Korean Air upgrades service, image

The corner office of the chairman of Korean Air overlooks the end of the runways at Gimpo International, South Korea's oldest airport.

During the 1990s, Cho Yang-Ho was often summoned there by his father, the late Cho Choong Hoon. Standing before the floor-to-ceiling windows, father and son would eyeball planes taxiing for takeoff. The heavier and better-loaded a plane, the farther it roared down the runway.

"When our aircraft would go all the way to the end of the runway, we were feeling good," says the younger Cho, chuckling at the memory. "When our aircraft would take off before other airlines, I knew our marketing team and I were in trouble."

Now that he occupies the corner office, Cho, 60, no longer uses the informal inspection method of assessing how well Korean Air is doing. The airline has expanded so much that it now flies only domestic and China- and Japan-bound flights from Gimpo. Most of its international passenger and cargo operations fly from Incheon International airport, which opened in 2001.

Under Cho's tutelage, Korean Air has shed its image of being an accident-prone airline from a developing nation to become the largest Asian carrier operating in the USA. It flies from more cities in the USA to cities in Asia than any other airline, the company says. It's the world's largest commercial airline cargo carrier. The company estimates it spent $5.4 billion in the last 10 years to improve safety, upgrade its fleet, install new technology and overhaul its corporate culture. It now has a four-star rating out of a possible five stars from Skytrax, a London aviation consulting firm that rates airlines on quality. That's on par with Lufthansa, Virgin Atlantic and Thai Airways.

The airline's outlook, as reflected in a new ad campaign, is decidedly more global and designed to appeal to high-paying business travelers who want the luxury of top regional competitors Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific.

"That's our target," Cho says. "We'd like to think of Korean Air as one of the top airlines that they'd want to fly."

Putting safety first

Korean Air has a colorful history that befits its country's rapid and turbulent economic development. And in it, Cho found his challenge after taking control as chairman in 1999.

The Korean government created Korean Air Lines in 1962. When then-dictator Park Chung-Hee sought to privatize it, he tapped Cho's father, who had created a major transportation company that started with one truck in 1945 and grew by shuttling U.S. military supplies. The company, Hanjin Group, grew to be the largest transportation conglomerate in South Korea, called chaebol here. It controls the country's largest airline and shipping company.

Korean Air launched its first long-haul passenger service — to Los Angeles International — in 1972. Its emergence as an international carrier, as with many other Korean brands that went global, had rough spots. It had one of the highest accident rates until the late 1990s, with seven serious accidents during the decade. Delta and Air France dropped Korean Air as a code-share partner in 1999 shortly after an accident.

An often-told tale, which resurfaced recently in Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, assigns blame for a Korean Air crash in Guam in 1997 on the carrier's hierarchical cultural legacy that teaches Koreans to be deferential toward their elders and superiors. The co-pilot failed to speak up when the pilot made a fatal error, Gladwell says.

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