Published in December 2015 issue

I was going to embark on my first-ever river cruise adventure in Southeast Asia, the maiden voyage of AmaWaterway’s luxurious AmaDara. My journey would be taking me from the faded glory of Cambodia’s Angkor Wat, in Siem Reap along the muddy Mekong River, to the revitalized and sophisticated Ho Chi Minh City—formerly known as Saigon and still affectionately referred to by that name by most locals and tourists. But, first, I had to get there.

By K.D Leperi

NEW MEXICO – CAMBODIA VIA SEOUL

I started my trip in Albuquerque (ABQ) by catching American Airlines (AA) flight 2878 (Canadair Regional Jet) to Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Worried about the connectivity of my baggage with Korean Air (KE), I enquired as to whether I could check my luggage through to my destination in Siem Reap (REP) (after all, AA is not part of SkyTeam—the alliance to which KE belongs). I was assured by AA that they had a baggage handling agreement with KE and that it was possible to check it through to my destination.

After a four-hour layover in LAX, with the normal frustrations of negotiating an airport that seems to be constantly under construction, I connected with Korean Air’s Airbus A380-800 on flight KE18, a 13-hour flight from LAX to Seoul-Incheon (ICN). Once in Seoul, I had a 90-minute layover, after which I would connect with flight KE687 (a Boeing 737-900) to REP.

This was my starting point for my cruise, but only after spending three nights exploring and photographing the magnificent archaeological ruins of Angkor Wat.

AIRBUS A380-800: LAX – ICN

Korean Air flies to 114 international destinations in 50 different countries on six continents. They also provide domestic service within South Korea and to 22 cities in Mainland China.

Currently, KE flies 10 Airbus A380-800s, the most prevalent aircraft type in its long-haul fleet. I boarded one equipped with 407 seats spread over two floors, of which 301 were Economy, 94 Prestige (Business Class), and 12 First Class. All the Prestige seats were on the upper deck, which also featured an inflight bar and lounge, featuring Absolut cocktails and vodka, accessible only to First and Prestige Class passengers. Economy and First Class were located on the main deck. I found it strange how much space was taken up, in the rear of the cabin, by a Lancôme-designed duty- free shop (which was available to all passengers).

After having taken off about 10 minutes late, Captain Lee eventually came on the speaker system to announce that our flight would last about 12.5 hours and that we would be cruising at 36,000ft (11,000m) at a speed of 630 mph (1,013 kph). He reported excellent weather for our destination, along with some anticipated turbulence en route.

THE INSIDE SKINNY ON SEATS & IFE

Of all the airlines that fly the A380-800, Korean Air has the less dense and most comfortable layout for all classes. (Other carriers flying the Airbus double decker include Air France (AF), British Airways (BA), China Southern (CZ), Emirates (EK), Etihad (EY), Lufthansa (LH), Malaysia (MH), Qantas (QF), Qatar (QR), Singapore (SQ), and Thai (TG)).

The Economy seat pitch of 34 inches (contrast this with Emirates’ 32 inches) is most generous and adds to the feeling of overall comfort and spaciousness.

My assigned seat was 57C—one that Seat Guru classifies as being a ‘standard’ Economy Class seat with On-Demand TV and AC power; that’s all you can really hope for in Economy. On the plus side, it was the aisle seat in a row of three. The overall Economy configuration in the cabin was 3-4-3.

However, the best seat in Economy, if you can bag it, is 47D, which affords extra legroom due to a vacant seat space directly in front, corresponding to the floor escape hatch that leads to the crew rest room beneath the main deck.

In addition to its spacious and comfortable seat pitch, to make your flight more enjoyable, KE offers inflight video services and USB ports. All seats have on-demand audio and video entertainment, and in-seat power ports. Although the entertainment system is modern, the earphones socket is still located on the right armrest. This can be inconvenient when you need to get up, as you can easily get entangled in your earphone cord. I much prefer the socket to be located on the seat back.

Although the Economy Class seats recline up to 121 degrees, I found that the fully reclined seat in front of me was neither in my face nor interfered with my ability to eat my meals or watch a movie. In fact, I managed to watch four recently released Hollywood movies.

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FLIGHT ATTENDANTS: UNIFORMS & SERVICE

The Flight Attendants’ (FA) uniforms were ‘Asian fashionable’, while still appearing cookie-cutter. The separates were form-fitting tailored uniforms with interchangeable pieces in sky blue, white, and ivory, made of fabrics that included both cotton and silk. The pencil skirts were quite snug and looked like they would have made serving for a trans-Pacific flight of almost 13 hours rather challenging. The tailored blouses were accented with severely starched neck scarves one four- to five-inch leg of which pointed stiffly skyward over the left shoulder.

The women all sported similar hairstyles: drawn back tightly into a bun tied with matching ribbons that were either cream or sky blue. The coordinated hair ties looked much like two crossed chopsticks, but instead appeared to be made of severely starched fabric.

I must admit that the overall coordinated, yet somewhat robotic look reminded me a lot of the movie The Stepford Wives—in which the women looked technically perfect, but something still seemed amiss. Service was subservient if not robotic, with little emotion showing on the women’s porcelain make-up perfect doll faces: smiles were a rare commodity.

I was surprised to notice that part of the service consisted in periodically inspecting the restrooms after use—wiping the sink, picking up any trash, and folding triangles on the toilet tissue for the next guest. I’m happy to report that they always wore disposable gloves while performing the cleaning operations.


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AIRCRAFT & INFLIGHT AMENITIES

As passengers boarded, each Economy Seat harbored a bottle of water, a blanket, a pillow and an amenity package that included slippers, a toothbrush and toothpaste.

The seat pockets contained bulky materials, which effectively rendered them useless for storing any personal gear. Besides the required safety placard, its contents included the nearly half-inch thick Sky Shop, Morning Calm, and Beyond Magazines.

Also in the seat pocket were three adhesive signs passengers could affix on their headrests to alert the FAs to their wishes: Please Do Not Disturb, Please Wake Me for the Duty Free, Please Wake Me for Meal Service.

In the back of the plane, on the Main Deck, was a designer Sky Mall store display with the premium alcohol, perfume, and beauty products that could be purchased anytime while in flight. My overall impression was that, between the very thick Sky Mall magazine in every seat back and the shop—which covered a large amount of real estate—there was an over-emphasis on duty-free. While I noted that some purchases were made during the flight, it seemed to me that KE was devoting that much space for reasons that went beyond financial ones— although what these may have been remains a mystery to me.

I found the cabin environmental controls to be less than satisfactory. It was extremely warm and stuffy during the entire flight, and no individual air vents were available to direct air flow. When I complained about the heat to an FA, she brought me a glass of ice water. Later, I had to ask for an aspirin to deal with the headache that I had developed due to the stuffiness and heat in the cabin.

SATISFACTORY SNACK AND MEAL SERVICE

I politely declined the bag of peanuts offered to me before dinner, which reminded me of Heather Cho, Korean Air’s former executive vice president and daughter of the airline’s chairman, Cho Yangho.

All I could think about was her behavior on December 5, 2014, when she had gone ‘nuts’, having been served macadamias in a wrapper rather than in a bowl. She had forced the pilot to return to the gate at New York (JFK) to disembark the chief FA as punishment. In the process, she had allegedly verbally and physically assaulted two crew members, violated aviation security law, and disrupted the travel plans of all those on board. Both FAs had been reputedly pressured by KE officials to lie about the incident so that they could cover it up and explain it away as Ms. Cho simply performing her job.

On my flight, the food was neither gourmet nor remarkable. A choice of beefy pasta or chicken and rice was available for the first hot meal. Traditional Korean noodles were being offered as an option and, after seeing them being served to my seatmate, I wished I had picked them. Oddly, there was neither salt nor pepper in the packaged cutlery bag—only napkin, fork, spoon, knife and toothpick.

The second meal was also a hot lunch/dinner entree with a choice of pasta or chicken. I went for the pasta, which was tasty enough for me to finish my serving.

The wine pours were quite shallow—a few sips and it was gone. It felt as if the alcohol was being rationed.

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OVERALL KOREAN AIR EXPERIENCE

Overall, I was very comfortable in Korean Air’s Economy Class due to the Airbus A380-800’s spacious cabin, seat design, and entertainment system.

The visual aesthetics of the cabin were pleasing, and the seat pitch was a nice surprise. I cannot say the same about the climate control and air circulation. Unfortunately, most of the journey was too warm for me, with no individual air vents or options to cool off other than to constantly traipse back and forth from my rearward seat to the inflight retail store, where cooler air was circulated more abundantly.

The service was acceptable but performed with an air of sterile servility. I wondered whether the overall docile attitude and demure behavior of the cabin crewmembers would have been an obstacle had they needed to take charge in an emergency.

The former Korean Air VP’s nutty and demeaning behavior continues to reflect the prevailing culture and is unsettling with regard to aviation safety considerations. A culture of unquestioning obedience and deference to hierarchy was still evident and left passengers, like me, wondering whether professionalism would override the inculcated obedience in case of an emergency.