Korean Air May Remove First Class From Their Entire Fleet

A month and a half ago we learned that Korean Air would be dropping first class from many of its routes.

While Korean Air’s first class lags in quality behind many other Asian carriers, I’ve especially liked that I could fly to Asia in first class and connect onward in first class as well because much of their intra-Asia route network offered a first class cabin.

However they haven’t yet removed first class seats from their planes. In fact the seats themselves on many aircraft are virtually identical in first class and business class, but first class is in its own mini-cabin. On their Boeing 777-300 aircraft first class is six-abreast while business class is seven-across. On Airbus A330 and Boeing 777-300 aircraft you can assign yourself a legacy first class seat when booked in business class.

That’s going to change — and in fact Korean Air is considering removing first class entirely from their fleet.

Korean Air plans to reduce and potentially eliminate first class entirely while introducing improved business class seats.

..The South Korean flag carrier has a first class cabin on all 103 of its widebody aircraft. Only Emirates Airline and British Airways have more aircraft with first class cabins, according to latest information from the CAPA – Centre for Aviation Fleet Database.

Thirty airlines around the world offer true first class. Korean Air was especially popular with US-based frequent flyers (1) because they serve more US destinations than any other Asian airline, (2) because they’ve historically offered amazing award availability, and (3) because up until recently they were a Chase transfer partner.

Here are the airlines with the most aircraft offering three- or four-cabin first class seats (American makes the list because of their domestic Airbus A321Ts):

Emirates 218
British Airways 105
Korean Air 103
Lufthansa 78
Singapore Airlines 51
China Southern 45
Air France 37
American Airlines 37
Japan Airlines 34
Etihad 32

All of the airline’s US routes still offer first class, but they’ve dropped the product not just from intra-Asia flying but also from Auckland, Barcelona, Brisbane, Madrid, Istanbul, St. Petersburg, Toronto, Vancouver, St. Petersburg, as well as Tokyo Narita – Honolulu.

Eventually they’ll remove the seats from Airbus A330s, 787s, and 777-300s (not 777-300ER aircraft) at this point as part of their announced cabin retrofit program. What’s new is that “Korean is also considering removing first class from A380s, 747-8s and 777-300ERs, which would result in the airline not offering first class on any flights.”

Apparently no firm decision has been made, and if a decision in this direction is made removal of first class from the rest of the fleet could coincide with a cabin refresh that’s likely three years in the future.

Before the end of the Chase partnership I transferred a bunch of points to the Skypass program. I’ll still get use out of them but my intention was as a backup way to get to Asia in first class when needed. That plan could… change.

About Gary Leff

Gary Leff is one of the foremost experts in the field of miles, points, and frequent business travel - a topic he has covered since 2002. Co-founder of frequent flyer community InsideFlyer.com, emcee of the Freddie Awards, and named one of the "World's Top Travel Experts" by Conde' Nast Traveler (2010-Present) Gary has been a guest on most major news media, profiled in several top print publications, and published broadly on the topic of consumer loyalty. More About Gary »

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  1. Great. Just booked our Maldives trip for April 2020. It was “OK” without first from the CMB to ICN segment (since the seats are the same), but I’ll be really ticked off if we don’t have First in the Kosmo 2.0 Suites we booked from ICN to ORD.

    Was bad enough trying to book the award tickets because of the mixed cabin booking (had to segment it out and then call in to have them combine to one ticket and price it out accordingly).

  2. Gary where did you get the 30 airlines offering first class stat? I thought it was more like 20. Thanks.

  3. Ugh. I took first class LAX -> ICN in March 2019, and then ICN -> LAX back in business. Business is truly cattle class – a gigantic cabin that does not have any nice finishes, poor soft experience, too many customers for FAs to serve.

    I hope KAL and OZ dramatically improve their business class products. I certainly would look to alternatives.

  4. But think what will happen with DL now an owner/investor ! I really like AF new business class sans first.

  5. I just booked a business class award ticket from DFW to NE Asia in August, with of course a stop in ICN, on the 777-300ER. There was availability in First from DFW to ICN, but nothing afterwards. So I booked the whole thing in business (missing out on the Kosmo 2.0’s!) and the Business cabin map shows seats six a breast from Rows 7 through 15. The planes definitely have first class seats according to the maps on koreanair.com, and according to First availability (which has since dried up). I’m not just nitpicking, but it apparently contradicts this post. I wish it were true, because then I would be able to reserve a first class seat for the cost of a business class award ticket. If anybody has the answer I’m all ears.

  6. @Tyler:
    The article/post didn’t say they were removing them *today*, just that they were considering removing first class.

    “Eventually they’ll remove the seats from Airbus A330s, 787s, and 777-300s (not 777-300ER aircraft) at this point as part of their announced cabin retrofit program. What’s new is that “Korean is also considering removing first class from A380s, 747-8s and 777-300ERs, which would result in the airline not offering first class on any flights.”

  7. @mjonis Sorry, let me edit my above post. It was more in response to the earlier related post about being able to book a first class seat on 777–300ER’s while just paying for a business class seat, but I am flying that very plane on business class soon, and it did not give me the option to select a First class seat. However the business class cabin is six breast, same as the first class supposedly is. If there really was a way to reserve that first class seat with a number of business class Miles, I would love to hear it because I tried.

  8. @Tyler,

    Oh, I see.

    I wonder if you ran into the situation that i did when booking Award tickets. KE has severely limited award bookings now. The search engine kept stating NO seats in F. Turns out that issue was:
    1) They limited the 747 F awards to only one seat (we needed two).
    2) So we had to go a diff. route (ORD vs. ATL) We were doing MLE – ICN via CMB, and then onto ORD. Well, KE had no award seats at all (even economy) from MLE to CMB, so we tried to book CMB to ICN in F. But since KE got rid of their “F” seats (well the seats are physically there, they just don’t let you book it–not even with cash), we had to do two bookings:

    CMB to ICN in Prestige (even though “F” seats are physically on the seat selection map and we could select those).
    ICN to ORD in F
    Then call into KE and have them combine into one booking with the 105,000 miles (one way per person) each, vs. the 105,000+40,000 or whatever they wanted for the separate “prestige” booking. In other words, we paid for “F” the whole way through, even though we’re getting prestige on the CMB to ICN segment (originally they had “F” and the 105,000 was still the same cost).

    Ironically about a month later, they opened up 2 seats in economy only from MLE to CMB and only 1 seat in Prestige.

    Perhaps what the person meant was this:
    On our CMB to ICN flight, the aircraft still shows the 6 “F” seats (not as “F” though they’re just physically still there) and the X number of Prestige seats. So you could technically book an “F” seat whilst paying for Prestige. The seat on that A330 is the same physically.

    There’s two variants of the 777-300 I believe.
    One has the Kosmo 2.0 seats and one does not.
    Maybe on the one that doesn’t have Kosmo 2.0 you can book “F” with Prestige, if it’s one of the short-hauls that KE got “rid” of the F seat? (ie, the seat is still physically there, but KE doesn’t even have a cash First available and it’s all “prestige” class)?

  9. I don’t know why Korean Air would actually remove first-class seats from A330s because those seats are identical to the business-class seats on that aircraft.

    I wonder what seat Korean Air might consider if it plans on introducing an “improved” business-class seat. The current standard is the Apex Suite, which is a darned good seat. Window seats are outstanding. Aisle seats, though, don’t have as much privacy or storage. Korean Air’s Apex (Prestige) Suites are fairly new. Even assuming Korean Air can find better seats for business class, replacing new Apex Suites in a couple of years doesn’t fit Korean Air’s fiscal MO.

  10. Personally, I am disappointed about this.

    In my experience, although Korean generally has great award availability in first, award availability in business class is extremely hard to come by (at least on the ICN-LAX flights that I was searching).

  11. @mjonis Yes, there are two variants of the 777-300ER, the one I’m taking has Kosmo 2.0’s and Prestige suites instead of the barely-business-class-Prestige-seat. Your last paragraph made sense, perhaps I can’t book the F seat because that plane still has real First class. You made me realize the F availability might have just been pulled altogether, but I checked the Dallas to Seoul route on its own, and that had F, but I wasn’t gonna blow the miles on one F long haul and then buy a whole second ticket when I could do a business class ticket all the way to my destination in a pretty decent suite.

    Typical of this type of “currency,” isn’t it? “Treasures on the earth where moth and rust consume,” or in this case, get devalued haha

  12. Why oh why are these airlines removing first class seats?
    I for one want first now on long haul as Business gets crowded and less exclusive.
    Regional flight? OK. But please. Not long haul.

  13. Business Class on any airline is fine (even for longest flights). Go back to the 90s and you will find that business class today is as good (or better than) most first then. I remember flying Air New Zealand to Sydney and know the business class seat (LAX-AUK) didn’t lay flat and pretty sure the first class one (AUK-SYD) didn’t either.

    Those bemoaning the elimination of first class need to understand it is a business decision. If those seats sold (instead of mooches getting them for miles) they wouldn’t be eliminated. Coach, Premium Economy and Business is the new model so just live with it.

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