Flight Report:  ICN-PUS on Korean Air Flight KE 1401 (02 February 2019)

In this report, we’ll look at a very short – but very special – 40-minute flight from Incheon to Busan. A couple of things made this experience stand out amongst my recent airborne adventures, despite its brevity. One: although the flight serves a domestic route, it’s treated as an international service. Two: the flight blessed me with some incredible aerial views of the Korean peninsula.

Welcome aboard Korean Air flight KE 1401.

Note: Schedule/route information, equipment type, pricing, and other details are accurate only for the specific flight reviewed here. This information may not necessarily apply to previous or future flights, even by the same airline under the same route and flight number.

This report covers the second segment (KE 1401 / ICN-PUS) of a MNL-PUS journey, which was the first half of an open-jaw MNL-PUS/ICN-MNL itinerary. Click here to read my report on the first segment (KE 624 / MNL-ICN).

For the sake of brevity, I’ve used the airline’s IATA code (KE) throughout this report, instead of the full name “Korean Air”.

ROUTE MAP

OVERVIEW

Note: All times are local. Please note that Manila, Philippines (GMT+8) is one hour behind Seoul, South Korea (GMT+9).

ITINERARY OUTLINE
Outbound : Start MNL – KE 624 – Transit ICN – KE 1401 – PUS End
Return : Start ICN – KE 649 – MNL End

FLIGHT DETAILS
Airline and flight number : Korean Air (KE) 1401
Route : Seoul-Incheon, South Korea (IATA code: ICN) to Busan-Gimhae, South Korea (IATA code: PUS)
Date : Saturday, 02 February 2019
Scheduled departure time : 0825
Actual departure time : 0849
Scheduled arrival time : 0930
Actual arrival time : 0929

KE 1401 (ICN-PUS) is the second segment in the first half of an open-jaw MNL-PUS/ICN-MNL itinerary. Click here to read my review of the first segment, KE 624 (MNL-ICN).

Briefly, KE 1401 is a Transit Exclusive Domestic Flight: a special type of domestic service operated solely for passengers transferring to/from international flights via ICN from/to either Busan or Daegu. Since ICN is a purely international airport, KE 1401 is handled as if it were an international flight, with immigration/customs checks carried out at PUS (not at ICN) and passengers disembarking at PUS’ international terminal (not at the domestic building). We’ll go into more detail about Transit Exclusive Domestic Flights as we make our way through this report.

The FAQs section of the KE website also contains some useful information regarding Transit Exclusive Domestic Flights, including how to book them and what restrictions are involved.

EQUIPMENT AND CABIN
Aircraft : Boeing 737-900ER
Manufacturer : Boeing
Registration number : HL8248
Passenger capacity : Prestige Class 12 + Economy Class 147 = Total 159
Cabin configuration (seat maps) : Official Site
Travel class flown : Economy

Here’s a shot of HL8248, parked at ICN Terminal 2 just before our departure. She’s quite new at less than 7 years of age, which is reflected in the fairly good state of her interiors (as we’ll see later).

PRICE

I booked my ticket as a rewards programme redemption. For illustrative purposes only, here’s the fare breakdown for a nearly identical itinerary on the same flight dates as mine – open-jaw MNL-PUS (via ICN) and ICN-MNL – albeit with a different ICN-PUS schedule as my own flight (KE 1401) was already fully booked and unsearchable. These details are based on a KE website enquiry done on 05 January 2019, with the lowest available Economy Class fare selected.

– Base fare = USD 396.00
– Carrier-imposed fees = USD 26.70
– Taxes, fees and charges = USD 39.95
– Total = USD 462.65

Note that my itinerary (and the sample fare shown above) includes an additional ICN-PUS segment tacked onto the initial MNL-ICN run. Compare this with a simple MNL-ICN-MNL round trip on the same dates, which is priced as follows:

– Base fare = USD 360.00
– Carrier-imposed fees = USD 25.80
– Taxes, fees and charges = USD 35.48
– Total = USD 421.28

Bear in mind that the total price for each of these trial bookings does NOT include the PHP 1,620.00 “Travel Tax” that residents of the Philippines (with certain exceptions) must pay when flying out of the country.

BAGGAGE

Since I booked KE 1401 together with KE624 under the same ticket, my international Economy Class check-in baggage allowance of 1 piece weighing 23 kg also applied to the domestic leg. The carry-on allowance was 1 piece and 1 additional small item, with the total weight of both put together not exceeding 12 kg. There were also limits on the dimensions of each piece of luggage.

Batteries (and electronic devices containing batteries) are not permitted in checked luggage. These must be transported onboard in one’s carry-on bags.

For the fine print and other details, read the guidelines on KE’s official website.

A couple of things worth bearing in mind where Transit Exclusive Domestic Flights (such as KE 1401) are concerned:
1) Since these special domestic flights are treated as international, baggage will be transferred automatically at ICN. Passengers should (according to KE’s FAQs) “make sure to request transfer of baggage to domestic flight for transit passengers when checking baggage at the departing airport”.
2) Under KE policy, the free baggage allowance of one’s international leg will carry over to the Transit Exclusive Domestic Flight if both are purchased under a single ticket. However, “this rule will not be applied if you have a ticket for an international flight operated by another airline (including Code Share flights) and if your transit flight ticket was purchased separately”, in which case the standard domestic baggage allowance will apply to the Transit Exclusive Domestic Flight.

Drawing on my own experience as a passenger on KE 1401, I can attest that there was no baggage claim at ICN after I arrived off KE 624. The luggage I checked in at MNL was safely delivered on the carousel at PUS, and all the usual customs formalities (along with immigration) were handled at PUS as if I’d arrived there from overseas.

AIRPORT

KE 1401 departed from the new Terminal 2 (T2) of Incheon International Airport (IATA code: ICN).

Click here to read my report describing the process of transferring between flights at ICN. There’s also a summary of transit procedures on the KE website.

As mentioned earlier, ICN is now operated as a purely international facility. The very small number of domestic flights to/from Busan and Daegu that still use this airport are treated as international services, and can only be used by passengers transferring directly from/to actual international flights. In other words, it’s not possible to use ICN-based domestic flights on a purely domestic commute between Seoul and Busan/Daegu, and travellers arriving from overseas who pass through immigration at ICN will not be allowed back into the terminal to board these special domestic services (even if they hold a confirmed ticket or boarding pass). Normal domestic flights out of the Seoul area – including those run by KE – all operate out of Gimpo International Airport (IATA code: GMP), and might offer more flexibility if you’re happy to change airports and go through check-in procedures a second time.

After landing, we disembarked at the international terminal of Gimhae International Airport (IATA code: PUS), not at the domestic building.

At PUS, I underwent the same immigration and customs procedures that normal international arrivals are subjected to. The checked luggage I entrusted to KE at MNL was returned to me here, having been transferred automatically at ICN.

Incidentally, here’s a report I wrote a while back about PUS’ international terminal, although it only covers the departures area (not arrivals).

CHECK-IN AND BOARDING

Since KE 1401 is, operationally speaking, an international flight, my transit at ICN was pretty much the same as any layover one would make at this airport. Check-in formalities were all completed at my point of origin (MNL), where I received boarding passes for both KE 624 (MNL-ICN) and KE 1401 (ICN-PUS). The MNL counter agent also tagged my checked luggage all the way to PUS, with no reclaim necessary at ICN.

N.B.: KE advises on its website (via the FAQs under keyword “baggage”) that passengers connecting to Transit Exclusive Domestic Flights should request check-in staff at their point of origin to tag luggage straight to the final destination, perhaps anticipating that some agents overseas aren’t aware that these quasi-international transits (with no intermediate customs barrier) are qualified for automatic baggage transfers.

There are service desks available at ICN T2’s transit zone for passengers who still need to get their onward boarding passes issued.

With my KE 1401 boarding pass already in hand, I merely sailed through the transit zone and soon found myself ready to enjoy T2’s many facilities. Click here to learn more about what to expect during and after the transfer process.

The layover experience for a Transit Exclusive Domestic Flight is, for the most part, no different from what one might expect when transferring between international flights at ICN. That said, there’s an important caveat (and I’d like to quote KE directly on this point): “[y]ou will be unable to use Duty Free Shops at Incheon Airport when transferring to Busan/Daegu”. Since KE 1401 and similar inbound flights are still technically domestic, it makes sense that passengers about to board these services aren’t legally qualified to shop tax-free. After all, any goods they purchase at ICN will subsequently be brought into, not out of, the country when they proceed to their final destination. Enforcement of this restriction is made possible by the fact that boarding passes need to be presented at the till when buying duty free merchandise at the airport.

Whether one has the option to buy goods with taxes added isn’t something I can confirm directly, as I didn’t purchase anything – other than breakfast – during my layover.

Shopping aside, all other facilities and commercial establishments in the airside zone of ICN (including restaurants) are available to those using a Transit Exclusive Domestic Flight. I wasn’t penned up in a special holding area, nor was I confined to the boarding gate. Like any transiting international passenger, I was completely free to explore the terminal and use whatever facilities I fancied.

At Gate 238, separate lanes were put up for priority passengers (including those in Prestige Class) and for everyone else. No other rules or sequences were imposed – it was pretty much a case of first-come, first-served.

In the end, ours being a small aircraft and Gate 238 having only one aerobridge, all passengers boarded through the same door.

SEATING AND CABIN INTERIOR

Detailed descriptions of our aeroplane’s seat equipment – together with a simplified deck plan – can be found on KE’s official website.

The Prestige (Business) Class section is fitted with 12 seats in three rows of four units abreast (2-2). Every seat has 50 inches of pitch and 21 inches of width, with a foldaway 10.6 inch LCD screen for entertainment.

Further aft is the Economy Class cabin, with 147 seats. Pitch ranges from 32-33 inches, with a standard width of 17.2 inches.

Here’s a shot of the bulkhead row (28)…

…and one of the exit rows (36/37). Note that the tray tables in these rows fold out of the armrests, which could make them feel slightly constricted.

Now we come to one of the regular rows. Decent leg space, and a promised recline of up to 113 degrees (though I didn’t push mine back that far).

I was seated in 50F, very nearly at the end of the passenger cabin. My preferred place would have been above or forward of the wings; better for stability and an advantage when disembarking. Alas, the flight was nearly sold out by the time I booked (no surprise as it’s the Seollal weekend), and most of the remaining seats were clustered near the tail.

Here’s a picture of the area, looking towards the front from my seat.

Excellent view to the outside, with minimal wing intrusion. But we’ll have more to say about the view later.

The seat back is fitted with a 9 inch personal IFE screen. The pop-out controller is mounted underneath the screen, tethered by a retractable cord. Coat hook on the left, USB port for electronic devices on the right. The tray table is of a bifold design, which frees up more real estate on the seat back for the in-flight conveniences above it.

Incidentally, there was no AVOD available on this flight, despite the presence of a complete IFE system. More on that later.

And here’s a shot of the overhead panel.

Now then, if one is faced with urgent needs of a personal nature, there are three lavatories in the Economy section to choose from (all near the tail). Prestige Class passengers have exclusive use of another toilet, near the cockpit door.

CATERING

My initial assumption was that we wouldn’t be served anything on this short domestic hop. Then again, as a full-service airline (rather than the budget carriers I’ve grown accustomed to), KE seem more than ready to tip my expectations on their head once in a while.

Our complimentary in-flight snack: a sweet cupcake and a choice of beverage.

IN-FLIGHT SERVICE AND AMENITIES

No pillows, blankets, or headphones were supplied in Economy Class. Then again, none of these would have been needed on such a short flight.

Newspapers were laid out on a cart in the aerobridge at ICN, allowing passengers to help themselves as they walked towards the plane.

Arrival cards, customs forms, and health questionnaires were distributed during the flight. All quite expected, given that KE 1401 was treated as an international flight and every passenger here was from an overseas connection. (Bear in mind again that it’s not possible to use these Transit Exclusive Domestic Flights as regular domestic services, so there were no purely domestic passengers on board.)

For reference, here’s the blank paperwork I received during the previous leg, KE 624.

Polite and professional cabin crew. Of course, my interactions with them were almost nonexistent (being confined mainly to choosing the drink served with my onboard snack), but I saw or heard nothing that would give cause for concern.

IN-FLIGHT ENTERTAINMENT

KE’s Boeing 737-900ERs are regularly deployed on regional services. No surprise, then, at seeing HL8248 equipped with a complete IFE system and personal monitors at every seat.

Having said that, the AVOD was unavailable on this short flight. No headphones were distributed, and our personal monitors were locked on a standby screen all throughout the journey.

Fortunately, another screen was available for my enjoyment. There was just one channel available, but it offered a fantastic live stream featuring some quite stunning landscapes. I am, of course, talking about…

THE VIEW FROM MY WINDOW

I tend not to dwell on this aspect of the airborne experience, but I’m happy to make an exception in KE 1401’s case…

…given that this flight was a veritable front-row seat to some of the finest views of Korea I’ve ever enjoyed from the air.

The cloud cover at ICN was a smooth sheet of dull yellow-grey when viewed from the tarmac…

…but from above, those same clouds were transformed into a rippled blanket that changed in both texture and hue the higher up we climbed. Puffy and ashen grey at first, with a light golden cast, before gradually smoothing out and taking on a purer cottony white.

The clouds eventually peeled away to reveal a jagged, almost otherworldly landscape of dark grey mountains streaked with silver snow-covered valleys.

In time, the sharp peaks dulled into hills, interspersed with small patches of intensively cultivated flatland.

Towards the end of our flight, the terrain reared up once more as the Korean peninsula met the waters along its southern edge. We flew past the densely built-up Masan area on the western side of Changwon, a major city near Busan.

The aircraft cruised over the hilly peninsula on the southern tip of Changwon…

…and out over the sea as we gradually swung around on our final approach.

I stopped taking pictures at some point after this, the cabin crew having advised over the PA system that photographing PUS from the air was not allowed due to security reasons. (The civilian facilities of PUS are adjacent to Gimhae Air Base of the ROK Air Force, and one of the airport’s two runways is reserved for military use, so I can understand the restriction.)

OVERALL IMPRESSION

The facts speak for themselves: on-time arrival (despite a delayed departure), world-class transit facilities, decent onboard service. On these merits alone, I’m happy to call this KE 1401 experience a success.

Now I’d like to dwell a bit more on the special nature of this flight and why I chose this means of flying into Busan. The alternative would have been to enter Korea right there at ICN, take the airport railway to Seoul, and catch a high-speed KTX train bound for my final destination. (There are also highway buses available, but I loathe long-distance road travel so this didn’t factor into my deliberations.)

Incidentally, I also considered a direct MNL-PUS flight, but only one airline plies that route and their late arrival slot (19:35) would have cut too deeply into my precious sightseeing time.

Here are some of the points that tipped the scale in favour of the Transit Exclusive Domestic Flight:

  • The extra ICN-PUS leg only increased the total ticket price by about USD 40, or roughly KRW 45,000. Put on an extra KRW 7,000 for the limousine bus from PUS to Busan (the fare may differ depending on your stop), and the incremental cost of the plane option comes to about KRW 52,000. This compares favourably with the KRW 67,000-70,000 I’d have paid to take the express train from ICN to Seoul, and then the KTX to Busan.
  • Although the plane (layover considered) required around 1.5 hours more than the train (transfers considered), I decided that transiting at ICN would be much better than an immediate land journey to Busan. ICN has showers, places to stretch out, and other facilities designed to ease the pain of a layover, none of which are present (to the same degree) at Seoul Station where the KTX departs from. This was a key consideration since I was arriving on a very early flight, with little or no sleep during the previous night to draw energy from.
  • After leaving my heavy luggage with KE at MNL, I didn’t have to worry about it until I reached PUS. Think about all the pulling, hauling, heaving, dragging, sliding, and lifting I would have had to put myself through on the rail-based option.
  • One other point increases the flight’s attractiveness, though I realised this after the fact. Having taken the KTX before, I can say with absolute certainty that the views I enjoyed on KE 1401 were far, far, far better than any I’d ever seen from a train window on that route.

    All things considered, I’m happy to have taken KE 1401, and I’ll keep it on the books as an option when planning future holidays in Korea (if my starting point is Busan).

    Cheerio.

    7 responses to “Flight Report:  ICN-PUS on Korean Air Flight KE 1401 (02 February 2019)

    1. Hi,
      Came across your blog recently, love your writing style. It’s like reading a travel novel. Refreshing that you don’t rely on photos but words to do the talking.
      Kudos, keep traveling and writing.

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