seoul. However, one must question how effective these advertisements were, as, most of my non-aviation friends within Korea seemed to be completely oblivious to the airline’s existence. In fact, all were shocked that anyone would even choose to fly between Seoul and Gwangju (and Pohang on Air Pohang for that matter) given that very frequent high speed trains can whisk passengers between the two cities in around two hours from Central Seoul. At the height of Air Philip’s operation, once could have hardly labelled the airline as miniscule given their operation of a grand total of four Embraer 145s and six routes from two bases. These bases taking the form of Gwangju and Muan, two airports located 26 miles between each other in Korea’s Southwestern South Jeolla Province. From the former, the airline competed with Asiana Airlines and of course the many land options with their service to Seoul Gimpo in addition to their service to Jeju, a route already operated by Asiana Airlines, Jeju Air, Jin Air, Korean Air and T’Way Air. Whilst from their base in Muan, the airline operated flights to Seoul Incheon as well as international services to Okinawa and Vladivostok. Finally, the airline also joined all Korean passenger airlines (bar Air Pohang and Air Seoul) on the world’s most travelled air route from Seoul Gimpo to Jeju. Looking ahead their plans were grand, dreaming of larger E-Jets and routes across East Asia. Yet, perhaps owing to the airline’s terrible loads, risky rapid expansion or the arrest of their boss on suspicion of securities fraud, the airline’s dreams never materialised and in March 2019 the airline flew their final services.
As briefly mentioned, I managed to catch a ride on two of the airline’s flights, the first at the end of October 2018 between Gimpo and Gwangju and the second on their early morning service from Jeju to Gimpo a little over a week later – although I shall focus on the former given my lack of photos of the latter flight.
Over complicated, infuriating and near-impossible – these are perhaps the best three adjectives to describe the process of booking with a ticket with an international card directly with a Korean airline in 2010. Yet, thankfully, since then, virtually all of Korea’s carriers both full-service and low cost made their booking processes far more ‘foreigner friendly’, and, hopefully few passengers (if any) will encounter any sort of difficulty when attempting to book any sort of ticket either domestic or international with any Korean airline. There is of course one exception to this, Yangyang-based Embraer 145 operator Korea Express Air (KEA) whose Korean-only website forces passengers to become a member before even booking flights this requiring the registration of a Korean phone number and the purchasing of tickets with a Korean card. Following suit, those flying with Air Philip and Air Pohang also needed to go through a similar procedure, therefore, booking a ticket with the airline for those unable to speak Korea and/or who lacked a Korean card was a near (if not total) impossibility. Even though I manage to satisfy both of these requirements, booking was still a far more complicated process than it should have been, with plenty of pop-ups and browser extensions resulting in a somewhat infuriating experience. Eventually, I booked flights on the airline’s then sole two routes, Gimpo to Gwangju for a relatively cheap price (I accidentally deleted the receipt but I think it was around 25000 Won) and Jeju to Gimpo for no more than 10000 Won. To this day this ticket remains the cheapest fare I have ever seen for a Korean domestic flight, this costing less than any reasonable meal, a couple of beers in most bars in Korea or a taxi journey exceeding eight kilometres in Seoul.
Seeing as all my trips to Seoul see me staying in either the Mapo or Seodaemun Districts located in the west of the city, unless I had booked a ticket on a flight departing Gimpo Airport at an ungodly hour (which I would never do), I see absolutely no reason not to make the journey to the airport by any other means other than the all-stop AREX train. Whilst there are numerous express bus services running from across Seoul to Gimpo Airport before heading onto Incheon, as I was staying in Hongdae, I had absolutely no reason not to take the much cheaper all-stop AREX train. At 0750, with just under two hours before my flight’s departure time, I headed out onto chilly autumnal tree lined streets and headed towards Hongik University Station. After a quick stop at a café for a takeaway coffee and a street vendor for a cheap, freshly made roll of kimbap, I headed into the depths of the station. Once I had tapped in with my T-Money card, I headed down to the Westbound platform and waited for a few minutes for the next train which, unsurprisingly given the time was rather busy. After making a brief stop at Digital Media City – Seoul’s relatively shiny media hub, where unsurprisingly many of the train’s passengers disembarked our train sped across the Han River, leaving Seoul behind before pulling into Gimpo Airport station at around 0825.
Commencing the walk to Hongdae Station
The only slight negative of the train, is that from the airport station, one faces a reasonably long walk to both the domestic and international terminals, however, lacking any significant amount of luggage this proved not to be an issue. As I had expected, that morning the airport’s domestic check-in hall was rather busy, with plenty of business people, tourist and school groups checking in for their flights across the country. However, with most travelling on Asiana, Korean Air or the nation’s multiple low cost carriers, Air Philip’s two manned check-in desks were entirely devoid of passengers. Located in one of the corners of the check-in hall, were in not for their intense branding, these desks would be easy to miss. After walking up to these desks, I was given a formal yet friendly greeting in Korean. Considering the frequent false misconception that foreigners in Korea cannot speak Korean (something that also seems to be rife in the aviation industry), I was pleasantly surprised by this – although then again, booking on Air Philip would be somewhat difficult for those unable to speak the language. After one of the airline’s ground staff members did some intense tapping away at her keyboard, I was asked whether I would like to sit in an aisle or window seat, and, if I would like to sit in one of the sole (left hand side) or double (right hand side) seats. After asked for a window seat and telling the agent that I did not really mind about sitting on the left or right hand side, she pulled out a laminated seat map and asked me whether 9C would be okay. After agreeing, the thorough seat selection process came to an end and my receipt style boarding pass was printed out. Seeing no reason to stay in the landside area, I headed up the escalators towards security. Despite being rather busy, all the security checkpoints appeared to be open and the staff members appeared to be checking everyone thoroughly but efficiently – thus, I was able to get through security and into the airside area within about three minutes of joining the security queue.
The airline’s empty check-in area
After several years, the terminal’s renovation works appeared to have finally come to an end, and as a result both the airside and landside areas looked in a much better, brighter and more modern state. However, I was a little sad to see that the traditional displays were removed during the upgrade works. As per usual, the free WiFi worked well throughout the terminal, and after finding a seat near one of the terminal’s large windows I watched the constant stream of traffic outside. This consisted of all the usual movements, plenty of Asiana and Korean Air narrow and widebody jets as well as aircraft from the nation’s LCCs – Air Busan, Eastar Jet, Jeju Air, Jin Air and T’Way Airlines. The highlight of the morning taking the form of the Hanwha Group’s Gimpo-based Boeing Business Jet taxying past.
The domestic terminal’s airside atrium
A Korean Air Boeing 777 bound for Jeju
And an Asiana Boeing 767
According to the boarding pass I had been given, boarding for our flight to Gwangju was set to commence twenty minutes prior to departure at 0930. True to this, as soon as the clock struct half past, one of the same two ground staff members that had been conducting the check-in procedures announced boarding in Korean only over a portable speaker – rather than the main terminal-wide announcement system used for all other flights. Thus, naturally I strolled over to the gate whereby Air Philip’s own podium could be found and joined the queue of one. Providing clues as to the flight’s destination, three different local newspapers from Gwangju and Jeolla-do were placed on top of this for passengers to read on their short flight. After having my boarding pass scanned, I was thanked before I headed down a couple of flights of stairs towards the apron. Upon reaching ground-level I was bowed at, thanked again and advised to board the idling bus. Having seemingly spared absolutely no expense, to my surprise this bus was sporting to the airline’s colours, and inside television screens were playing one of Air Philip’s professionally made promotional videos. Once the fourteenth and final passenger of the flight clambered onto the bus, this slowly pulled away from the terminal, passing by a brand new Korean Air Airbus A220 and a vintage Asiana Boeing 767 before heading across the apron to our distinctively liveried all-red Embraer 145.
The rather fancy gate podium
Boarding the Air Philip branded bus
The promotional video playing inside the bus
Looking out of the bus towards some of the airline’s vehicles
Our aircraft for the flight would be the airline’s second aircraft, Embraer 145LR, HL8320. Delivered to Air Philip the month before my flight in September 2018, prior to this the aircraft had spent its life hopping across North America. Having made its first flight in 2000, the aircraft was delivered to Chautauqua Airlines in September that year first sporting the America West Express livery before being repainted into the colours of Delta Connection. From December 2014 the aircraft was operated by Shuttle America before the aircraft entered storage in 2016, not flying again until 2018.
As soon as we arrived at the aircraft, the bus’s doors were opened and we headed into the cold air towards the awaiting regional jet. After climbing up the Air Philip branded stairs, I bended over slightly so as to not bang my head, and headed into the aircraft. As soon as I entered the cramped forward galley I was greeted by one of the two cabin crew members aboard the flight and commenced the very short walk to row 9 whilst classical music rang out loudly in the cabin. Whilst the aircraft was most certainly not the youngest in the world, the cabin was in tip-top condition with no signs of wear and tear and appearing to be perfectly clean. Having been fully renovated prior to delivery to the airline, all of the aircraft’s seats were upholstered with grey fabric and featured Air Philip branded headrest covered and bright red seatbelt straps. Staying true to the brand’s colours, red trimming had been fitted along the cabin. In terms of the seats themselves, these were incredibly soft and comfortable although the legroom was not as generous as on Asiana Airlines or Korean Air. Each seat pocket contained a copy of the aircraft’s safety card, an Air Philip branded sick bag and the airline’s inflight magazine.
The comfortable looking economy class
The contents of the seat pocket
The safety card
With less than 30% of the passenger seats onboard sold, boarding was completed in no time – four minutes to be precise and there thankfully no jostling for space in the aircraft’s small overhead lockers. After settling down into my seat, the classical music came to an abrupt end the purser conducted a standard welcomed announcement in both Korean and English, welcoming passengers aboard the flight to Jeju, soon apologetically correcting herself. At 0948, the cabin door was closed and purser once again conducted an announcement, this time going over the safety procedures whilst the other cabin crew member accompanied this with a demonstration at the front of the cabin. In the meantime our two Rolls Royce AE 3007 quietly powered into life. Four minutes later, our aircraft pulled out of the stand, pushing in front of a Beijing-bound Air China Boeing 737 and taxying almost immediately onto runway 32R. At 0955, the cabin became a little louder as our two engines spooled up and sent us flying down the runway in an unsurprisingly powerful manner before our aircraft soon rotated up into the clear skies.
Seoul’s Bukhansan National Park in the distance
Once we had left the airport’s perimeter, our aircraft flew parallel with the Han River, initially allowing good views of Seoul in the distance before this slipped out of view to be replaced by Ganghwa Island and a glimpse of North Korea. Our small jet then turned South, overflying busy Incheon Airport, allowing for a good view of the hoards of aircraft. Once we reached our cruising altitude of 18000 feet, the captain performed a welcome speech in Korean and English which consisted of a brief mentioned of the weather in Gwangju, our flight time and the usual warning to keep our seatbelts fastened at all times when seated. After which, the seat belt signs were switched off and the crew commenced their round of service.
Looking towards North Korea in the distance
Ganghwa Island and North Korea in the distance
As soon as the seat belt signs were switched off, the crew donned aprons and headed to the galley to collect the trolleys and commence service. Given the flight time, efficiency in this was crucial – rearmost crew member handing out the snack boxes and describing the contents of these to each passenger, whilst the forward crew member handed out drinks. Each box contained an eclectic mix of sugary goods - a pack of three Ferrero Rocher chocolates, a madeleine cake produced by a Gwangju bakery and a carton of Italian orange juice as well as a packaged wet wipe. Given the fact that such a service is unique on Korean domestic flights, I could hardly complain about this! A short while later, I opted for a coffee which was handed to me in an Air Philip branded paper cup. Once the service had been completed, one of the cabin crew members patrolled the aisles, taking away passengers’ boxes as soon as they had finished with these.
Our low cruising altitude combined with the good weather that day ensured that good views of Korea’s west could be seen as we headed southwards that morning. Heading down the coastline our aircraft soared above places such as Boryeong – a coastal town famous for its annual mud festival and Gunsan – a city that plays host to an airbase home to ROKAF KF-16s and USAF F-16s are based. For those not so interested in the outside world, Air Philip also provided an inflight magazine going by the adventurous name of ‘Air Philip’ – the contents of which appeared to be almost solely related to finance, and, expectedly was entirely in Korean.
Once I had finished off the contents of the snack box, I headed to the rear of the aircraft to pay a visit to the aircraft’s sole lavatory. A combination of good cleaning and the presumed less-than-average usage of this given the aircraft’s short flight times meant that this was expectedly spotless and well stocked with soap, neatly folded toiled paper and paper towels. Whilst small, I was impressed with the faux-white marble sink, which reminds me a little of the bathrooms on Concorde (sadly I have only had a look inside the preserved examples of this aircraft).
After a very pleasant 25 minutes up in the air, the aircraft’s nose could be felt sinking gently indicating the commencement of our descent – confirmed by the switching back on of the seat belt signs moments later. As usually occurs at this stage of the flight, the two crew members came around collecting any remaining rubbish before the purser came and checked to ensure all was secure for landing. Perhaps noticing that I had been glued to the window, and snapping away at just about everything during the flight, the purser engaged me in conversation, asking whether I speak Korean. After replying that I did, I was thanked for flying with Air Philip and questioned me as to what I thought about the Embraer 145. After giving honest and positive responses, the purser thanked me again before continuing on with their duties as we approached Gwangju. After a while, out aircraft entered a hold above the mountains and fields that surround the city which was soon followed by an announcement from the cockpit informing us that this was due to congestion and apologised for this. Indeed, whilst Gwangju Airport can hardly be considered to be Heathrow in terms of traffic, like many of Korea’s regional airports, this is shared with the military – more specifically, with three very active ROKAF squadrons. Two of these consisting of fast jet training squadrons operating the KAI T-50 trainer as the other a fighter squadron operating the venerable F-5.
After several scenic loops, our aircraft turned to line up with runway 04R, gently floating down over fields before reaching the airport’s perimeter, our aircraft making a firm touchdown at 1039. As the civilian portion of the airfield is located at its northerly end, there was no need for any sudden exit from the runway and thus our Embraer braked gently, eventually exiting the runway at its far end, passing by the arrestor cables in the process. Our exit from the runway was followed immediately by a welcome announcement in Korean and English welcoming us all to Gwangju and thanking us for flying with Air Philip, as well as giving a gentle reminder that photography was not allowed due to the military presence at the airport – something that those who are regulars of Korea’s domestic flights will likely be used to. After a short hold whilst an Asiana Airbus A320 took to the skies bound for Jeju (the exact same aircraft that would take me back to Seoul that evening), we made our way to the terminal, pulling into stand 4 next to another Asiana A320 could be seen – this one being readied for its flight to Gimpo.
As soon as the aircraft had stopped, its two engines spooled down and the seatbelt signs pinged off before the cabin was once again filled with classical music. The cabin door was soon opened, however unlike in Gimpo, the stairs built into this were used for disembarkation, ensuring the purser enforced a strict rule of only one passenger on these stairs at any one time thus slowing down disembarkation a little. After a short wait, I thanked the purser and headed down to the apron where no fewer than five Air Philip ground staff members could be seen thanking our flight’s fourteen passengers and bowing at them as they walked across to the terminal. Upon entering the terminal, I made my way across the baggage claim hall and out into arrivals before heading to the airport’s dedicated subway station.
Domestically, business class is all but absent from Korea’s airlines. Away from the all-economy LCCs, only a relatively small number of Asiana Airlines’ aircraft assigned to domestic flights are fitted with a business class. Meanwhile whilst this is present on those aircraft operated by Korean Air (bar their A220s), the service onboard varies little with, just as with any domestic flight, this coming in the form of a soft drink in a paper cup. Admittedly, Korean airlines’ neglection of offering a real business class service on domestic flights is hardly surprising given that the longest such flights is in the air for no more than an hour. Focusing on the levels of service onboard Air Philip, whilst it may have been impossible not to give a personal level of service given the light loads, this, combined with the superior snack offering ensured that Air Philip provided the nearest thing to a business class level of service onboard a Korean domestic flight. Of course however, this is indeed ignoring the economy seating, which, whilst comfortable is undoubtedly incomparable with real business class seats.
Whilst I cannot pretend to be any sort of business expert, it was obvious that Air Philip poured massive amounts of money into the airline – whether it be through the refits of their aircraft or their customised vehicles. Yet, the airline lacked seemed to lack passengers, especially on both of my flights with the airline (a grand total of seven passengers including myself found themselves on the morning service from Jeju to Gimpo, the ticket for which I had bought for next-to-nothing). At that time, things simply did not appear to be sustainable and thus assuming there had been no surge in passengers since my two flights, I was surprised at the commencement of flights from Muan a short while later. Therefore, I could hardly claim to be surprised upon hearing of the news of the airline’s halting of operations. Nevertheless, I was very happy to have sampled the delights of Air Philip whilst I had the chance and hope that all their ground staff and air crew are doing well.
I shall leave you with the only photo I still have from my second flight, some moody looking morning skies. Thank you for reading the report!
Somewhere between Korea and the UK.