In travelling home to Beijing for Chinese New Year, it was time to check off another long-awaited First Class experience, having booked myself a 14-hour ride onboard the Boeing 747 in Korean Air First Class from New York JFK to Seoul.
As is the norm when travelling in the fancy seats, I wanted to ensure that I had as much time on the ground before my flight to sample the First Class ground experience. Therefore, even though my flight wouldn’t be departing from JFK until 12:50am, I booked my positioning flight from Montreal to arrive at LaGuardia at 8:30pm, giving me ample time for the crosstown Uber ride and then to relax in the First Class lounge.
Korean Air uses the “C” check-in counters at JFK’s Terminal 1, and I arrived at the airport just as the check-in desks were opening three hours prior to departure.
The First Class queue is adorned with a red carpet, and I was promptly assisted and given my boarding passes for tonight’s flight to Seoul and then the onward business class flight to Beijing.
I then headed to security, hoping to fast-track my way through the queue thanks to my TSA Pre-Check membership, only to find that tonight was one of those situations when there weren’t enough passengers to open a dedicated security line for Pre-Check passengers.
As a result, my boarding pass was stamped with a Pre-Check seal, and I would be allowed to skip the X-ray machine and keep my shoes on as I proceeded through, but I still had to wait in line with all the other passengers for about 20 minutes’ time.
Gotta say, I have a real love-hate relationship with transiting through the US on international trips. It opens up many more routing possibilities on a wider range of airlines, sure, but the airport experience, especially at security, often leaves me regretting my entire existence.
Anyway, after clearing security, it was only a short walk to find the Korean Air First Class Lounge, located between a few duty free shops and a Hudson’s News outlet that was under construction.
The lounge is located upstairs, accessible via staircase or elevator, and then across a catwalk that overlooks the airport concourse.
JFK Terminal 1 is a far cry from being the most glamorous place on earth, and if I’m being honest, my hopes weren’t too high about how the Korean Air First Class Lounge here would turn out. In fact, I was somewhat surprised that the airline had a First Class lounge here in New York in the first place, since many airlines I’ve flown before only offered First Class lounges at their hub airports, rather than at outstations in foreign countries.
Upon verifying my documents, the gentleman at the front desk invited me to my left to enter the First Class Lounge; meanwhile, business class passengers would make use of the space on the right-hand side, and I’d go over and scope it out later as well.
The main part of the lounge basically consists of one large, curved space consisting mostly of leather chairs, with the buffet spread located in the back.
Alas, compared to other First Class lounges around the world (and even compared to some of the better business class lounges out there), this one was pretty disappointing in terms of first impressions. The lounge’s decor and ambience felt cheap and outdated, and the entire space looked like it could use a major facelift.
In terms of seating, there’s enough space here for about 40 to 50 people. It’s rare that there would be this many eligible passengers in the lounge at any given moment, so I got the sense that the abundance of seating was more to allow passengers to spread out and have some space to themselves.
The fact that there was only one type of seat available throughout the lounge – a standard leather chair – boggles the mind. It would be so easy for Korean Air to spruce things up by introducing some private seating booths, dining tables, or maybe some high-top seats along the windows for those who enjoy planespotting. Instead, it’s just the same black chairs everywhere, which makes the lounge feel quite boring and sterile.
There aren’t too many unique features in the lounge to speak of. A magazine and newspaper rack occupies the space near the entrance, while a model Korean Air Airbus A380 is perched on top of the refrigerator at the buffet.
Going down the short hallway in the back, there’s a small television viewing room with additional seating for 10 people, as well as the lounge’s bathrooms.
With not much else to do in the lounge, I decided to hit the buffet spread. I was the only passenger here, and would remain on my own for another hour or so before someone else showed up, so I made myself comfortable and spread out across several seats at the very back of the lounge.
The buffet can be described as meagre at best. Three hot items were on offer tonight: beef bulgogi, Buffalo chicken wings, and vegetable fried rice. In fairness, all three items were pretty delicious, on par with what you’d be served at a good Korean restaurant, and were kept nice and warm in the buffet’s heated food display as well.
That’s about where the delicious stuff ends, though. The rest of the buffet items seemed to belong more in a Trader Joe’s than a First Class lounge: instant noodles, stale pastries, and packaged snacks.
Seriously, does anything else scream luxury quite like saran-wrapped ramekins of mixed nuts and crackers?
Oh, I know… mini-sandwiches held together by a toothpick, kept in a fridge alongside packaged cheese sticks, of course.
The drink selection was about what you’d expect, with coffee, tea, juices, soft drinks, and a variety of self-serve liquor, but nothing really stood out in particular.
I helped myself to a few glasses of Clos du Bois red wine after polishing off my dinner of bulgogi, chicken wings, and instant noodles.
My thoughts on the food selection echo those on the overall lounge itself – that is to say, there is significant room for improvement. For example, would it be so difficult to offer a menu of made-to-order noodle dishes that can be prepared in the kitchen, or something like that?
After dinner, I decided to take advantage of the peace and quiet in the lounge to get some work done on my laptop. About an hour later, when some other passengers finally showed up in the lounge, I decided to head over to the business class lounge across the hallway to check it out.
There isn’t too much to report, though, because the food spread was virtually the same in every way, while the seating zone was similarly uniform, although at least there were two different types of chairs – yellow ones and black ones – as well as some glass partitions to divide the large rectangular room into smaller spaces.
The business class lounge felt more like your average Priority Pass location, instead of a lounge that’s operated by a well-regarded global carrier. And when I looked it up, the Korean Air business class lounge is indeed part of Priority Pass, meaning that you can also visit this lounge simply with a Priority Pass membership, regardless of what airline and class of service you’re travelling in.
Anyway, despite the lounge’s evident mediocrity, I decided to take a shower before hopping on my 14-hour flight, more out of curiosity than an actual need to shower. The gentleman at the front desk advised me to wait in the First Class Lounge, and that he’d come get me when the shower room was ready.
About 20 minutes later, I was invited to use the shower room, which is actually located back in the business class lounge and shared between First Class and business class passengers.
It’s fine for the purposes of taking a shower, but as with the rest of the lounge, failed to live up to the billing compared to some of the more extravagant First Class shower rooms out there.
I took a shower rather hurriedly, since boarding time was approaching, and I wanted to be the first passenger to board the cabin and take a look around the nose of the Boeing 747. So after grabbing my belongings and waving thank you and goodbye to the staff, I headed back downstairs in the direction of the boarding gate, praying that the actual onboard experience would be a much better showing from Korean Air.
To put it bluntly, the Korean Air First Class Lounge in New York JFK is the weakest First Class lounge I’ve visited so far, failing to meet the standard of even some of the best Priority Pass contract lounges in the world.
The physical space is well past its prime and could definitely use an upgrade with newer decor and a wider range of features, while the food and drink selection was also disappointingly limited, with the mildly appetizing hot items failing to make up for the lack of quality and variety elsewhere.
If you’re departing New York JFK in Korean Air’s premium cabins or with a Priority Pass membership in hand, it’s fair to say that you should come in with modest expectations, and that unlike other First Class lounges around the world, there’s really no need to set aside any meaningful time to visit this lounge in advance.