Korean Air Review Economy Class – was this the most scary flight ever?
For my flight from Busan to Hong Kong I had looked at a number of options. Revenue tickets for the one-way were at around $300 and $500 for the times I preferred. That's a lot of money for a 3 hour flight!
I eventually booked with 20,000 Flying Blue miles and $20 for the non-stop flight with Korean Air. Not my best redemption ever but at least I got the times and saved myself another connection.
I used the airport limousine to the airport which was a good idea at $6 I got a private bus (no other passengers that day) for the 90 minute ride (we hit quite a bit of traffic). Taxis are more like $35 for a ride from Haeundae to the airport.
The check-in was a bit quirky - the Korean air agent tagged my bag and told me to look up into the large video screens for my bag to appear. I asked why and she said that is policy and I was required to wait until it clears security. If it would get stuck I would be called out. I never heard of that before. My bag did not raise any suspicions and went through and I was on my way to try some delicious Korean airport food. The Bibimbap served at the airport restaurant was chap and delicious. I wish the world would have more of those delicious food outlets all over.
I used the Korean Air lounge (which like most Korean Air lounges, takes part int the Priority Pass system) for 90 minutes. My boarding time appeared and I got my exit row seat (which was offered o me free of charge) and was ready to get to Hong Kong. The 737-900 was of an older variant - the interior felt truly old though the planes was recently equipped with new engines.
The pilot announced a 45 minute delay because of the weather in Hong Kong. Fair enough -ATC restrictions are no big deal. After 45 minutes we promptly pushed back and took off towards Taipei and Hong Kong.
The flight turned out to be very bumpy along the ride with lots of water being spilled at the meal service.
About 45 minutes outside of Hong Kong the pilot announced another ATC restriction and we woudl be in a holding pattern at 13,000 feet. Now this stretched on for 30 and then 60 minutes with no solution. This is when thing got hairy.
Our initial holding pattern was bumpy but was outside a thunderstorm area. However we have moved slightly westward and now the sky was suddenly lit up all around us in bright blue. Wherever you looked left and right of the plane you would see lightning. Not individual lightning strikes but the clouds below us would be illuminated completely in a stark, blue light that kept moving it's center.
This is NOT an area you want to be! The turbulence also became massive with everyone clinching to their seat (including yours truly). The pilot finally announced that we have gotten a slot at Hong Kong airport and would proceed to land.
We still had about 5 minutes flying time above/ through the thunderstorm zone ahead of us. As far as I could see we were not hit by lightning during the flight. But still why did the pilot fly into an active thunderstorm zone before we even had permission to land? Why did ATC not warn him or did he use the radar to track the cells? Hong Kong airport had a lot of delays that day because of the moving thunderstorm front so ATC must have advised of the location of the front (which was 100 miles south of Hong Kong airport).
Landing into Hong kOng (with a 3 hour delay) was calm and there was precious little rain or wind now. In fact it seemed like a perfect day for flying.
I was shaken by this flight and the conditions how it was run. In my opinion the Korean Air pilot should have looked for a diversion airport sooner and avoid the thunderstorm zone at any cost (or at least altitude). It seemed highly unsafe to extend the holding pattern into the thunderstorm cell. Korean Air and Asiana both have a history of unwarranted safety risks because of pilots behaving too much according to protocol and too little weight is given to safety in unusual (read emergency) situations. While this was not emergency - it could have easily developed into one for no reason - it was completely avoidable.