Korean Air reclassifies most first class seats as business, but the change isn’t permanent

COVID has forced airlines around the world to cut back on schedules and ground aircraft. In many cases, this has resulted in the disappearance of first class inventory. Over the past week, Korean Air joined this trend. Most of the airline’s first class inventory through the first quarter of 2021 has disappeared, causing some to wonder if the airline is eliminating first class for good.

Korean Air First Class Inventory Gone, with a Few Exceptions

As of today, there are only two routes where Korean Air is still offering first class on a daily basis:

  • Seoul (ICN) to New York (JFK)
  • Seoul (ICN) to Los Angeles (LAX)

There are a handful of flights between Seoul (ICN) and Washington D.C. (IAD) and Atlanta (ATL) with first class seats available, but the vast majority of flights to the U.S. and Europe show no first class inventory, even if the flights are serviced by an aircraft with a first class cabin.

First Class Seats Reclassified as Business Class

A look at Korean Air seat maps shows why there’s no first class inventory: the airline has reclassified its first class cabin as business. Below are seat maps from Expert Flyer for Korean Air’s 777-300ER and 747-8. You can see that seats normally sold as first class are now marked as business class (rows 1 and 2 on the 777-300ER, and rows 1 to 3 on the 747-8).

Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 4.53.16 PM.   Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 4.53.29 PM

Seat maps above from KE 93 from ICN to IAD (left), and KE 907 from ICN to LHR (right) on September 20, 2020

Seat maps show that the (former) first class cabin isn’t necessarily empty; many flights show seats in first class that are occupied (filled in blue). It’s likely that these first class seats were sold before Korean Air reclassified the cabin as business.

Another interesting twist is that Korean Air is completely blocking former first class seats on its 777-300ERs, even after they’ve been reclassified as business (example below from KE 37 ICN to ORD on October 28, 2020). This is indicated by the white “x” on seat maps. It appears the only exception to this are a handful of seats that are occupied.

Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 5.15.37 PM

Korean Air is not blocking the former first class cabin on its 747-8s. The reason for this is unclear; the airline’s 747 fleet will be grounded until September 2020 so perhaps these seats will be blocked in the future.

Changes Appear Temporary

Korean Air’s seat maps suggest that the elimination of Korean Air’s first class cabin is temporary. Starting on April 1st, 2021, seat maps show that the first class cabin will return. Examples from Korean Air’s 777-300ER and 747-8 are below.

Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 6.11.37 PM     Screen Shot 2020-07-27 at 6.11.46 PM

This is great news for first class flyers, but it comes with a few caveats. First, you can’t actually book Korean Air’s first class on flights departing on April 1st, 2021 or later. Second, although first class appears on 777-300ER seat maps, all seats are blocked. Also, a general note about seat maps is that they aren’t always reliable. Although seat maps are provided by airlines, they aren’t always up-to-date, particularly for flights over eight months away.

Conclusions

There’s been a lot of speculation about why Korean Air eliminated its first class inventory. One Mile at a Time, one of the first sites to notice the changes to Korean Air’s first class, offers a number of theories ranging from a permanent elimination of first class to a temporary change.

Here are my thoughts. At this point, it’s clear Korean Air doesn’t believe that there will be enough demand for first class to justify the operation of a separate cabin on anything but its busiest routes. The airline will certainly incur some opportunity cost for removing its first class inventory. But this opportunity cost is likely dwarfed by the cost to operate an international first class cabin that’s empty, or close to empty.

Reclassifying first class as business makes a lot of sense. It provides Korean Air with more premium capacity if needed, and also gives the airline the option to swap out aircraft.

It also seems likely that Korean Air will expand its first class operations in the future. The airline seems to have made a calculated decision to reclassify first class to business for a specified time period, although this time period may be lengthened depending on the state of international travel. Korean Air also has a fleet that’s poorly suited for two-class configurations. Most of the airline’s widebody fleet is configured for first, aside from its aging A330 fleet which is used mostly for short- and medium-haul flights.

While articles about the death of first class due to COVID get clicks, I doubt that this will be the case with Korean Air. The airline’s reclassification of first class to business appears to be a common-sense approach to today’s uncertain climate for international travel, rather than a permanent change of business model.