Korean Air

posted by Pete McDonald

The first time you fall into your airplane seat never seems quite right. There always happens to be a seat belt buckle sticking into your backside, or a small white pillow crammed between the cushions. The seat itself usually feels a bit harder than you expected, and you’re not seated for thirty seconds before the large man assigned to the seat next to you requests that you stand up to let him pass through. On my flight from New York to Seoul, that request came in a series of grunts, accompanied by a sight hand gesture. He didn’t speak English. I didn’t speak Korean. But I got the idea. We were about to spend 14 hours next to each other, and neither one of us wanted to start things off on the wrong foot.

It was about midnight on the east coast. The plane wheels made an audible thud as they retreated into the belly of the beast, a monstrous Boeing 747, complete with two aisles, a second floor, and a first class cabin that us common folk didn’t get to see. As I boarded the plane minutes earlier, two Korean Air flight attendants had looked at my boarding pass and directed me down the nearest aisle. They blocked my view of first class, which I glanced at from the rear, realizing that a few thousand extra dollars would not only ensure me mood lighting and a king’s throne for my journey, but also my own separate jetway. The flight attendants wore traditional Korean-looking outfits, complete with tight blue collars and chopsticks through their hair buns. “Welcome, welcome. This way. Have good flight!” they said. Strangely, I felt like they actually meant it.

As the city lights outside the windows became complete darkness, I tried to get a sense of my surroundings. I had been given one pillow, one blanket, one set of headphones, and one plastic bag with a few mystery items sealed inside. I looked around a saw that the Koreans nearby all had white cloth slippers on their feet. My first thought was something like “Those are so weird looking. How could anybody wear those?” And my next thought was “I really need some of those too.” Luckily, they turned out to be in the plastic bag. I put them on immediately and fell asleep.

I woke up some time later, but I have no clue how long I slept. The combination of changing time zones, no cell phone service, and darkness all around makes for a kind of time vortex. I figured the guy next to me had the right idea in not waking up at all. I tried to change position in my seat, but painfully realized that my neck and back were frozen in the awkward position I had slept in. I felt cold, verified by the map on my TV monitor, which claimed that we would soon be flying over the North Pole. But the blanket I had placed behind my seat at the beginning of the flight had vanished. Somebody had stolen it while I was asleep. For the first time in my life, I pressed the flight attendant call button to ask for another one.

She and I both cringed when she arrived. We both knew this was going to be a difficult conversation, but luckily she knew the word “blanket.”

“I’m sorry,” she said. “We have no more. Only one per passenger.”

I tried to explain that it wasn’t my fault, that I had been trying to save it behind my seat and someone else must have taken it, but she just smiled. And somehow, I was perfectly happy with that. I guess I’m used to American flight attendants who always seem stressed and snappy. But these Korean Air flight attendants ranked up there with my first grade teacher as some of the kindest people I’d ever met. They never broke their smile. Although I could only communicate through hand gestures, and by repeating the same words over and over, they never laughed nor appeared annoyed. I felt like they actually did care about my experience.

I spent the rest of the flight sleeping, turning in my seat, persistently checking the world map, only to see that the plane hadn’t moved since the last time I checked, and watching in-flight movies, none of which interested me past the first ten minutes. Miraculously, the man next to me only needed to use the bathroom once. As I exited the plane around 4:00 AM, Seoul time, I marveled at modern technology’s ability to transport me across the world in half a day’s time. Despite a slight lack of comfort, I felt like Korean Air had earned my thousand-dollar fare.

The company advertises “Excellence in Flight.” I think they come as close as possible.

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