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Great service, generous snacks on demand, large lavatory in coach.
No Wi-Fi, hit-or-miss entrees, sloppy boarding process.
This past year, every single one of my family members happened to be traveling for Christmas Day, so I thought it would be fun (and cheaper) to book a flight that would allow me to skip Christmas Day altogether. Cathay Pacific Flight CX 881 departed Los Angeles International Airport at 11:55pm on Dec. 24 and landed in Hong Kong at 7:30am on Dec. 26. This way, I got to spend Dec. 25 reviewing this very flight.
I booked my flight directly through Cathay Pacific, and credited my mileage earnings to Oneworld alliance partner American Airlines. However, even a couple of weeks after the flight, my miles haven’t shown up in my AAdvantage account. I’ve inquired with the airline about the issue, but still have yet to see the miles post. I used my Chase Sapphire Reserve to purchase this flight, and earned 3x points on the $889 transaction, netting myself a total of 2,667 Ultimate Rewards points worth $53.34, according to TPG’s current valuations.
My online check-in experience the day before my flight was straightforward. Both the desktop and the phone app were equally easy to navigate, and I was able to select a seat of my choice — 45H — at no additional cost.
I arrived at the Tom Bradley International Terminal in LAX about three hours before my departure time. The entire terminal was crawling with travelers heading overseas for the holidays, packed luggage carts and all.
Fortunately, most of the people were merely standing in front of the Cathay Pacific counter, and not in line for it; my counter itself was mercifully traveler-free. I marched right up to the check-in kiosk and printed out tags for two bags.
I was in and out of the check-in line with a boarding pass in hand in about three minutes, including passport check. I asked my check-in agent if the flight was pretty full, and he said it was.
The LAX security line snaked around itself a few times, and it took me about 25 minutes to get through the international security checkpoint. There were no snafus, and the delay was purely based on volume, both of passengers as well as of winter layers and jackets that needed to be shed.
My coach ticket did not offer lounge access, but I have a Priority Pass membership via my Chase Sapphire Reserve, which allowed me to score $30 worth of free food at the P.F. Chang’s on the mezzanine. I have strong (and mostly negative) feelings about the quality of P.F. Chang’s, but I like free food, so practicality won out over prejudice this time. For what it’s worth, Priority Pass restaurants allow you to use your allowance toward alcohol but not toward the tip.
My gate was in the center of the terminal, next to all the shops and eateries. There was plenty of seating for everyone, and the high ceilings made the area seem a lot quieter than it actually was. Despite ours being a full flight, seats were available throughout the gate area.
Boarding was scheduled for 50 minutes before departure time, and the check-in agent urged me to be at the gate no later than 11:05pm, which was also the time specified on my boarding pass, although the screen at the gate stated that boarding would begin at 11:15pm. At the designated time, I saw why.
As with many airlines, the boarding process for a long international flight seemed more tedious than necessary. Cathay Pacific gate agents ran around trying to rally coach passengers into two extremely long lines — one for premium economy and other marginally higher-priority passengers, and one for everyone else. The process took about 18 to 20 minutes from announcements to stepping onto the plane, and I can’t help but think that an efficiency consultant would have had a field day with that assignment.
We pulled back from our gate a few minutes early and were on our merry way with little to no fanfare. My seatmate turned to me and said “Merry Christmas!” with Old World courtliness exactly as the clock struck midnight, so I guess I did get a little bit of holiday cheer after all.
Cabin and Seat
My plane was a Boeing 777-300ER with tail number B-KQV. It was only 3 years old and featured four classes, including Cathay Pacific’s first-class suites. Business class featured seats in a 1-2-1 reverse herringbone configuration.
In coach, seats were arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration, which was a blessing, considering the fact that Cathay has confirmed that its long-haul 77W fleet will be retrofitted with 10 seats across instead of the current nine. The 18.5-inch seat width was adequate, and the seat recline felt generous compared to that of many others. It will definitely be a tight squeeze, to say the least, when Cathay adds another seat to each row.
Premium economy featured a roomier 2-4-2 layout.
The blankets were comfortable and clean, but the pillows were on the smaller side. Also, because of the linen texture, they looked worn and used even before anyone sat down. That said, they worked just fine, and I promptly forgot about them right after I snapped this photo.
All seats came with a power port, and each seatback had a USB outlet. There was a shallow shelf under the outlet above the dinner tray, just large enough to hold my phone horizontally.
Nothing else really fit well in that area, though: A paperback novel was too wide to fit, a Kindle or tablet too tall to keep from flipping over, and a pen would’ve fallen through the open-bottom design. So storage was limited to the magazine pouch below the tray.
Speaking of tray tables, the foldout table felt floppy whenever I exerted the slightest downward pressure on the lower half, such as when I used my knife to cut through part of my food. So I worked hard to be extra careful whenever I had a drink in addition to food. Also, the placement of the cup holder felt a little bit awkward when I had a tray of food, since it meant I had to scoot the tray to the far left in order to not bump my cup.
But I did appreciate that the trays came with a little lip that fit into a corresponding groove on the table. Not all airlines include these, and it made meal service feel just a little bit more secure.
The cabin featured four lavatories: just one in the center and starboard of the economy section and three clustered toward the aft near the galley. Predictably, they got pretty messy as the flight progressed, although they started out looking clean.
Cathay Pacific stocked Nobility amenities in the bathrooms. In addition to hand soap, face moisturizer and hand cream were both offered from a metal container, which I thought added a little extra oomph for a long international flight.
Amenities and IFE
Are you a good-news-first person or a bad-news-first person?
I prefer bad news first, so I’ll just give it to you straight: There was no Wi-Fi on this flight. My college-age seatmate said it best: “Oh … That’s a real bummer! What do we even do for 15 hours and no internet?!”
The good news is that the inflight entertainment was reasonably robust, with a generous range of movies across various genres, some of which seemed specifically chosen for the holiday season — “It’s a Wonderful Life,” “Die Hard,” “Home Alone” and “Love Actually” were all on the roster along with other Christmas favorites.
The single-prong headphone jack meant I was able to use my own noise-canceling earbuds for decent movie bingeing. Flight attendants walked up and down the aisles before departure offering free earphones. They looked to be of standard (subpar) quality, so I opted to just use my own. I ended up watching four movies on the 15-hour flight, and getting about three and a half hours of sleep to boot.
A rather low-quality tail-cam feed was available in addition to more than 90 movies and at least 40 different TV shows, featuring an assortment of Western and Asian cinematography for all tastes. Basic map functionality was available as well, and I appreciated that the countdown timer was available directly on the screen and at the touch of a button during movies.
Cathay’s littlest travelers could look through a variety of Pixar and Disney classics.All told, my score for this section would be much higher if there had been Wi-Fi. In this day and age, not even having the option of onboard Wi-Fi is pretty much unacceptable for such a long flight, especially since this plane was relatively new.
Food and Beverage
Meals for Purchase
Cathay Pacific still brought a number of old-school personal touches to its service. Handing out menus to each passenger — even in coach! — was one of them. As soon as we reached cruising altitude, a flight attendant came through with freshly printed menus in a basket, and drink service followed shortly after.
I was pleasantly surprised to find that drink service and dinner service happened almost simultaneously, instead of taking up to 30 to 45 minutes in succession, as they sometimes can on other airlines. Both services happened just minutes after our plane leveled out, most likely because the flight departure was so late — 11:55pm — and most people, especially West Coast travelers, were ready to start turning in for the night.
Drink service included the standard water, tea, coffee, sodas, apple juice and orange juice, as well as house blends of red and white wine. My dinner entree was mediocre enough that I forgot to take a photo of it altogether. The flight attendants also either ran out of beef entrees pretty early on into dinner service or only stocked a few of each at a time (I saw them running toward the galley several times). The side items were less exciting to me — I skipped the shrimp bulgur-wheat salad and merely picked at my roll.
Breakfast was another story. I ordered the cod-and-ginger congee, considering we were on the flagship carrier of the country that basically elevated rice porridge to an art form.
To my surprise, it was some of the best jook I’ve ever had, and I don’t say that lightly, considering it came out of a plastic-and-foil reheatable container. I actually spent some time in Hong Kong looking for cod congee but never found anything quite as delicious. I also enjoyed the muffin and fruit that came alongside my main course. Coffee was offered simultaneously with my meal service.
For the sake of research, I also asked if I could have an extra breakfast entree so I could check out the Western option, which was frittata, bacon, mushrooms and roasted tomato. It was edible, but I would not eat it again unless I had to. The texture of the tomato was particularly distasteful, although the mushrooms pleasantly surprised me.
The airline offered cup noodles and ice cream on demand throughout the flight — a blast from the past for me, since I remember when most airlines were this generous during intercontinental flights (United Airlines circa 2002, I’m looking at you). They came in a clever little paper stand for stability, and included a pair of disposable chopsticks. The noodles tasted exactly like Maruchan chicken-flavor noodles. I definitely did not go hungry on this flight. Dinner wasn’t my favorite meal, but everything else onboard was quite tasty, and the ice cream made for a fun treat in the middle of the night when I woke up from a long nap.
Service went above and beyond to accommodate last-minute passenger needs.
What Cathay’s flight lacked in Wi-Fi, the airline made up for in customer service. I ended up using the call button to flag down a flight attendant three times over the duration of the flight, and they were by my seat within 20 seconds or less every single time. They went up the aisles two or three times during lights-out, offering water for wakeful passengers, and proactively offered hot noodles or frozen treats to passengers who wandered toward the back galley while stretching their legs. Our flight was just a handful of seats away from being completely full, yet each crew member gave the distinct impression that they were familiar with every single traveler.
Since our flight was a Christmas Day operation, I brought some Ferrero Rocher for the flight crew and was happy to see that I wasn’t the only passenger with this idea. During a midflight trip to the back galley to stretch my legs, I saw that the flight attendants had a small tray of handmade cupcakes from one particularly ambitious traveler, as well as a giant box of chocolates, which they shared with me.
I ended up sitting next to an older gentleman in the middle seat, who told me he had a 13-hour layover in Hong Kong en route to visiting family in Chennai, India. Soon after takeoff, however, he began to feel nauseous. I flagged down a flight attendant and asked her to check to see if there was an empty aisle seat so he could make it to the bathroom more quickly when he felt sick. Another flight attendant who overheard us immediately went through the entire economy cabin, eventually finding an empty seat with direct access to the aisle. The gentleman was extremely grateful.
I was prepared to give him my aisle seat, but the helpful flight attendants spared me from being trapped in a middle seat in coach on a 15-and-a-half-hour flight with no Wi-Fi. And for that alone, they automatically earned a full 25-out-of-25 rating in my book.
That incident was a shining moment for customer service, but the quality was consistent throughout, and I had absolutely no complaints from airport to airport.
Since I had to pass through immigration when I arrived in Hong Kong, my bags arrived at the carousel well before I did.
It took me about 40 minutes total to run the gauntlet, but once I was on the other side, I had no issue finding and picking up my luggage and then getting picked up by an Uber directly from the terminal. It felt really good to step off of that long flight and into the Asian winter sunshine.
All in all, my first experience with Cathay Pacific in 15 years was even more pleasant than I’d anticipated. I’m told that the airline has been slowly retrofitting its planes with Wi-Fi since 2017, a move that I think will greatly improve the overall experience. I look forward to reviewing a Cathay flight again once I can update you from midair!
All images by the author for The Points Guy.
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