Earlier today I mentioned that I booked business class flying from Hong Kong to Seoul Incheon. I was booked on the 747-8, featuring Apex Suites in business class. It’s in my knowledge that it’s common for airlines to assign first class seats to frequent flyers booked in business class on select regional flights, and it’s also not impossible for non-frequent flyers to get these seat assignments as well (I’ve actually done some of these seat assignments for readers in the past). However, today was a series of lucky streaks that eventually got me flying in a first class seat from Hong Kong to Seoul Incheon on a Korean Air 747-8.
Happier than pretzel day in Korean Air first class!
I decided I’d share my story, as well as some tips for how you can get assigned a first class seat on a two-class-service airline (it was more or less pure luck that we had the cabin to ourselves, though).
Being paranoid about an equipment swap in Korean Air business class…
While my parents kind of wanted to get to Seoul earlier on the 12:15 PM flight (Korean Air has four daily flights between Hong Kong and Seoul Incheon, and the 12:15 PM frequency is the earliest daytime flight they have), I managed to convince them to fly the 2:05 PM frequency, which would be operated by a Korean Air 747-8. Obviously, at the time I had no idea I’d be flying in a first class cabin, as they were still selling first class at the time. While I’d fly in the upper deck of a 747-8 over a 777-300ER (which was operating the 12:15 PM flight) any day, the 777-300ER also featured Apex Suites – I just figured there’d be less of a chance of an equipment swap.
Korean Air Boeing 747-8 Business Class
This meant that I’d feel pretty bad if we had an equipment swap on the day, since we’d have taken a non-ideal flight time and ended up with an inferior product. Obviously this was out of my control, so all I could do was hope that none of the 747-8s would go mechanical.
I was quite lax about it until checking the seatmap three days before the flight and realising occupancy was at 50% in business class and 40% in economy (and at 0% in first class). This meant that an equipment swap would actually be more profitable for the airline. Additionally, I found out on FlightRadar24 that the 2:05 PM frequency on Monday (today’s Friday) was actually swapped to one of Korean Air’s two remaining 747-400s, which was exactly what happened to our flight the last time I was booked on a Korean Air 747-8.
While Korean Air’s older business class products are fine, at the end of the day I really wanted to review the Apex Suite, as it’s the only “generic” business class seat configuration that I’ve yet to fly. So I kept my eye on the seatmap on FlightRadar24.
Well, not only did the flight end up being operated by a 747-8 as scheduled, but we also got to sit in the airline’s flagship first class product, so I guess it worked out in the end. 😉
Wait, first class seats are on the seatmap now!
On Wednesday I went on ExpertFlyer to check if the seatmap had changed. While the aircraft type was still a 747-8, I realised that the six first class seats were showing as blocked on the business class seatmap.
Immediately I reached out to Korean Air’s call center to check for availability. While they said that the seats were up for assignment at the airport, they were clear that if the seats were available to us, we could “definitely” assign those seats on our flight.
Online check-in doesn’t work!
At this point I wanted to see what I could do with online check-in. Korean Air opens their online check-in system 48 hours before departure. The big issue was that I couldn’t check-in because of a credit card error, for some reason. It had to be verified at either a Korean Air office or the airport, so we decided with the latter.
The issue was that we weren’t actually sitting together. Row 18 on Korean Air is more spacious than the rest, since there’s an emergency exit in front of it. However, Korean Air blocks seat 18H for airport selection, and even the call center couldn’t help me assign that seat. I decided to assign myself seat 19A instead, so I could switch to 18H if need be on the flight (I do believe that window seats in this configuration are far superior to aisle seats and would have been fine in 19A anyway, though it’s usually more practical to sit together with people you’re traveling with in a 2-2 configuration).
Korean Air Boeing 747-8 Business Class Seats 18H and 18J
Presumably I’d be able to assign myself seat 18H on online check-in, but due to an “unverified credit card”, the website wouldn’t allow me. I decided to just leave it and follow the procedures required to verify the credit card that paid for this ticket at the airport.
Headed to the airport…
We got to Hong Kong Airport a tad early in case something went wrong with credit card verification. The process went smoothly at the Korean Air check-in desk at Hong Kong Airport. However, the check-in agent said that “the first class seats weren’t for sale”, and proceeded to explain the two-class service as if I had no idea how it worked.
I knew I wasn’t entitled to a first class seat, since business class was what I booked. However, something about her condescending tone didn’t really sit well with me. When I was explaining the situation to my parents in front of her, who had also heard and understood that the Korean Air call center agent said that we could “definitely” assign the first class seats, I openly expressed that I found the situation rather unreasonable. For the time being, the check-in agent was able to assign me seat 18H, so we could sit together in a row.
I also had issues entering my SkyPass number to the booking record, and she directed me to a counter which helped me rectify the situation. While condescending, at least she was kind and polite.
Afterwards we went through security and immigration, and headed to the SkyTeam lounge (the lounge attendants didn’t have the software equipment to help us there).
SkyTeam Lounge Hong Kong
Surprise at the boarding gate
At 1:15 PM I left the lounge for our 1:35 PM boarding time, as we were assigned gate 60, which was quite aways from the SkyTeam lounge. I made it to the gate at around 1:30 PM, and went to the Korean Air desk just to politely slip in a last request if I could have my seat changed.
She saw my boarding pass and without typing anything in asked “you’re traveling as a group of four, right?” I said “yeah”.
She proceeded to say “we already have rows 1 and 2 assigned to you and your family, and your new boarding passes are actually printing right now”.
At this point the flight was about to board, and I still wanted to be one of the first onboard so I could grab good cabin pictures. So all I could say was “oh”. They took my old boarding pass with seat 18H on it, and gave me a new boarding pass with seat 2A.
Since my parents were at Chanel (they were finishing up some last minute shopping so I went ahead and boarded first), they got a shock of sorts when they tried to board and were given new boarding passes.
Korean Air Boeing 747-8 First Class
I’ll share a separate post with my experience in Korean Air’s first class cabin.
How should you grab a first class seat when it’s sold as business class?
Rarely will you ever be able to pull up a seatmap and be able to select a seat outside your cabin class. I don’t have any media affiliation or even frequent flyer status with Korean Air (I’ve earned a handful of miles on their SkyPass program, though that’s the extent of our relationship), so this “upgrade” was somewhat out-of-the-blue.
Obviously, when you book a seat in your cabin class, first of all you should always expect to sit in your cabin class. However, there are a few things you should keep in mind if you’re trying to be half as lucky as I was today:
- Check the seatmap after you book a flight. You can do this by signing up for a free ExpertFlyer account and creating a seat alert. Keep in mind that if you’re on a free account, you’re limited to five queries a day. If you fly more than five flights a day on a regular basis, you should consider paying for a premium ExpertFlyer account, but otherwise rationing your search quota is going to be quite important. When you check the seatmap after booking and realise that some seats are configured quite differently, you’ll know that seats above your cabin class are available for your cabin class to select. I would recommend checking the seatmap of the cabin class above you once in a while. If it’s empty, there’s a chance those seats may open up for your selection during check-in. These seats will never show as open – they will always show as blocked on ExpertFlyer (blue square with a white X in it). So you’ll always have to call or assign those seats for yourself at the check-in counter.
- Check the seatmap when online check-in opens. This is what happened to us on our flight – when online check-in opened and first class was still empty, they opened the first class cabin for business class passengers to select and operated the flight as a two-class service. Once again, the seats in the cabin class above will show as blocked.
- If the seats are “blocked” but in your cabin class for selection, try calling a call center. Even though the call center couldn’t help us out in our case, their words were critical for us to be assigned first class seats in the end. It always helps to call their “hub” call center if you’re able to (I called the airline’s call center at their Seoul hub), though sometimes you’d be able to assign yourself seats in a higher cabin class at your local call center. Usually when assigning seats in a higher cabin class with Cathay Pacific I’m able to do it over a single call, though that wasn’t the case here on Korean Air.
- It never hurts to ask at check-in. While this mentality is normally used for upgrades, you’re technically entitled to ask for one of those seats at check-in, since the seats have been released to your cabin class. In this case we were rejected at the check-in desk, though obviously they helped with helping us score our first class seats on today’s flight at the end, since I didn’t even have to talk to the gate agents for them to have reseated us.
- Be polite, but don’t be passive. While you’re technically reseating yourself in a seat classified as in the same cabin, you should always be polite to airline personnel for reseating you. Technically airline personnel have the jurisdiction of saying that the seats in the higher cabin class are “reserved for elite members”. However, you should always rectify things you’ve been told that you know aren’t true – for example, at the check-in desk I expressed discontent with the check-in agent when she said that the seats “weren’t operated” (they were, as shown on the seatmap), though I didn’t confront her, as we technically “only” paid for business class seats. You should always be polite to all agents you interact with no matter what you’re contacting them for, but don’t let a misinformed agent hinder your chances of getting a better seat on a plane (in this case the check-in agent actually went above and beyond after I expressed discontent at the fact that they had been misinformed, as they clearly contacted the gate agents to see if our family could be reseated).
This is how a little bit of action and being on my toes ended up scoring me one of the best flights of my life. At the end of the day you should get what you pay for, so I was incredibly lucky today for a series of steps to work in my favour. However, it proved to me how important being polite, but insistent and informed can be if a passenger wants to maximise their experience. When you know your own travel inside out, it makes it much easier for you to know how you can get the most out of what you pay for in this industry.
Have you ever been assigned a first class seat on a business class ticket, or a business class seat on an economy ticket (or something like that)? How did you score that seat? Did your experience differ from mine today?