In just over 50 years, Seoul-based Korean Air has grown to become one of the biggest airlines in the world. Its 156 planes now normally fly to 120 destinations in 43 countries. In 2021, the airline is an outlier, retaining both Airbus A380 and Boeing 747-400 aircraft in its fleet. But as its unusual history attests, the Korean Air story is one of recovery and redemption.
Korean Air traces its origins back to 1948 when an airline called Korean National Airlines operated its first passenger flight between Seoul to Pusan. The Korean War disrupted the privately-owned airline operations. Services resumed in 1952 with a handful of Douglas DC-3 and DC-4 planes.
A short-lived airline nationalization
In 1962, Korean National Airlines was forcibly nationalized. The airline wasn’t the only business to get nationalized. The South Korean Government nationalized many industries to facilitate economic growth. As part of the nationalization process, the airline’s name was changed to Korean Air Lines.
The South Korean Government’s dalliance with running airlines did not last long. In 1969, they sold Korean Air Lines to South Korean conglomerate Hanjin Group who has retained ownership ever since. Hanjin rebranded the airline to Korean Air. At the time, there were just eight aircraft in the fleet, including NAMC YS-11 and Fairchild Hiller FH-227 turboprops, and McDonnell Douglas DC-9s.
Shifting Korean Air back into private hands spurred growth at the airline. Boeing 707-320 aircraft were introduced in 1971, and as a result, the airline began to spread its wings, adding flights around North Asia and North America.
Korean Air brings in the Boeing 747
In April 1971, Korean Air launched a trans-Pacific cargo route, flying Seoul–Tokyo–Los Angeles, becoming the first South Korean airline to operate flights to North America. The following April, Korean Air began regular passenger flights to North America, flying Seoul–Tokyo–Honolulu–Los Angeles.
Initially, the Boeing 707-320 operated the North America flights. But in 1973, Boeing 747-200s began arriving at Korean Air. They replaced the 707-320s on flights to Los Angeles and, in 1975, allowed the airline to start its first flight to Europe. In March that year, Korean 747 flights began landing in Paris.
It’s worth remembering airspace around South Korea was heavily restricted at the time. Korean Air’s planes couldn’t fly over North Korea or the USSR. That ban would eventually have catastrophic consequences. In the meantime, those Paris flights (and other Europe-bound flights as more cities were added to the timetables) operated via North America, flying Seoul-Anchorage-Paris, for instance.
In the mid-1970s, Korean Air introduced some Airbus aircraft into its fleet, bringing in A300B4 planes. These planes were mostly used on North Asian international routes. In 1979, flights to New York started.
Steady growth towards the end of the 20th century
In the early 1980s, Korean Air experienced yet another name change, reverting back to Korean Air Lines. The airline also introduced the stylized Taegeuk design, which has been retained ever since. Unlike the 1970s, the 1980s wasn’t a particularly groundbreaking decade at the airline. Instead, the decade was characterized by steady growth and safety issues.
But the 1980s did cement the growing role of the Boeing 747 at Korean Air Lines. In the decade, Boeing 747-300s began arriving to supplement the 747-200s. It is also worth noting the fillup Korean Air Lines and South Korea, in general, got from the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
The 1990s saw Boeing 747-400s begin to land at Korean Air Lines. The 100th plane to be delivered to Korean was a Boeing 747-400. The airline took that in March 1995. Over the years, the airline would go on to fly 42 Boeing 747-400s. The airline still retains 20 of the jumbos, although around half are now configured to fly cargo only.
The 1990s also saw Korean start flying into China, adding flights to Beijing, Tianjin, Qingdao, Shenyang. This was significant given the historical animosity between the two countries.
Overcoming a lousy safety record
Korean has a pretty stellar reputation today. But in the 1980s and 1990s, that wasn’t the case. The airline’s reputation had become so poor, Delta Air Lines and Air France dropped Korean Air as a codeshare partner in 1999 – but that was after years of bad headlines.
Most notoriously, a Korean 747 operating a passenger flight from New York to Seoul via Anchorage on September 1, 1983, was shot down by a Soviet Su-15 interceptor after the jet allegedly breached USSR airspace. Two hundred and sixty-nine people died.
A series of other accidents involving 16 aircraft and costing over 700 lives between 1970 and 1999 didn’t exactly burnish the airline’s reputation. Much of the problem was attributed to cultural issues at the airline, where people were afraid to speak up and report problems.
That began to change with a decision around 20 years to start putting safety first. While still owned by Hanjin, a new CEO came in and began to clean the airline and its dysfunctional culture up. Among the radical initiatives (for South Korea at least) was encouraging junior employees to raise an issue knowing doing so would not imperil their careers.
A stellar rebound for Korean Air Lines
Korean Air Lines has spent much of the last two decades improving the airline’s reputation. In fairness, they’ve done a stellar job at that. These days, most people would confidently board a Korean Air Lines flight.
It helps that new generations of passengers have come through who don’t recall the bad days at Korean. It also helps that Korean’s contemporary inflight product is now top tier. The airline has put a lot of time and effort into rebuilding its image as a premium carrier.
In 2011, A380s began landing at the airline, further consolidating Korean’s reputation as a serious, long-haul airline. In 2021, Korean Air Lines has transformed itself into one of the best carriers in the world. It is a remarkable rise for an airline whose reputation was mud just 25 years ago.
It is also a testament to what good management and significant cultural change can do. These days, Korean is busy swallowing up local competitor Asiana. That merger will see Korean become an even bigger player in aviation. The airline will continue to operate the A380, boosting its fleet with the Asiana A380s.
With five decades under their belt, it hasn’t always been the easiest ride for Korean Air Lines. The airline’s problems with safety aren’t something you’d brag about. But their recovery and rebound is definitely worth talking about.