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Review: Cathay Pacific 777-300ER First Class, New York-Hong Kong

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Earlier this month, TPG Editor-in-Chief Zach Honig took his family on a trip to Asia, including stops in Hong Kong, Bali and Tokyo. Here’s a review of the first leg of his trip, from New York to Hong Kong in Cathay Pacific First Class.

I travel quite a bit, but most trips are with my incredibly patient and flexible girlfriend, so for this rare family adventure I wanted to plan something extraordinary, yet simple. In other words, we wouldn’t be flying all the way to Sydney just to route via Etihad’s A380 Apartment. And, naturally, I didn’t want to pay cash for my flights. Considering neither my mom nor sister had flown first class on an international carrier before, and I had more than enough AAdvantage miles to cover a premium-cabin Oneworld redemption thanks to enormous sign-up bonuses from my two Citi / AAdvantage Executive World Elite MasterCards, I quickly settled on Cathay Pacific for the outbound segment.

The flight brought us over the North Pole.
The flight brought us over the North Pole.

As one of the world’s longest flights, the trip from New York to Hong Kong gave us more than 15 hours to enjoy Cathay Pacific first, with a nonstop routing over the North Pole.

Our Cathay Pacific 777-300ER to Hong Kong.
Our Cathay Pacific 777-300ER to Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific operates a whopping five daily flights from the New York area to Hong Kong, four from JFK and one from Newark (without a first-class cabin). One of the JFK flights stops in Vancouver, so that was out — we settled on the 10am departure that arrived at 2pm the following day, with my mom booked in first class and my sister and me in the business mini-cabin just behind. Ultimately, luck was on our side, and we all ended up in first class just a couple days before the flight.

Booking Cathay Pacific First Class

A flight in Cathay Pacific’s first-class cabin will run you north of $28,000 round-trip, though we were traveling just one way, which would have brought the fare to more than $17,000. At just 67,500 American AAdvantage miles each way, CX’s nonstop flight from New York is the ultimate award redemption, representing more than 25 cents per mile in value!

Premium-cabin availability is excellent just a few days before departure.
Premium-cabin availability is excellent just a few days before departure.

I used British Airways’ site to find available flights. Typically, Cathay Pacific releases at most one first-class seat per flight, and when I booked late last year, that was the case for CX841. I initially booked my mom in first and my sister and I in business, but fortunately a second first-class seat opened up several days before departure, at which point I moved my sister up, with a third seat becoming available (which I grabbed) just two days before the flight.

Our three first-class boarding passes.

Because American allows you to “upgrade” to a higher cabin without paying a fee, I was able to move each of us up for just 12,500 miles each. Additionally, because AA redeposits the original miles and pulls the entire amount from your account when you change cabins, I was eligible to receive an instant 10% refund (up to 10,000 total miles per year) thanks to my new Citi / AAdvantage Platinum Select MasterCard, bringing the additional miles required to just 2,500 for my sister’s ticket (her new total was 120,000 miles, including the 10,000-mile refund and 62,500 miles for the first-class flight back from Japan).

We managed to get three of the six first-class seats on our flight.
We managed to get three of the six first-class seats on our flight.

Ultimately, this allowed the three of us to grab half of the first-class seats on our flight, representing a whopping $51,000 in value just for the one-way flight.

Check-In and Lounge

Cathay Pacific has premium check-in counters at the far left side of Terminal 7.
Cathay Pacific has premium check-in counters at the far left side of Terminal 7.

Having flown Cathay Pacific first class before, I knew what to expect on the ground — which is to say, not very much. The dedicated first-class counter ended up being occupied, so we checked in at the business-class line. That process was complete in just a couple of minutes, with our bags checked all the way through to Bali, our ultimate destination after a 20-hour stop in HKG.

There's a small "lounge" area where you can wait if you arrive before check-in begins.
There’s a small “lounge” area where you can wait if you arrive before check-in begins.

The premium check-in area at JFK is located to the far left side of the small terminal, where there’s a small seating area and a dedicated premium security checkpoint (which was closed when we arrived).

The BA Galleries lounge was quite disappointing.
The BA Galleries lounge was quite disappointing.

A few minutes later, we were in the British Airways Galleries lounge, which Cathay uses for first-class passengers. Oneworld Emeralds also have access, so the small lounge can become a bit crowded, especially once BA flights begin in the afternoon. It’s an entirely self-serve affair — I even had to remove dirty dishes several times, with staff only coming by once or twice to restock.

Wine and Champagne spread at the BA first-class lounge.
Wine and Champagne spread at the BA first-class lounge.

It was early morning, but BA still had a decent beverage spread available, including a small selection of wine and Champagne.

BA first-class lounge liquor.
BA first-class lounge liquor.

You can also help yourself to a variety of top-shelf liquors, with ice and proper glasses available. I sampled a few of the offerings, including Pimm’s on the rocks (which I wouldn’t necessarily recommend).

Part of the limited breakfast spread.
Part of the limited breakfast spread.

The very modest cold breakfast spread included some supermarket-quality pastries, yogurt and granola.

Instant ramen in a first-class lounge!
Instant ramen in a first-class lounge!

There were also several varieties of instant ramen available, which at least one of the lounge guests actually seemed to enjoy.

You can get free massage treatments if you're flying British Airways, but not Cathay Pacific.
You can get free massage treatments if you’re flying British Airways, but not Cathay Pacific.

First-class passengers also have access to the much larger (and nicer, in my opinion) business-class section of the Galleries lounge, which even has an Elemis spa with free treatments. Unfortunately the spa is closed in the morning, though free treatments are only available for BA passengers, anyway.

Galleries lounge Wi-Fi performance.
Galleries lounge Wi-Fi performance.

I took a few minutes to catch up on the morning’s emails before heading to the gate. While Cathay Pacific otherwise operates a very modern fleet, there isn’t any Wi-Fi available on board, so you may need to wrap up any work in the lounge.

Boarding was a bit chaotic, as is the norm for JFK.
Boarding was a bit chaotic, as is the norm for JFK.

We headed over to the gate about 40 minutes prior to the departure time. With limited space in the terminal, the gate area is typically quite crowded at JFK’s Terminal 7, and this flight was no exception. After I identified us as first-class passengers to a gate agent we were brought to the front of the premium line to await boarding.

Cathay Pacific’s 777-300ER First-Class Cabin

First class consists of just six seats in a 3-3-3 configuration.
First class consists of just six seats in a 1-1-1 configuration.

The environment on the plane seemed especially tranquil after boarding through an overwhelmingly crowded gate. We were greeted with a smile at the door, with a flight attendant taking my mom and sister to seats 1A and 2A, and another bringing me to seat 1K on the other side of the cabin.

There are just six first-class seats in the cabin.
There are just six first-class seats in the cabin.

With just six first-class seats, Cathay’s 777 cabin feels especially peaceful and private. While we were the first to board, eventually three more passengers appeared. With a wall separating the rest of the cabin from seats 1A and 2A, my family didn’t even notice the other passengers, so if you’re traveling with just one other person, those are the seats to pick. Interestingly, my seat was highlighted in yellow on Seatguru because it was near the galley, though light and noise were never an issue.

Even without a door, there's a fair amount of privacy.
Even without a door, there’s a fair amount of privacy.

Cathay’s first-class seats offer plenty of privacy, even though there isn’t a sliding door like you’d find on some other airlines, such as Emirates, Etihad and Singapore.

The lavatories are small but spotless.
The lavatories are small but spotless.

In fact, the only time I ever made eye contact with another passenger was when I was waiting for the lavatory. Unfortunately one of the two lavs was broken on our flight, so the six of us shared one (rather compact) bathroom. Whenever it was occupied, I simply walked a few feet back to business, though, so it wasn’t an issue.

The Seat

Cathay Pacific's HUGE first-class seat.
Cathay Pacific’s HUGE first-class seat.

Cathay Pacific’s first-class seat is enormous. As you can see in the picture above, the seat includes two sections, though you likely won’t be sitting on the more narrow portion, which really only becomes usable when the seat is converted into a bed.

My first-class seat from the aisle.
My first-class seat from the aisle.

The seats on each side have three windows, giving you plenty of light when you want it. Everybody lowered their shades shortly after departure, however.

There's more than enough room to stretch out.
There’s more than enough room to stretch out.

My sister was shocked at how large the seat was. I don’t think I’ve ever seen her so happy!

The TV rests flush with the seat for takeoff and landing.
The TV rests flush with the seat for takeoff and landing.

Of course, each seat has its own touchscreen in-flight entertainment system, which I’ll discuss in more detail just below. You can’t release the TV until after takeoff, though it’s positioned in such a way that you can start watching content right away.

CX's slightly refreshed first-class cabin now has touchscreen seat controls.
CX’s slightly refreshed first-class cabin now has touchscreen seat controls.

A couple of years ago Cathay Pacific began refreshing its first-class cabin (see TPG’s review of the previous product here), though the changes were modest. One improvement is the seat control, which now includes a touch-enabled display. It’s intuitive and responsive. There’s also a power outlet and USB port available for charging your gadgets during the flight.

There's space to store a bag below the ottoman.
There’s space to store a bag below the ottoman.

Each seat has a small closet (large enough for a rolling carry-on) plus a storage compartment under the ottoman. There was plenty of space for my large backpack.

Cathay's bed is among the most comfortable in the sky.
Cathay’s bed is among the most comfortable in the sky.

On a 15-hour redeye flight, of course, bed comfort is especially important. Cathay’s is quite possibly my favorite in the sky, with a comfy, large pillow, a mattress pad and a plush comforter. Fortunately, the cabin was kept relatively cool on this flight, so I didn’t have any problem sleeping.

Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment

Each first-class seat has a 15.4-inch entertainment display.
Each first-class seat has a 15.4-inch entertainment display.

In an industry where 23- and even 32-inch TVs are becoming the norm in premium cabins, Cathay’s 15.4-inch screen looks relatively puny. It’s sharp and responsive, though, and mounted on an adjustable arm so you can position the screen as you wish.

CX offers a variety of new releases and TV shows.
CX offers a variety of new releases and TV shows.

There are plenty of new release movies and recent TV shows to choose from, so don’t worry about bringing your own content. Annoyingly, Cathay plays FIVE MINUTES of ads before each program, though you can skip ahead using the remote.

You can't beat Bose noise-canceling headphones!
You can’t beat Bose noise-canceling headphones!

Cathay has a run-of-the-mill IFE remote. You can also tap the screen to navigate content. Fortunately, the airline offers Bose noise-canceling headphones, and unlike on American, you can keep using them until it’s time to land.

Each passenger receives pajamas and an amenity kit.
Each passenger receives pajamas and an amenity kit.

First-class passengers receive an amenity kit and a set of pajamas (which you can keep). The flight attendant brought me a size large, which ended up being a bit too big (I usually wear large-size clothing).

Cathay Pacific first-class pajamas.
Cathay Pacific first-class pajamas.

The pajamas and eye mask are incredibly well-made and comfortable. You probably won’t want to leave them behind.

First-class male amenity kit.
First-class male amenity kit.

The amenity kits contain Aesop products, and while they’re relatively basic for first class, they do have all of the essentials. Pictured above is the male amenity kit.

First-class female amenity kit.
First-class female amenity kit.

CX also offers a female kit, which is pink and includes slightly different contents, such as a small hair brush.

Food and Beverage

Cathay Pacific serves Krug Champagne, even on the ground in the US.
Cathay Pacific serves Krug Champagne, even on the ground in the US.

Any proper first-class flight should begin with a glass of top-shelf Champagne, and Cathay is no exception. While some airlines choose not to serve the good stuff on the ground in the US, due to high taxes, CX pops a bottle of Krug before pushback.

You also receive a small amuse bouche before departure.
You also receive a small amuse bouche before departure.

My Champagne was served with a small amuse bouche. It’s just the right size to get you thinking about the enormous meal to follow.

Champagne for two.
Champagne for two.

After takeoff, I decided to head over to my mom’s suite for the main meal. We were each served our choice of beverage along with some warm nuts. I finished mine quickly, and it was refilled within a minute.

Flight attendants can install a table extender so you can dine with a companion.
Flight attendants can install a table extender so you can dine with a companion.

Somewhat unique to Cathay Pacific is the extended dining table, which flight attendants can install if you’d like to have a meal with a companion. The ottoman includes a seatbelt of its own, so you can stay there even if there’s turbulence.

Caviar service on Cathay Pacific.
Caviar service on Cathay Pacific.

Lunch began with a large bread basket followed by caviar, which is served in a proper tin with potato blinis, egg and creme fraiche. It was perfect.

A delicious potato leek soup to start.
A delicious potato leek soup to start.

The truffle potato leek soup was so good that my mom decided to order a bowl of her own.

Crab and avocado salad.
Crab and avocado salad.

Next, I had a delicious salad, which included mesclun greens, king crab meat, mango and avocado in a vinaigrette dressing.

I had a fantastic red wine with my entree.
I had a fantastic red wine with my entree.

I had a glass of 2012 Cornas Chante Perdrix, which I really enjoyed. The wine is part of CX’s Rhone Valley promotion and retails for about $30 on the ground.

I ordered the steak, which was delicious though cooked well-done.
I ordered the steak, which was delicious though cooked well-done.

For my entree, I ordered the steak, which was served with cheddar-cheese gnocchi, prawn and asparagus. The steak was definitely cooked well-done and the sauce was overpowering, but overall it was a decent dish. It was definitely the low point of the meal, though.

My mom got the TKTK, which looked better than it tasted.
My mom got the sea bass, which looked better than it tasted.

My mom ordered the Chilean sea bass, which was served with a saffron fennel mash, spinach and a gazpacho sauce. Like my steak, it tasted fine, but it wasn’t fantastic.

The Chinese entree was fine, but hardly first class.
The Chinese entree was fine, but hardly first class.

Interestingly, which the flight attendant made no mention of the Chinese meal to my mother and I, he basically insisted that my sister order that, so she did. Apparently they were out of steak at that point, so perhaps he wanted to avoid disappointing her. She barely touched her meal, though, which consisted of stir-fried prawn, veggies and steamed rice. I tried some myself, and while it tasted alright, it was hardly a special dish.

A cheese service followed the entrees.
A cheese service followed the entrees.

Fortunately, Cathay redeemed itself with a delicious cheese spread.

Cheese was served with grapes and a sweet jam.
Cheese was served with grapes and a sweet jam.

I usually skip the cheese course, though I’m very glad I didn’t here. Choices included Stilton Blue, Manchego, Camembert and Taleggio.

Bread pudding with ice cream was the final lunch course.
Bread pudding with ice cream was the final lunch course.

Finally, I finished the meal with the blueberry and butter bread pudding, which was served with caramel ice cream. Fantastic!

Later in the flight, I ordered a fish ball noodle soup.
Later in the flight, I ordered a fish ball noodle soup.

A few hours later, I decided to order the fish ball noodle soup. I would have preferred wontons, but I managed to get plenty of those during my 20-hour layover.

Ice cream and Johnnie Walker Blue.
Ice cream and Johnnie Walker Blue.

For my second dessert I had a small Haagen-Dazs ice cream (served in the container) and a glass of Johnnie Walker Blue, which retails for over $200 a bottle on the ground.

The second meal began with a fruit plate and bread basket.
The second meal began with a fruit plate and bread basket.

Then, shortly before landing it was time for the second full meal, which began with another bread basket and a selection of fresh fruit.

I had the chicken, which was great.
I had the chicken, which was great.

For my entree, I selected Chicken Supreme, which was served with grilled vegetables and pappardelle pasta. Again, the sauce was a bit on the heavy side. Other entree options included stir-friend beef or mushroom ravioli.

A pear mousse cake for dessert.
A pear and chocolate mousse cake for dessert.

For dessert (my THIRD of the flight!), I had a pear and chocolate mousse cake, which tasted much lighter than it appeared.

Cathay Pacific’s 777-300ER Business-Class Cabin

Business is roomy as well, with seats in a 1-2-1 configuration.
Business is roomy as well, with seats in a 1-2-1 configuration.

Since I had more than 15 hours to kill on board, I headed back to the business-class cabin a few times during the flight to geek out get some exercise. The purser said there were a dozen or so empty seats, but I counted more than 20! There are a total of 53 seats between the two business cabins, and award availability tends to be fantastic, particularly for last-minute bookings. Cathay’s business cabin is nearly identical to American’s on its own 777-300ER, with the obvious benefit of not being staffed by American flight attendants. Seats are quite private and roomy, in a 1-2-1 configuration.

A pair of middle seats in the business cabin.
A pair of middle seats in the business cabin.

The middle seats would definitely be my preference if traveling with a companion. There’s still plenty of privacy, so it wouldn’t be awkward sharing with a stranger, but they’re definitely your best bet for conversing with a friend.

A business-class window seat.
A business-class window seat.

Otherwise, the window seats should be your first pick. Each seat includes two windows, with the exception of 15A.

Business-class controls.
Business-class controls.

You get the same remote as you do in first class, along with power and USB ports, a small light and simple seat controls.

Bottom Line

Approaching Hong Kong.
Approaching Hong Kong.

It’s hard to complain about an award flight in Cathay Pacific first class. While the journey was more than 15 hours long, I truly didn’t want it to end. The seat was fantastic, the flight attendants were consistently excellent and the catering was solid (though not quite flawless). And, at just 67,500 American AAdvantage miles, it really is a steal. I only hope the rumors about Cathay Pacific restricting first-class awards in the future don’t turn out to be true.

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