I would wager that most Americans had never heard of Asiana Airlines until flight 214 crashed, and now the company has entered the national consciousness in the worst possible way. But it is a company that has aggressively carved out a niche in the world airline industry, and whose cabin service and operations have been generally well respected, with company winning the award "airline of the year" by trade publication Air Transport World in 2009, and named the best airline in the world by Skytrax at the 2010 World Airline Awards. Whatever problems at Asiana may or may not be discovered related to the crash, the company has earned a lot of respect in its industry.
Asiana was established in 1988, to become the Republic of Korea's second international carrier, competing against Korean Airlines, until then the monopoly national carrier. The South Korean economy is dominated by vast, diversified business groups, called chaebol, somewhat similar to the zaibatsu groups that dominated the industrialization of Japan. Korean Airlines was part of the Hanjin Group, which is mainly engaged in shipping and logistics. By 1988, the ROK economy was rocketing ahead, and it was evident the airline business was going to grow, so other business interests wanted access to the sector. Another business group, the Kumho Group (which may be best known for the tires it markets in the United States), led other major investors into establishing Asiana.
The airline began with domestic flights, but within two years was flying internationally, from Seoul to several cities in Japan, including smaller airports that had never before received international service. The next year it added Southeast Asian cities, and the following year transpacific service. By the mid-1990s, it was flying to Europe. I first heard of the airline in 90s because I heard about Japanese travelers in secondary cities like Sendai bypassing Tokyo and using Seoul as their connecting point in traveling to Southeast Asia or Europe. Asiana was selling a lot of tickets in Japan to places other than Korea, using Seoul's Gimpo Airport as a hub.
For Japanese travelers, changing planes from domestic to international in Tokyo was often a nightmare, because domestic flights went into Haneda Airport, while international flights went out of Narita, requiring a long bus trip through a traffic clogged urban landscape. The Koreans observed the debacle closely, and when it became clear that Gimpo, a former Japanese and then American military airfield only about 9 miles from central Seoul, would be unable to handle the anticipated passenger traffic ahead, they avoided Japan's mistakes.
Planning for the new Seoul international airport began in the early 1990s. Two islands off of the port city of Incehon (where MacArthur landed) were leveled and the area in between filled in, with the entire man-made new island connected to land with a highway and railroad bridge. (This is the basic plan adopted by Japan for the new Osaka and Nagoya international airports.) A high speed train line connected the new airport to Seoul Station, with a stop on the way at Gimpo Airport, which remained the domestic airport for South Korea, requiring roughly a half hour journey from airport basement level to airport basement level.
Incheon Airport, which began construction in 1992 and opened in 2001, is a wonderful facility that I have used with pleasure, and was named for 7 years in a row "the best airport in the world" by the Airports Council International, from 2005 to 2011, until the award was retired. Airplanes move in and out faster than most airports, checked luggage arrives quickly, fewer bags are lost, and the facilities available to passengers are fantastic. You can get a neck massage, a spa treatment, a bed to lie down on for a few hours, and lounges with free computers set up and connected to the internet to while away the hours at the gate areas. Oh, and the gate areas are not claustrophobic:
The role of Incheon as a connecting hub explains why the passenger manifest of Asiana 214 included 141 Chinese citizens, 77 Koreans, 61 Americans, and 1 Japanese citizen, with connecting passengers accounting for about half the load. Like Delta at Atlanta, Asiana, and its slightly larger rival Korean Airlines, rely on connecting traffic to pump up revenue.
Here is Asiana's present day network in Japan:
And here is Asiana's Southeast Asian network:
And its China network:
The airline currently flies to 6 US cities: New York, Chicago, Seattle, San FRancisco, Los Angeles, and Honolulu.
Asiana has been part of the Star Alliance (other notable members include United and Lufthansa), a semi-cartel in which airlines sell each other's tickers as their own, and share various services. This is why Asiana's small ground staff at SFO airport were supplemented by United's very large staff and extensive facilities. Airline industry people have a strong culture, and I suspect many United people went way beyond the call of duty in helping out after the disaster.
As with all air disasters in the United States, flight 214 will be studied and new lessons learned. The lessons of previous crashes are why so many of flight 214's passengers walked away. If its past is any guide, Asiana will overcome this disaster and continue to grow.