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TPG Special Contributor Eric Rosen recently flew Cathay Pacific’s acclaimed business class from Hong Kong (HKG) to Los Angeles (LAX) aboard a Boeing 777-300ER — here’s his review of the experience.
Cathay Pacific has one of the best reputations in the airline business, thanks to stellar service, a fairly young fleet and great premium cabins. It’s also been in the news lately thanks to the roll-out of new livery and announcements about a business-class refresh on its new A350s and 777-300ERs.
Recently, I flew the airline’s flagship 777-300ER in business class, but for a fuller picture of the airline and its service, check out Zach Honig’s review of Cathay’s first class from New York-JFK to Hong Kong (HKG) and of the carrier’s regional business class, as well as my own review of Cathay economy.
I’d been flying around Asia for a few weeks and my final stop was Hong Kong; I was originally supposed to spend just a single night in the city, then catch a flight out the following day. Luckily, I’d found plenty of business-class award space on Cathay Pacific the day I wanted to depart, so I called up American Airlines and used my AAdvantage miles to book a seat, since you can’t book Cathay awards online at AA.com.
The total came to 55,000 miles and about $81 in taxes and fees (you could also use Alaska miles at the same rate). Not bad for a ticket that can otherwise go for nearly 54,000 HKD ($6,000 USD)! Though note that this award will jump to 70,000 miles each way in March of next year.
Early into my travels, though, my Hong Kong plans changed and I found myself needing to stay in the city for a couple of additional nights. Every day for two weeks, I checked British Airways’ site for Cathay award space on my new departure date, which I’ve found is the best way to search Oneworld award availability when you have a specific date in mind. I was hoping to book a daytime flight, but the only available flight departed at 1:05am — almost a full day before I actually wanted to leave, but better than nothing.
With no other options, and not wanting to lose the single award seat that BA told me was left, I called American Airlines to change my flights. Fortunately, its cancellation policies allow you to change your dates and routing for free as long as your origin and destination are the same. Additionally, my AAdvantage elite status waived the $75 close-in booking fee, so I didn’t have to pay anything at all to change my flight — and I could change it again if something better opened up.
I wasn’t too worried, though, because I kept checking the flight availability on ExpertFlyer for Cathay’s other flights the day I wanted to fly and there were plenty of open business (and first-class, if I needed it) seats, so I figured award space would probably open up.
Sure enough, about five days before I was scheduled to depart, seven — yes, seven — business-class award seats became available on the 10:15am flight I actually wanted. I called American back, they changed my ticket (again!), let me select a seat and I was done. Time to enjoy Hong Kong!
Airport and Lounge
One of the reasons I really like flying into and out of Hong Kong (HKG) is how easy and cheap it is to get to/from the city via Airport Express (about $15 each way). If you’re heading to the airport from either the Hong Kong or Kowloon station, you can also check in for your flight ahead of time and even check your bags so you don’t have to schlep them with you.
Or at least, you should be able to do these things. The morning I showed up at the Hong Kong station’s Airport Express counter, they were having a computer issue and couldn’t actually check my bag or print my boarding pass, so they suggested I simply go to the airport with my luggage in tow and check in there. By the time I arrived at HKG, the computer issue seemed to have been sorted.
I walked over to Aisle B in Terminal 1, where you’ll find Cathay’s premium check-in areas. There were only a couple people in the business-class line and all the counters were open, so I only waited about a minute before being called up and was checked in within two minutes. After that, I made it through security and immigration in under 10 minutes. Not too shabby.
From there, I went downstairs and walked through the terminal to The Wing business-class lounge, which was nearest to my gate. I actually really like The Cabin lounge since it feels a little newer, more hip and upbeat, but because I didn’t have a huge amount of time, I opted for convenience, instead.
I went back upstairs to the main lounge area (the showers are on the ground floor) and grabbed a flat white in the Coffee Loft area at one end of the lounge, overlooking the terminal.
Then I walked around the corner to the Noodle Bar for some wonton-noodle soup (one of my favorite things to get at this lounge in particular, though sometimes I like the spicy dan dan noodles more).
After that, I just took a wander through the lounge, chugged a bottle of water, then went down to the boarding area.
I was shepherded through the business-class ticket line and security check (they have a secondary hand-luggage check on flights here, and you can’t bring bottles of water or anything over 100ml), and made my way onto the plane.
I hadn’t flown Cathay Pacific business class in about five years, which was right before the airline introduced its current seats.
Cathay was an early adopter (after US Airways, if you can believe it!) of the popular reverse-herringbone Cirrus style of seat manufactured by Zodiac, and introduced the model on its planes in 2011.
In this reverse-herringbone layout, the seats on the sides of the plane face outward toward the windows, and the seats in the middle angle toward each other. Therefore, it’s easy to sit in the middle with a companion, though there’s also a lot of privacy if you don’t know the person next to you.
This 777-300ER had a four-class configuration with economy, premium economy, business and first class, though be aware that some of Cathay’s US flights are operated with three-class planes that don’t offer a first-class cabin.
The business-class cabin is split into two sections, both configured in a 1-2-1 layout. The secondary business-class section is composed of two rows (a total of 8 seats) set right behind first class. Behind the galley, the main business-class section has 11 rows and a total of 45 seats (there’s a lone seat in row 15 by the galley and lav).
The Business-Class Seat
These business-class seats are popular for two main reasons: the privacy they afford (due to the way they’re angled as well as the high walls and panels that shield them from the aisle) and the tremendous amount of space they provide.
They recline to a full 82 inches and are 21 inches wide, though you can lower the armrest on the aisle to recoup another few inches of space.
When I walked on board, there was actually a man in my seat, 22K, which I had chosen specifically because it had two windows and was over the wing. He was supposed to be in 21K, which is listed as a seat to avoid on SeatGuru because there’s only one window instead of the normal two. He offered to move to his original seat, but he’d already unpacked all his stuff and looked pretty comfortable, so I just took his seat (and the single window!) instead.
There was a medium-size pillow and a plastic-wrapped duvet waiting for me on my handsome seat. Cathay’s business-class seat paneling looks a bit like bamboo matting, and the chairs are upholstered in a nice gray-green fabric. When your seat is in lie-flat mode, a green leather ottoman serves as the foot of your bed.
The seat is controlled with a set of three buttons: one to move the back up and down, one to move the cushion you sit on forward and back and a third to move the footrest. There are two pre-set positions: upright for take-off and landing, and lie-flat for sleeping. Unlike some more recent versions of this seat, there’s no cradle position possible because the bottom cushion only moves forward and back but not up and down; however, I still managed to get comfortable in a sit-lie position that I found ideal for typing and watching movies.
The seats also feature universal power adapters, a USB port for directly charging a phone or tablet, A/V inputs (does anyone use those?), overhead and reading lamps and an at-foot storage cubby that’s perfectly sized for stowing a laptop and/or a small bag.
The standard-sized tray table slides out from the side of the seat and doesn’t move forward or backward as it does in some other versions of this seat — so once it’s out, it’s in a fixed position. Each seat has a little cabinet that contains noise-canceling headphones and a little mirror for freshening up during the flight.
Amenities and In-Flight Entertainment
Each seat comes with an individual 15-inch in-flight entertainment screen (compared to 17 inches on American’s 777-300ER and Qatar’s 787) that pops out from the angled front panel. You don’t have to stow these screens for take-off and landing anymore, so you can watch entertainment for the whole flight. You can control your selections either on the touch-screen itself, or with a handheld remote that’s stowed in the wall panel next to your seat.
The crew handed out amenity kits shortly after take-off. The current kits are designed by Hong-Kong brand Seventy Eight Percent, and mine was a cute purple linen clutch with a gray wraparound tie to close it. It contained a toothbrush and toothpaste, eye mask, booties and ear plugs, plus three Jurlique products: Balancing Day Cream, Citrus Hand Cream and Lip Care Balm.
Unfortunately, you don’t get pajamas unless you’re in first class.
Shortly after takeoff, the crew came through with menus of what would be available on the flight. Here were the options:
- Starters – Cajun-spiced prawns and green mango salad; and a mixed salad with Italian vinaigrette
- Main courses – Sautéed pork spare ribs with Chinese sauce, choy sum and steamed jasmine rice; grilled Australian prime beef tenderloin, roasted pumpkin, French beans and braised lentils; yellow curry halibut with spicy green beans and steamed rice; fettuccini with carrot, Parmesan and tomato basil concasse
- Cheeses – Pecorino, St. Paulin and Cammbert served with water crackers and spiced pear paste; and a selection of seasonal fresh fruit
- Dessert – Chocolate Sacher torte
There was also a selection of teas and fresh-brewed Illy coffee, as well as a little box of chocolates from which to choose a treat.
- Deutz Champagne Brut Classic
- Chanson Réserve du Bastion Viré-Clessé 2013 from Mâcon (Chardonnay)
- Peter Schweiger Grüner Veltliner “Zöbinger Terrassen” Kamptal Reserve 2013
- Liberty School Central Coast Merlot 2012
- Chateau du Retout Esperance, Haut Medoc 2013
- Chateau de Rayne Vigneau Grand Cru Classé de Sauternes 2009 for a dessert wine
I had tried the Champagne as a pre-departure beverage (along with an Oriental Breeze juice cocktail made with sour plum tea, cranberry and lemon juice and rose water). It was refreshing and simple; your standard non-vintage brut.
Unlike on some other airlines, the Cathay Pacific crew didn’t come by taking orders. Instead, they simply brought out the starters, cleared them and then wheeled through a cart loaded with all four main-course options, and you could choose the one you wanted. I really love the airline, but I’ve never found its food and beverage program particularly impressive, and this meal did little to change my mind.
The shrimp starter was pretty good — the shrimp tasted fresh, as did its accompanying green mango salad spiked with ginger and cilantro. However, the main-course choices didn’t look too appetizing, so I just settled on what appeared to be the safest bet — steak. The meat was decently cooked, but fairly tasteless, and the vegetables served on the side were oddly watery and salty at the same time, so I didn’t finish the portion.
In terms of wine, I paired my meal with tastes of the Chanson, which was fine but forgettable, and the Liberty School Merlot, which was fruity and full-bodied — so a decent accompaniment to the steak.
The little cheese plate was actually pretty good, as was the Sauterne. Right after it was served, there was a period of pretty intense turbulence and the crew had to take their seats, so it was about another half-hour before dessert came by, and I opted to skip it in favor of going to sleep.
During the non-meal-service times, there was a selection of snacks available upon request. Those included:
- Grilled Australian prime grain-fed beef burger with Swiss cheese, pickled gherkin and tomato ketchup
- Afternoon tea with scones, clotted cream and strawberry preserves as well as mini sandwiches and a fruit tartlet; this didn’t look as impressive as it sounded, as it was just a couple of small plates laid with some scones and little tarts
- Szechuan dan dan noodle soup (it smelled delicious, though I didn’t have it myself)
- Häagen-Dazs ice cream
In the galley, you could always help yourself to Nature’s Valley granola bars, a selection of nuts and chips, Toblerone bars and bottles of Evian.
About two hours before landing, the flight attendants came through with breakfast. Service started with:
- Orange or apple juice
- Mango and passion-fruit smoothie
- Fresh seasonal fruit
- Natural or fruit yogurt
- Assorted cereals
The mains included:
- Omelette with pan-fried bacon, sautéed shimeji mushrooms, roasted vine-ripened tomato and Lyonnaise potatoes
- A selection of Chinese dim sum including scallop siu mai, spinach seafood dumplings, chicken and ham bean-curd wrap, conpoy veggie dumplings and a beef ball
- Shredded kwai fa chicken and bean-curd skin congee with stir-fried rice roll, dried shrimp, spring onion and XO sauce
- Assorted breads with preserves, honey and butter
I had a cup of coffee and the smoothie, which was pretty light and delicious, followed by the fresh fruit. I also opted for the dim sum, but I wasn’t too impressed; everything was sort of sticky and greasy and really salty. I only nibbled at it and decided to get breakfast on the ground once we’d landed.
While I feel Cathay Pacific’s weak point is its food, I think its flight attendants are really great — friendly without being obsequious, and generally very efficient, diligent and attentive. That said, they don’t seem to pass through the cabin very frequently. So whenever I wanted something (usually a bottle of water), I either had to use the call button or head to the galley myself to grab it. I don’t think that’s a big deal – after all, when I want something and I’m not in business class, I get it myself — but I’m sure they got tired of seeing me up in the galley! When I did ask for something, they always brought it immediately and with a smile, which I appreciated.
I’d really been looking forward to my flight, and wasn’t disappointed. Cathay’s seats are still great, but having flown some more recent versions of them, including on American Airlines and Qatar, the business-class seats — mainly in terms of their controls/positioning options and their IFE screens — felt a little out of date … already! I feel silly saying that since these seats were only introduced in 2011, but I do see why Cathay is planning a refresh.
Apart from my seat-malaise and the generally lackluster food, I found this business-class experience rather enjoyable. I felt it was a great use of my American Airlines AAdvantage miles, not only because of the solid redemption value, but because of the ease of booking my award, the availability of seats and the opportunity to fly on one of the premier trans-Pacific premium products. With some great bonus categories, the American Express Gold Card has a lot going for it. The card offers 4x points at US restaurants, at US supermarkets (up to $25,000; then 1x), and 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com. It is currently offering a welcome bonus of 35,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.
With some great bonus categories, the American Express Gold Card has a lot going for it. The card offers 4x points at US restaurants, at US supermarkets (up to $25,000; then 1x), and 3x points on flights booked directly with airlines or through amextravel.com. It is currently offering a welcome bonus of 35,000 bonus points after you spend $2,000 in the first three months.