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Flight Review: Cathay Pacific 777-300ER Economy — Chicago to Hong Kong

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TPG Contributors JT Genter and Katie Genter traveled to Hong Kong over Thanksgiving. A record snowstorm in Chicago wreaked havoc on their flights, canceling their scheduled Transpacific flight and leaving them rebooked on a Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER from Chicago (ORD) to Hong Kong (HKG). Here’s their take on Cathay Pacific economy class.

Booking

We booked this trip as a quasi-mileage run and a great excuse for a vacation. On this trip, Katie would re-qualify for American Airlines AAdvantage Platinum status for 2016. Before we left — but after we booked — Katie received an email offer from American Airlines: $699 to buy up to American Airlines Platinum status.

Extend Platinum status for $699? Nah, rather spend $769 and get a great trip out of re-qualifying!
Extend Platinum status for $699? Nah, we’d rather spend $769 and get a great trip to re-qualify — while earning miles!

Rather than paying the $699, we were much happier paying $769 for a round-trip flight for her to fly to/from Hong Kong and get a great trip out of this money. Meanwhile, she’d be earning 36,102 miles from just her flights (after a 100% mileage bonus), even before factoring in credit card spending. At TPG’s current valuation of 1.7 cents per AAdvantage mile, she was getting $614 of this back in mileage — while also earning nearly eight 500-mile upgrades.

We used our Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select World Elite MasterCard to book. In addition to the 2x miles from purchasing this flight directly from American Airlines, it also helped us get more than halfway through the $3,000 minimum spending needed to earn the 50,000-mile sign-up bonus.

Rebooking

The view from our cancelled flight - for 5 hours
For five hours, we sat on our originally scheduled flight to Tokyo and watched the blizzard.

We were originally scheduled to fly to Hong Kong (HKG) through Tokyo (NRT), but an 11+ inch snowstorm — the second worst November snowstorm in Chicago’s history — and mechanical issues doomed our Chicago (ORD) to Tokyo (NRT) flight.

Since our Tokyo plans were out, we figured it’d be best to re-route straight to HKG. While the snow and related cancellations made it impossible to fly out that night, we worked with American Airlines to rebook us direct ORD-HKG on Cathay Pacific the next day.

Check-In

Four different Cathay Pacific check-in lines, each for one class of service.
Four different Cathay Pacific check-in lines, each for one class of service. Thankfully, the economy line was nearly empty when we arrived.

At the Cathay Pacific check-in desk, there were separate lines for first class, business class, premium economy class and economy class. No signs indicated that Oneworld elites were welcome in a preferential check-in line, so we stepped into the economy class line — where a sole agent was stationed to check in economy-class passengers. Thankfully, there was just one family in line ahead of us, so it only took six minutes before we were in front of the agent.

Security felt painfully slow, as only first/business-class passengers could use the preferential line, other travelers were generally uninformed about the TSA procedures and there was no TSA Precheck line for us to utilize. It seemed like each of the lines were only processing about one traveler per minute. Once cleared through, I was surprised that the whole process took “only” about 20 minutes.

Lounge

Cathay Pacific business class passengers - and Oneworld elite members - could use the British Airways Terraces lounge.
We relaxed pre-flight in the British Airways Terraces lounge.

We hurried through duty free and headed over to the British Airways Terraces Business Class lounge. Cathay Pacific business-class passengers and Oneworld Emerald and Sapphire members should have access to the lounge.

Unfortunately, Katie’s Cathay Pacific boarding pass didn’t indicate that she was Oneworld Sapphire, so the lounge agent had to manually look up her status. After doing so, the agent mistakenly determined that she wasn’t eligible to enter, but we persisted until the agent re-determined otherwise.

You could even grab a Cup of Noodles before your flight!
You could even grab a Cup of Noodles before your flight.

The lounge offered a variety of self-serve food and drink options, including a self-serve liquor and wine bar and a quality espresso machine.

Self-serve food and drink spread.
Self-serve food and drink spread in the British Airways Terraces business-class lounge.

The lounge had a variety of quiet sitting areas and a business area with a few computers and a printer. Although there were no views of the tarmac, it seemed like it’d be a decent place to spend some time before your flight. But, we were short on time and unable to explore for too long before boarding.

Boarding and Seats

Boarding by zones from the back to the front.
It’s pretty clear from this picture where the divide is between boarding groups!

Boarding began on schedule at 1:25pm for our 2:05pm departure. First- and business-class passengers were welcomed to board first, followed by boarding economy from the back of the cabin forward — starting with rows 65-72. This was a rather good system, as passengers taking a while to settle into their seats weren’t blocking passengers who were trying to get to their seats farther back.

Due to the 3-3-3 arrangement, the seats didn't feel crowded.
Thanks to the 3-3-3 arrangement and the 18.5-inch-wide seats, economy didn’t feel crowded.

Each seat was stocked with a small pillow, a plastic-wrapped blanket and plastic-wrapped over-the-ear headphones.

The 3-3-3 arrangement in economy allows for 18.5-inch-wide seats, and every inch counts when you’re flying 15 hours, especially if you end up next to two strangers. As more and more airlines are switching to 3-4-3 arrangement in economy — whose seats are just 17 inches wide — it’s important to check SeatGuru before booking flights to see what arrangement your plane will have.

No underseat equipment box meant plenty of room for bags and feet.
No under-seat equipment box meant plenty of room for bags and feet.

The 32-inch pitch was enough for our 5’11 and 5’5 frames, but it might start to be a problem if you’re much over six foot. Thanks to a lack of an under-seat equipment box and slim seat supports, you can really stretch out your legs while still storing a small bag.

The in-seat shelf was a convenient place to store items you might want to have handy.
The in-seat shelf was a convenient place to store items you might want to have handy.

Just underneath the adjustable IFE screen was a small shelf, which was a great place to store stuff like a cell phone, your boarding pass, the menu and immigration cards.

The two two-seat rows in the back of economy are great for couples traveling together.
The two-seat rows in the back of economy are great for couples traveling together.

Since we were some of the last people booked on this Cathay Pacific flight, we were also some of the last people to select seats. The night before the flight, there were no two seats together anywhere in economy. But, we were able to get two seats close to each other in the back of the plane: 71A (window) and 72C (aisle).

While most of economy is configured 3-3-3, rows 71 and 72 are arranged 2-3-2, and the two-seat options are great for couples. When selecting our seats, we hoped that we’d be able to switch with the passenger in either 71C or 72A so that we’d be able to sit together. Sure enough, the gentleman in 71C agreed to switch with us, for which we were incredibly grateful.

Departure

Shortly after boarding completed and the front door was closed on time, the quite British-sounding pilot introduced himself over the PA and apologized that there’d be a delay. Supposedly everything and everyone was loaded, but the “computers were down back in Hong Kong” and we were unable to complete the paperwork to depart.

The delay ended up being about 30 minutes before everything was resolved and we pushed back.

Printing priorities: not enough menus for everyone, but everyone got duty free handouts.
Printing priorities: not enough menus for everyone, but everyone got duty free handouts.

The FAs took this opportunity to go through the safety presentation and then pass out menus. Although they’d only give just one menu per row, they had enough duty-free leaflets to hand out to everyone.

The in-flight entertainment system was activated during our lengthy taxi across the white-washed ORD airport. We finally lifted off for our 15-hour flight at 2:59pm, 54 minutes after scheduled departure.

In-Flight Entertainment

The IFE screens were bright, and the options were numerous.

If you’re embarking on a 15-hour flight — particularly one without Wi-Fi like this — you’ll likely appreciate a well-stocked IFE system. Thankfully, Cathay Pacific delivers. There’s a wide selection of movies and TV shows in a variety of languages, including about a half-dozen movies that I was excited to see.

There were full seasons of Anger Management, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Sex in the City, Game of Thrones, House of Cards, Gotham, NCIS New Orleans and many more  — perfect for binge-watching. Note that each movie began with around six minutes of commercials. While a bit obnoxious, at least you could fast forward through them.

Under each economy seat, there was a universal power plug, meaning you can work (offline) on your laptop the whole flight and still arrive at your destination with a full battery.

Not bad if you need them, but the provided headphones were not the best option.
Not bad if you need them, but the provided headphones weren’t the best option for me.

The provided headphones were of decent quality, but I preferred to use my own earbuds — which I was thankfully able to use, as the IFE plug was a standard headphone plug.

About halfway through the flight, my IFE screen stopped responding to touch signals. Once alerted, a FA made it his mission to repair it, resetting it multiple times and multiple ways until it finally worked again.

Crew

Speaking of the crew, the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific crew was excellent, albeit somewhat shy. In any case, they were very attentive to passenger needs. It was almost entertaining to see how fast a flight attendant would shoot out of the back galley to assist any time someone rang the call button.

During the tarmac delay, when I got up to use the restroom and found that the restroom on my side was occupied, the three FAs sitting in the jumpseats quickly determined that the other side was open and stood — nearly synchronized — to let me pass to the other side.

We truly felt welcome on board, thanks to the attentive FAs
We truly felt welcome on board, thanks to the attentive FAs.

Also during the delay, the economy purser came to introduce himself and personally welcome “Ms. Genter” on board. He then asked if we’d care for a drink. I inquired later and found that he greets all Oneworld Sapphire and Emerald members personally. What a nice touch!

However, the service certainly tapered off near the end of the flight. For the last few hours, the FAs remained in the back galley with the curtain closed. While this made it a bit awkward for passengers who came back to get something, the FAs did still accommodate any requests.

One rather impressive request that the FAs accommodated was a mother asking for warm milk — she came to the back galley with a glass bottle. Immediately, the FAs sprung into action to MacGyver a solution. One ran boiling water over the bottle to warm it, while another hurried toward the front of the plane to get milk. Once combined, they left the bottle in a pool of the boiling water to further warm the milk. Once ready, the mother simply thanked them. Meanwhile, I tried to collect my jaw from the floor at how quickly and happily they fulfilled this request.

Food

The numerous special meal requests were served first.
The numerous special-request meals were served first.

About 40 minutes after takeoff, lunch service began. First, the FAs passed through the cabin individually serving special meals. From interactions nearby passengers had with the FAs, we pieced together that fully vegetarian meals were a special order item — and the row of passengers ahead of us hadn’t specially ordered them. Still, the FAs were able to accommodate the request to their satisfaction.

By the time the cart made it back to our row — the second-to-last row in the cabin — the “Barbecued beef, spinach and mashed potato” option was gone, but both the “Spinach, ricotta cheese cannelloni and marinara sauce” and “Chicken, black bean and steamed jasmine rice” dishes were still available. We opted for one of each.

Plenty of drink options to choose from.
Most of the standard options were available to drink, plus surprisingly good wine!

Drinks were served simultaneously with lunch. The drink options included sodas (Coke products), juices (apple, orange and tomato), coffee, tea, beer and wine. We opted to have a glass of “white wine” and found it to be surprisingly rich. Turns out, the wine was an award-winning 2014 Franschhoek Cellar Chardonnay from South Africa.

Quite a delicious meal.
A well-rounded and pleasant-tasting meal.

The “Marinated corn and feta with shrimp salad” appetizer was a fresh and pleasantly tangy start to the meal. The dark-meat chicken was well cooked and slightly spicy. The thick-plastic fork, spoon and knife were plastic-wrapped together with a napkin. No salt or pepper were provided, but they weren’t needed. The bread was slightly warmed, but not enough to melt the cold butter.

Katie tried the cannelloni — which was good, but bland.

The cannelloni was tasty but lacked any spice. It’s a good option if you’re looking for something “safe.” The Haagen-Dazs ice cream bars provided a sweet ending to the meal and were still cold even after we finished our entrees.

After dinner was served, the FAs passed through the cabin again with the drink cart. Although they asked if we wanted coffee or tea, it seems that they’d have served anything on the cart if requested.

A well-stocked snack basket was available in the back galley for snacky passengers.
A well-stocked snack basket was available in the back galley.

The meals left us satisfied, but certainly not full. Thankfully, a variety of snacks were available in the mid and back galley for anyone that needed something to hold them over.

During the night, the FAs passed through a few times with cups of water for those who were awake.

Cathay Pacific 777-300ER Economy JT's 2nd meal
My second meal wasn’t as tasty as the first.

Dinner was served from the rear forward, giving us first choice of the meals. I opted for the “Baby shrimp, peas, corn and steamed jasmine rice,” which was disappointingly bland — although this might’ve been due to altitude effects on my taste buds.

Katie's orzo meal.
Katie’s chicken and orzo meal.

Katie selected the other option: “Creamy chicken ragout, broccoli, carrots and orzo pasta.” Both dishes were served with a side of fruit and coconut cake for dessert — both of which Katie really enjoyed and found more memorable than the entree.

The economy purser was the FA to pass through the cabin again after meal service to offer coffee or tea. Again, he greeted Katie by name “Ms. Genter.” I chose the coffee again and found it to be rather stale. I wouldn’t have been surprised if it was the same pot from lunch.

Miscellaneous Notes

  • The seatbelt sign was turned off the entire time we were at cruising altitude, even through periods of light turbulence.
  • The captain kept his promise that he wouldn’t disturb our flight, only going on the PA to explain the delay in ORD and then to announce when we’d be landing in 30 minutes.
  • Even after the departure delay, we arrived at the gate only seven minutes late.

Bottom Line

Although economy was full, it was a pleasant 15-hour flight.
Although economy was full, it was a pleasant 15-hour flight.

Although I look forward to trying Cathay Pacific business and first class, I’d fly this flight in economy again in a heartbeat. The service was top-notch, the food was good, the seats were comfortable and the IFE system could entertain for days.

If I had to nitpick, the only thing that Cathay Pacific could improve is the check-in desk. Considering that there was only one economy agent checking in passengers two hours before departure was concerning, but thankfully for us, the rest of the passengers showed up early!

Have you experienced Cathay Pacific’s incredible service?

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