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The Hidden Cost of Cathay Pacific's Incredible Mistake Fare

Jan. 05, 2019
6 min read
The Hidden Cost of Cathay Pacific's Incredible Mistake Fare
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2019 is less than a week old, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say that Cathay Pacific's incredible mistake fare will go down as the deal of the year. For a brief window of time on New Year's Eve, Cathay Pacific was selling round-trip business class tickets between Vietnam and the US for about ~$700, and first class tickets were pricing at $1,000 or less. These tickets normally retail for around ~$30,000, meaning that anyone who was able to book this deal scored a sweet $29,000 discount.

Airlines are under no legal obligation to honor these mistake fares, but Cathay Pacific made the honorable yet surprising decision to come out the very next day and announce that it would be honoring these tickets.

Before booking a mistake fare in the future, make sure to read this comprehensive guide to passenger rights in the event that your ticket is cancelled.

The decision to honor these fares was surprising for two reasons. Not only is Cathay suffering a huge financial loss by giving away its top-notch first class product for a small fraction of the cost, but a ton of people ended up participating in this deal, putting it on par with the Hong Kong Airlines business class "sale" between LA and Asia from 2018.

More of these seats than usual will likely be taken this coming year. Photo by JT Genter/The Points Guy.

The Hidden Cost of This Mistake Fare

While this deal was incredibly appealing, I'm a little surprised at the sheer number of people who took advantage of it, as it requires positioning to Vietnam to start your trip, and then returning from Vietnam at the end. Essentially you have to book your own round-trip ticket to Vietnam in order to fly in Cathay Pacific first or business class.

The carrier normally operates four daily flights between Hong Kong (HKG) and New York-JFK, with three flying nonstop and one stopping in Vancouver (YVR) on the way. With six seats in the first class cabin of the carrier's 777-300ER, that equates to 24 first class seats per day flying in each direction between JFK and Hong Kong. Cathay is normally steadfast and predictable about releasing one first class award seat per flight far in advance when the schedule opens, and occasionally a second closer to departure.

It's hard to say exactly how many people booked the mistake fare, but a quick search on ExpertFlyer shows that dozens of Cathay Pacific flights for the next year are entirely sold out in first class. Here's what flights look like on the Sunday of Labor Day weekend from HKG to JFK:

Three flights are sold out entirely in first class, while 21 of the 24 seats on this day are booked up. That's an 87.5% load factor nine months in advance.

Obviously this isn't true for every flight on every day, but there are plenty of summer days that are mostly booked up as well. And remember, that the deal was for round-trip airfare, so every person who took advantage of this mistake fare took two first class seats off the market.

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How does that compare to some of Cathay's other international destinations? As an example, the carrier only flies one daily flight to Paris (CDG) with a first class cabin, and there isn't a single day in all of August that the flight is sold out in first. In fact, almost every day has four or more F seats available to this popular business and leisure destination:

Even if first class cabins to the US aren't entirely booked up, there will still be a serious pinch on award space. At the time of writing, Cathay has seven first class award seats from Hong Kong to JFK for the entire month of August. Out of the 744 first class seats flying that route (24 a day for 31 days), barely 1% are available for awards. If you're flexible with your dates, it's often possible to find seven first class award seats each week between these two cities given the four daily flights. That will almost certainly change for most of 2019.

Furthermore, I wouldn't be surprised if Cathay Pacific decided to impose additional restrictions on award space to help dig out of this financial hole. If there's only one first class seat left on a flight, selling it to a paying customer for $10,000 or more will do them much more good than giving it away for next to nothing to an award traveler. If you've been eyeing a Cathay Pacific first class award redemption for this year, I would strongly recommend locking down space now while there are still award seats left.

Bottom Line

Award travelers love Cathay Pacific for (among other things) the relatively predictable way it releases premium cabin award space. With hundreds of seats in 2019 being filled by "paying customers," expect it to be much harder than usual to find first class award seats on one of the world's best airlines. All hope isn't lost though, as there are still examples of first class cabins with wide open inventory. Just be sure to focus on those options to prevent any disappointment.

And if you were able to book this mistake fare, enjoy the trip!

Featured image by A Cathay Pacific aircraft in Hong Kong (Photo by JT Genter / The Points Guy)