Classic Luxury: Cathay Pacific (777-300ER) in First Class From Hong Kong to Boston
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For years, Cathay Pacific’s first-class product has stood as one of the best in the world. However, the airline is still flying essentially the same first class that it introduced in 2007. So, as part of the TPG Awards, we wanted to test it out to see how it compares to today’s first-class landscape.
Spoiler alert: It didn’t win. But considering its incredible lounges, excellent onboard food and refined service, Cathay Pacific proves it still deserves its place in the top five international first-class products.
Although the revenue prices for Cathay Pacific first class can be outrageous, there are cheap ways to book this flight with miles. So I was determined to book this as an award flight. Thankfully, unlike some other TPG Awards first-class contenders, there are quite a few Cathay Pacific first-class flights between Hong Kong and the US.
Using British Airways’ website to search awards, I found a few dates in late October and early November from Hong Kong (HKG) to New York Kennedy-JFK. However, the 9:35am departure time from HKG meant I wouldn’t get much time to enjoy the incredible Cathay Pacific lounges. So I found a bunch of dates available to both Chicago O’Hare (ORD) and Boston (BOS), eventually booking my flight to Boston for 70,000 Alaska miles and $89 in taxes and fees for the one-way flight.
At current TPG valuations, those Alaska miles were worth $1,260. And you could buy 70,500 miles through Alaska’s buy-miles promotion through Dec. 21 for $1,389, bringing your total out-of-pocket to under $1,500 for this incredible experience after taxes and fees.
Hong Kong had an ingenious “in-town” check-in system. At two downtown locations (Central and Kowloon), passengers could check into their flight and check bags through to their destination. This wasn’t just for first-class passengers, either: Any passenger flying out of HKG using the high-speed Airport Express to get to the airport was eligible. Depending on your airline, you might have even been able to check bags the day before your flight.
Entering the Cathay Pacific first-class line, I waited just a couple of minutes to check in with an agent. With my baggage tag printed and attached to my bag, it seemed like I was in the clear until the agent hit the brakes.
My boarding pass printed with a “SSSS” — I’d been selected for additional security checks. The agent canceled my check-in, tore up the boarding passes, removed my bag tag and told me I’d have to check in at the airport.
After the high-speed train ride from Central Hong Kong directly to the airport terminal, I approached the glamorous, marbled Cathay Pacific first-class check-in desk. Again, I was turned away, this time pointed toward the not-as-fancy check-in desks dedicated for US flights.
Before I could get to the desk, I received the “enhanced” questioning for US-bound passengers, earning my passport yet another security sticker. With that out of the way, my first-class experience could finally begin. The Cathay Pacific first-class check-in agent was friendly and efficient. She quickly tagged my bag, printed my still SSSS-labeled boarding pass and a lounge pass and filled in an expedited security card.
Thanks to this fast-track card, it took under five minutes from leaving the first-class desk to clear security and automated exit immigration and get to the entrance to the Cathay Pacific lounge. But I wasn’t ready to head in there just yet.
When you’re flying Cathay Pacific first class and have The Platinum Card® from American Express, there’s an embarrassment of riches at Hong Kong. I wanted to see if it was possible to get to the airport too early, so I arrived a full eight hours until my flight. None of the Cathay agents I interacted with even mentioned my early arrival, much less gave me a hard time about it.
After clearing security and immigration, I bee-lined it to The Pier first-class lounge. Having visited both The Pier and The Wing a few times, I’ve found that The Pier is much more peaceful, including day beds, spa service and a better dining experience.
In the past, I haven’t gotten a chance to enjoy a spa, as the wait times have always been too long. So I checked in first at the spa desk, getting a 1:05pm reservation at 10:30am. I began my wait with a brunch of Cathay Pacific dan dan noodles and an eggs royale.
After brunch, I was crashing from jet lag, so I snagged a day bed for a quick nap.
My spa services buzzer went off 35 minutes, early at 12:30pm. I opted for a shoulder, neck and scalp massage. Despite the luxurious look to the massage area, I needed to awkwardly sit on one of the ottomans for the massage. The masseuse was very firm and focused on pressure points, leaving me feeling a little battered but certainly looser and relaxed after the 15-minute service.
After my massage, I headed over to the Centurion Lounge to check it out for about 30 minutes. The lounge was certainly busier than in my past visits. The bartender was so busy that he asked me to come back to retrieve my cocktail about 10 minutes after I ordered it.
Finally, I backtracked all the way to the exit to immigration where The Wing first-class lounge was. It was a bit crowded, but not as bad as on past visits or the Centurion Lounge.
Knowing to request it early, I went to the check-in desk for the private cabanas. About 15 minutes later, I had my a spacious private room to myself, complete with a bathtub, shower, day bed, sink, work area and bathroom.
Since I dressed up for this flight, I was able to utilize the lounge’s pressing service. A cabinet behind the door to the cabana opened up to the outside. You hung your clothes and pressed a button, and lounge staff retrieved and pressed the outfit. When I was done showering, the pressed clothes were magically back where they started.
With the Cathay Pacific precision that I’ve grown to love, boarding started exactly at the scheduled time.
Since I was questioned earlier, I was able to bypass the security questions at the gate, but I was stopped for a quick screening and swabbing for explosives due to the SSSS indication on my boarding pass. Despite this short delay, I was still the first first-class passenger to board.
The front door was closed at 6:06pm for our 6:05pm departure time.
Once in Boston, my “Cathay Pacific First”-tagged bag was about the 30th bag out, dropping a couple minutes after the first bag.
Cabin and Seat
Cathay Pacific currently flies the Boeing 777-300ER between Hong Kong and Boston, as well as Chicago (ORD), San Francisco (SFO), Toronto (YYZ), twice daily to Vancouver (YVR) and thrice daily to both New York’s Kennedy and Los Angeles (LAX). My flight was operated by a 7-and-a-half-year-old plane with the registration B-KPU.
The first-class cabin had two rows configured in a 1-1-1 arrangement. Although the seats were labeled “suites” by Cathay Pacific, there weren’t doors or even large shells around the seats. However, because there were so few seats in the cabin and so much space, these seats felt more private than they looked.
The middle seats only opened into the starboard aisle. This made seats D and K better for those traveling together and the A seats better for those who wanted privacy.
I chose 2A and couldn’t have asked for more privacy during my flight. The passenger seated in 1A — a fellow mileage collector on an around-the-world ticket — felt much further away than he was. And I often couldn’t even tell that there was even a passenger in 1K. The first-class cabin was separated from the business-class cabin by a narrow curtain. However, the two-row mini business-class cabin wasn’t even noticeable in flight.
This sparse arrangement meant that the seats were gigantic, measuring 36 inches (3 whole feet!) across. When reclined flat, the bed measured a massive 81 inches long.
Despite not being a new product, the cabin looked and felt spotless.
The ottoman at each seat could also double as a seat for a visitor to join you during meal service. There was even a seat belt in case of turbulence. This ottoman served as the end of the bed when the seat was laid flat.
Each seat had its own closet for hanging clothes and storing bags.
There were two sleek lavatories at the front of the aircraft for the six first-class seats and the flight crew, meaning that I never needed to wait for an open bathroom. The bathrooms weren’t very large. While they were fine for the standard uses, they felt small when changing in and out of pajamas. One element not in the photo below: The lavatory was stocked with cotton towels when in the air.
There was no onboard lounge/bar or shower in Cathay Pacific first class.
Amenities and IFE
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a lumbar pillow and a small pillow attached to the headrest. A throw pillow was left on the ottoman and a flower was placed in each wall-mounted vase.
During boarding, flight attendants passed out male/female-specific Aēsop-branded travel kits as well as pajamas based on their estimation of the passenger’s size. Not exactly a small guy — especially by Asian standards — I chuckled when I was handed a set a pajamas marked “large.” But the sizing was perfect, and the pajamas were very comfortable.
Inside the amenity kit, Cathay Pacific provided a microfiber cloth, mouthwash, lip cream, face cream, earplugs, a wooden comb, toothbrush and toothpaste.
The two bathrooms were stocked with Aēsop amenities: Geranium Leaf Hand & Body Balm, Immediate Moisture Facial Hydrosol and Fabulous Face Cleanser.
After dinner, I asked for a flight attendant to turn down my bed. While I changed into the pajamas in the bathroom, the FA laid the seat flat, added a mattress pad and a heavy, warm and soft comforter.
The IFE screen was mounted in the seat in front, noticeably off to the side from the natural view from the seat’s angle. However, in flight, the screen could be unlatched and moved on an arm to be directly in front of you. While the 17-inch display wasn’t small, it was not especially crisp, showing its obvious age.
The inflight entertainment system was well-stocked. When sorting by language, I counted 126 English-language movies. However there were numerous other categories containing a variety of languages (some movies were in multiple categories):
- Western Cinema: 87
- Chinese Cinema: 24
- Asian Cinema: 25
- Made in Hong Kong: 6
- Documentary: 8
- Critics Choice: 18
- European: 15
- Indian Cinema: 8
- Western Classics: 30
- Marvel Studios: 10
- Arthouse: 7
- Short Films: 4
- Family: 15
Although I practically live on aircraft, I could easily find quite a few programs that I wanted to watch. As an example of the diversity, when counting the options, I stumbled across a documentary that followed my favorite DJs (Above & Beyond) — which I happily sat back and enjoyed with a glass (or two) of scotch.
Each movie started with over four minutes of advertisements. While you could fast-forward through the ads, the IFE system wasn’t linear about fast-forwarding. So it was easy to skip well into the movie even when going at 8x speed. And it didn’t feel very first class to have more than four minutes of ads.
There was a very grainy outside camera that showed the live view from under the aircraft. It was hard to tell what anything was on the ground during the night-time takeoff and landing.
And it wasn’t clear during the day, either.
The Bose-branded noise-canceling headphones were handed out during boarding and weren’t collected before landing. While not impressive-looking, they produced crisp sound and solid noise-cancellation.
One downside of this flight: There was no Wi-Fi. Cathay Pacific began a Wi-Fi retrofit program in June 2018 with the goal of installing Wi-Fi on its entire international fleet by the end of 2020. However, for this flight, passengers were disconnected the entire 15-hour flight.
There was one universal power plug in the seat, and it produced enough power that my phone was able to quickly charge.
Overall, the amenities and inflight entertainment seemed like they would’ve been top-notch when Cathay’s first-class product was first introduced in 2007. However, it lagged in numerous aspects compared to its rivals today.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
The food and beverage service began almost immediately after boarding with a glass of 2006 Cuvee William Deutz Champagne and a bowl of nuts:
When I had dinner, I asked to have the full experience — despite not boarding hungry, thanks to the great Hong Kong airport lounges. Dinner began with a caviar service that I could honestly say was the best I’d experienced in my life … as I’d never tried caviar before this flight. The flight attendant was gracious enough to explain the elements, with recommendations on how to enjoy it. And enjoy it I did.
The caviar for this flight was Calvisius Venise, and it was served with a classic mother-of-pearl spoon. And if you really like it, a flight attendant shared that seven bins are provisioned on each flight, so there’s going to be at least one extra on each flight even if the cabin is full.
After the caviar, a salad course was served. It tasted fine, but I didn’t dedicate much stomach space to it.
I’ve learned from experience that a true test of a premium-class meal service is to order the red meat, so I ordered the steak. The flight attendant asked how I’d like it cooked, and I decided to be aggressive with a medium rare. It was served flanked by vegetables and an entire bulb of roasted garlic.
The steak wound up being a little on the rare side but was still incredibly tasty. The meal reeked of garlic from the roasted garlic, but as a fan of garlic, it was a wonderful aroma to me.
The meal service was finished after the cabin lights were dimmed with a warm cake topped by ice cream. A nice sweet treat to end the meal.
One way that Cathay Pacific first class really stood out was the quality of the alcohol choices. As a scotch fan, I was very pleased to see Johnny Walker Blue Label on the menu and happily left the Champagne behind to savor a glass (or two) of the 25-year aged scotch. Even the water was top-notch: Evian.
After sleeping a few hours, I asked to be woken up a few hours before landing to be able to enjoy the rest of the flight. Upon recommendation, I tried the egg tarts and found them to be a deliciously delicate way to start the “morning.”
Shortly before landing, I ate a bowl of fresh and crisp fruit:
I’ve flown on nearly 300 flights since the beginning of 2017, but the crew on this flight stood out from the crowd. Although reserved and professional as I boarded, the crew quickly realized my excitement with the experience — which was my easily justified excuse for my excited photo taking and videography. Seemingly tailoring their service to each of the three passengers, the crew shifted to being friendly and conversational while still professional in their service.
Not only was the crew quick to respond to the call button the few times that I pressed it, the FAs were proactive about checking in to see if I wanted anything when I returned from the bathroom or they noticed I was awake and moving around.
A few minutes after I settled in after a quick and efficient turndown service, the crew aced the extra pillow test. Responding in about five seconds to my call button, the flight attendant returned about 20 seconds after my request with another full-size pillow. The crew honored my request to be woken up for breakfast with a firm, authoritative “Mr. Genter” from the purser.
One aspect of the flight that I found bothersome — especially to my photo taking — is that the crew kept the lights off for 13 hours of the flight, even when all three first-class passengers were awake.
As a top-tier Oneworld Emerald through American Airlines, I’ve found any excuse that I can to enjoy Cathay Pacific’s excellent first-class ground experience in Hong Kong. However, I have long been looking forward to experiencing Cathay’s first class in the sky. It didn’t disappoint. While the product is showing its age in a few respects, it’s still a classic beauty that’s well-complemented with excellent service and impressive food and drink.
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