Bee Bim Bop and Morning Calm: Crossing the Pacific on Korean Air

by Steven K. Bailey, Aug 20, 2007 | Destinations: Korea, S
Incheon International Airport

Incheon International Airport

Incheon International Airport

On my last trip to Asia I went to South Korea.  Sort of.  I flew from Chicago to Hong Kong on Korean Air, with a stop to change planes at Seoul’s brand-new Incheon International Airport.  I never went through passport control in Seoul and never left the airport concourse, but I can still claim that I spent nearly 24 hours in South Korea.  After all, from the bee bim bop to the etiquette buttons, my day-long journey on Korean Air was 100-percent Korean.

A foreign-flagged 747 is like culture in a can, after all, which is why I’ve always preferred to fly an Asian airline when crossing the Pacific.  This way I get to reach Asia earlier, since the minute I step aboard a Cathay Pacific, Thai Airways or Korean Air jetliner I leave America and enter Hong Kong, Thailand or, as in my most recent case, South Korea.  This is a definite plus, as it keeps those endless trans-Pacific flights interesting.

After all, whenever I fly an Asian carrier everything seems just a few degrees from normal.  Korean Air certainly offered no exception to this rule.  For example, as my 747 settled into its cruising altitude over Minnesota, the flight attendants distributed disposable towels with a wrapper that proclaimed THESE TOWELS ALSO HAVE A STERILIZING EFFECT.  I was glad to have the fold-down table between the towel and my…um, well, you understand my concern. 

I also puzzled over the enigmatic references to the Land of Morning Calm.  This mysterious phrase kept popping up in the in-flight magazines and on the video screens like some kind of secret password.  Exactly what did morning calm have to do with Korean Air?  And if I whispered this phrase to the chief flight attendant, would these words admit me to first class?  My English-language copy of The Korea Herald offered no further explanation of this matter, though it did give a rundown of the less than calm economic situation in Korea. 

For true morning calm I looked to the beverage cart, which offered cans of beer emblazoned with strange names -- Cass, Prime, and OB -- reminiscent of the monikers bestowed on gang members.  Dinner inevitably featured bee bim bop, the national dish of white rice garnished with a mishmash of salmon sashimi, vegetables, ground beef and other ingredients.  Non-Korean passengers got a handy instruction sheet for eating bee bim bop, an undertaking that involved much mixing and the dexterous use of a long-handled metal spoon.

Bee bim bop also required the liberal application of kochujang hot pepper paste, the Korean equivalent of American Tabasco sauce.  The flight attendants kept a stack of extra tubes atop the food cart for those needing additional doses of this endorphin-activating concoction of chili paste, sesame oil, garlic and rice wine.  I rather liked the stuff and even used it on my breakfast eggs, a fiery undertaking that clearly pleased the cabin crew.

While the flight attendants showed a very Korean appreciation for spicy cuisine, they also exhibited the national work ethic of their native country.  Koreans like to say that the Japanese are good workers, but a little lazy, which gives you a sense of how seriously the cabin crew took its duties. 

Nowhere was the Korean work ethic more evident than when it came to keeping the airplane clean.  Now, I’ll confess that I am one of those unreasonable passengers who expects a clean aircraft, so I had immediately noticed when boarding in Chicago that the interior of the plane was unusually well scrubbed.  Fresh white seat-covers crowned the headrests.  The seats had been cleaned and the cabin walls washed down.  The carpets were stain-free and the restrooms tidy.  I found everything, in fact, to be admirably shipshape.

Contrast this with the stained seats of American carriers like United and Northwest, whose planes always look as if they were on the losing end of some trans-Pacific food fight.  For that matter, compare this to Cathay Pacific.  At the end of a long flight to Hong Kong its planes often look completely trashed, which has as much to do with the passengers as the crew.  Many of the Chinese passengers toss everything from napkins to headset wrappers onto the floor, where they get ground into the carpet in an impressive mess of crumbs, newspapers, plastic cups, splintered chopsticks and assorted international detritus.  The flight attendants, meanwhile, leave this sticky disaster for the ground crew to clean up.

Korean Air cabin crews, however, might best be classified as clean freaks.  I saw this obsession in action when a sloppy passenger in the row behind me kept dropping flavored popcorn into the aisle all the way from North America to South Korea.  Since I had an aisle seat, this meant that when I kicked off my shoes I ran the risk of getting popcorn stuck to my stocking feet.  I had just accepted this state of affairs when a Korean Air flight attendant appeared with a little hand-powered vacuum cleaner and quickly dispensed with the spilled popcorn.  This pattern continued for the entire flight -- the offending passenger would lose control of his popcorn and almost like magic a flight attendant would materialize beside me with her little vacuum unit.

Along with keeping the interior of their planes clean, Korean Air flight attendants clearly placed a high value on personal appearance and hygiene as well.  Like some kind of high-altitude fashion show, they kept reappearing in different uniforms that were as spotless as they were stylish.  The female attendants had artfully applied eye shadow and the male attendants sported perfectly aligned ties.  This attention to personal hygiene extended to the passengers as well, so many of whom had indulged in the garlic-flavored hot pepper paste.  To combat the resulting bad breath, the attendants made sure that the restrooms never ran out of free purple toothbrushes and minty little tubes of toothpaste.

I made sure to brush my teeth before landing at Incheon International Airport.  As I did so, I considered how conventional travel wisdom says that every international airport looks the same.  This line of reasoning holds that you can’t tell Heathrow from O’Hare or Narita from Frankfurt.  On first glance I knew that this might be true, but on second glance I’d always found that the closer you look at a foreign airport the more peculiarities you find.  In the case of Incheon International, these peculiarities popped up before we even landed.  I noticed upon returning to my seat, for example, that the video screen displaying our airspeed and altitude also showed how approaches to Incheon have to be carefully orchestrated to avoid the volatile North Korean border, which lies less than 25 miles north of the airport.    

I doubted I would ever mistake Incheon for Heathrow or Narita, however, and not just because the airport fell within range of North Korean anti-aircraft missiles.  When I strolled into the terminal after touchdown, I could immediately see that Incheon remained distinctly South Korean.  The Korean work ethic and concern for cleanliness was on display wherever I turned.  Each restroom, for example, featured a framed picture of its janitor, who faithfully pledged to keep the restroom clean.  Gender seemed to be irrelevant, as I found female janitors cleaning the men’s restrooms while they were in full use.  The stalls in the women’s restrooms, meanwhile, included etiquette buttons that when pressed triggered pleasant camouflaging noises.  I heard this story secondhand; the men’s rooms apparently had no need for such fancy gadgets. 

Everywhere little “mopper” carts roamed the terminal, polishing the already polished floors to a reflective shine.  I wandered those gleaming concourses in search of eggs and bacon, for I had landed at sunrise and managed to convince my jetlagged body that I should eat breakfast rather than dinner.  The Asian food courts offered strange blends of Eastern and Western cuisine, but no hash browns or scrambled eggs.  The Korean staff had stopped serving breakfast at 8:30 a.m., probably figuring anyone wanting breakfast at such a late hour was too lazy to deserve it.  The Korean work ethic apparently had no time for any morning calm. 

I eventually discovered that the Burger King and Dunkin’ Donuts in the Western food court offered breakfast past 8:30, catering as it did to indolent Americans and other foreigners.  I ate a breakfast sandwich and settled for Dunkin’ Donuts coffee since the airport lacked a Starbucks, that ubiquitous staple of international airports the world over.  Incheon, in fact, offered surprisingly provincial dining options. 

But then again, Incheon attracted a surprisingly provincial array of passengers from end of the earth places like Ulan Bator or Vladivostok.  These passengers flew on an odd roster of airlines.  From my food-court window seat I could see the red planes of the mysterious FAT airlines, for example.  The departure monitor listed still more airlines that I’d never encountered anywhere else, strange outfits with names like Air Astana, Dalavia Far East Airways and Siberian Airlines. 

Not surprisingly, I shared the food court with a large number of Russians.  The men paid with hundred-dollar bills and the women relied heavily on their cosmetic cases; both genders wore attire that would not have been out of place in an American disco circa 1970.  To be fair, however, the Russians probably thought I looked ridiculous in my outdoorsy Columbia ensemble, given that the only hiking I would be doing involved the walk between connecting flights.

As it turned out, I did have to hike up some stairs when I boarded my flight to Hong Kong, so my Columbia gear came in handy after all.  As I stepped aboard the 747, the flight attendant examined my boarding pass and directed me to the staircase leading up to the top deck.  For a blissful minute or two I thought I’d lucked out and been bumped up to business class for some true morning calm, but when I reached the coveted top deck I found an extension of economy class -- a unique seating plan I’d never encountered before.  Still, I got to ride on the top deck for the first time, even if I did so in economy class.

I felt pretty beat by this point, but this hardly came as a surprise.  Experience had shown me that you can’t fly halfway around the world and expect to arrive well rested and alert.  You’re crossing too many time zones too fast.  Still, as these things go, I had a good flight on Korean Air and arrived in Hong Kong in reasonably decent shape.        

My flight home several weeks later really sold me on Korean Air, however.  My traveling companion had picked up a sinus infection in Sapa, a chilly mountain town in northern Vietnam that spends most of the winter smothered in a foggy drizzle.  As she fastened her seatbelt and waited for our Korean Air flight to depart Hanoi for Seoul, she began to remember nightmare scenarios about sinus infections and ruptured eardrums caused by changes in cabin pressure. 

Our takeoff produced no ruptured eardrums, however, and I thought that maybe my partner was unnecessarily worried -- until we began our initial approach to Incheon, that is.  “My head is about to explode,” she moaned and leaned miserably against the seat in front of her, hands pressed against her ears.  The flight attendants repeatedly came by to check on her and ask if there was anything they could do, though like me they understood that only landing the plane would really solve the problem. 

My partner felt better once we landed in Incheon, but on the long trans-Pacific leg of the flight she grew steadily more ill, losing her voice and gaining an explosively bad cough.  Again the flight attendants kept a close eye on her and cheerfully accommodated all of our special requests -- endless glasses of Sprite on ice and hot instant noodles because my partner’s throat was too sore for solid food like bee bim bop. 

My partner could barely function by the time we landed in Chicago, where she wrapped herself up in a gold-colored Vietnamese blanket like some kind of giant egg roll.  Then she crashed on a row of seats in the noisy terminal and slept through our entire layover.  When we finally reached our end destination in Michigan, I drove her straight from the airport to a nearby medical clinic.  She took more than a week to recover, and though her flight home had passed in an illness-induced haze, my partner could clearly remember the attentive concern of the Korean Air flight attendants. 

This personal touch earned my partner’s loyalty to Korean Air.  It earned mine as well.  The airline’s  excellent frequent flier program and commitment to keeping its aircraft clean further bolstered our loyalty.  For these reasons and all the others I’ve mentioned above, the two of us plan to fly on one of Korean Air’s spic-and-span Boeings the next time we head for Hong Kong.  We look forward to sipping cold cans of Cass beer, sampling the bee bim bop, and letting that morning calm carry us across the Pacific like an old friend.

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FACT FILE: Korean Air flies daily from Chicago to Incheon International Airport in Seoul, South Korea.  Connecting Korean Air flights service several dozen Asian cities, including Tokyo, Bangkok, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Manila, Ho Chi Minh City, Hanoi, Taipei, Hong Kong and Beijing.  Reservations: 1-800-438-5000.  Website:  Korean Air has partnered with Continental, Delta and Northwest, which means their frequent flier programs are now interchangeable.  Miles earned on Korean Air, for example, can be awarded to your Northwest frequent flier account.  This allows you to quickly rack up the 25,000 miles you need for a free domestic ticket, considering that round-trip flights from North America to Asia can earn you up to 15,000 miles.

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