Cold ground, warm sky: A review of Cathay Pacific's first class on the 777-300ER from Hong Kong to London
[tpg_rating ticket-class="first" tpg-rating-score="84" ground-experience="15" cabin-seat="17" amens-ife="12" food-bev="23" service="17" pros="An exceptionally large seat, vastly improved soft product and delicious food." cons="Unfriendly ground experience, no Wi-Fi and some dated hard-product elements." /]
When thinking about some of the best first-class products out there, Cathay Pacific's typically comes to mind immediately. Among its most notable characteristics are its massive seat, outstanding service and great on-the-ground experience in Hong Kong by the way of its lounges.
Earlier this month, the carrier introduced a new soft product featuring updated amenity kits, enhanced bedding, a new dining experience and more — all in the name of helping first-class passengers arrive at their destination more relaxed. That improvement was greatly needed for Cathay. The carrier has long relied on its first-class reputation of lore, with many of its elements staying the same since the product was first introduced in 2007.
So how would the new soft product in first class elevate the entire experience? Is it enough to consider Cathay first the best in class? Or is it just enough to keep it competitive with its peers? I flew from Hong Kong to London to find out.
I booked a one-way trip in Air France La Première from Europe to Beijing (PEK) to review the product for the TPG Awards. With that, I needed to find a way home from China. Ideally, that return would be in Cathay Pacific first class, but after about one week of searching for availability on the route from Beijing to Hong Kong (HKG) to London (LHR) and setting ExpertFlyer alerts, I still didn't have any luck.
TPG Travel Analyst Zach Griff was fairly confident that at least one seat would open, and sure enough, two days prior to departure, Cathay's own Asia Miles program opened up one seat.
It was the last open seat in the cabin and only showing as available as a redemption with the Asia Miles program. Even though Cathay Pacific awards can also be booked via British Airways Executive Club, American Airlines AAdvantage and Alaska Mileage Plan, among others, Cathay's recently been holding back some award seats for its own Asia Miles members.
Related reading: The ultimate guide to Cathay Pacific first class
We acted quickly and snagged the one-way redemption from Beijing to London via Hong Kong — including a segment in first class on a Cathay Dragon-operated A330 — for 100,000 Asia miles and about $124 in taxes and fees.
One-way fares on this exact route go for more than $16,000, and round-trip cash fares cost $23,500. (Yes, you read those numbers right!) This is a great example of just how valuable points and miles can be. The 100,000 Asia Miles we used were worth $1,300 based on TPG's most recent valuations, representing truly amazing value.
The best part of all is that Asia Miles can be easily earned. Cathay Pacific's Asia Miles program is a transfer partner of American Express Membership Rewards and Citi ThankYou. So you can transfer points from either of those programs — or both — to the Asia Miles program in order to snag an amazing redemption like this. And don't be discouraged if you don't see availability right away. As I learned, Asia Miles tends to open availability at the last minute as long as there's an open seat in the cabin.
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I started my Cathay Pacific first-class journey in Beijing, flying in first on a Cathay Dragon-operated Airbus A330 aircraft. Upon landing in Hong Kong, I went through immigration, well, in order to go through the check-in process again — all in the name of a true TPG review and to give you the best idea of what the experience is like. So we'll pick up from Hong Kong International Airport, Cathay Pacific's hub.
The departures area at HKG is large. Very large. If you don't know what you're looking for, it's easy to get lost. Thankfully, there are screens around the check-in area, directing passengers to which block of counters they need to go. Because it's Cathay's home airport, the airline occupies a number of check-in areas — three to be exact, from rows B to D. However, I found no signage for the specific first-class check-in area. Because I had plenty of time, I walked to the farthest block to only stumble upon exactly what I was looking for, the first-class check-in area in the B row. First-time Cathay first flyers like myself probably wish that the designated area were better marked.
I walked up to the permanent block of desks, which were clean and looked bright and fresh. Don't expect roped areas for queues in the first-class check-in area. It's a more personalized experience. I was greeted by an agent who asked me where I was traveling to. After letting her know I was going to London, she guided me to an agent behind a desk.
The agent didn't appear warm or inviting. Instead, as I approached the desk, she held her hand out without saying anything, presumably for my passport. I handed it over and asked if my bags would be checked through all the way to London. She said yes and then printed me out a new boarding pass but no lounge invitation. I knew that Cathay offered paper lounge invitations because I was given one to the Cathay lounge in Beijing. So I asked her where the lounge was. She didn't tell me there were multiple lounges or that Cathay's newest and best first-class lounge, The Pier, was a distance away. Instead, she pointed to the security gate and said to turn left once through. There was no sign of any designated first-class security lane, and there was no dedicated first-class escort from check-in to the lounge, as several other carriers offer.
The overall experience was poor because of the service. I'm not a picky traveler by any means, but if I'm flying in first class with an airline at its hub airport, I expect an inviting welcome to the experience, and that starts with the check-in agent. I shouldn't have to feel like I'm forcing information out of the agent. Perhaps the agent was having an off day — and everyone is entitled to that. But if you're in a customer-facing environment for one of the world's best first-class airline products, it's a shame to pass that energy onto a paying passenger.
That said, because there was no personalized service and no line, the entire check-in process took less than two minutes. I headed for the main security gate, which I was through in less than five minutes, and headed for the first-class lounge she'd pointed me toward.
As I was told, the lounge, The Wing First Class Lounge, was upstairs just after security above gates 1 through 4. An agent who welcomed me and scanned my boarding pass.
The lounge was open air, which I like, as it feels like you're still in touch with the goings-on of the terminal without actually being in it. It was quite crowded. Much of the seating, which was varied and looked comfortable, were taken. That's likely because Cathay admits select passengers with elite status, such as Oneworld Emerald elites who are departing on a Oneworld airline, as well as first-class flyers.
I enjoyed the color scheme, and it was clear that plenty of thought had gone into how the lounge was designed. Plus, the seats looked well-cushioned and comfortable, and there were plenty of AvGeek-friendly views.
The lounge, while narrow, was long. I passed through a relaxing area, the bar area and a buffet area. Food there ranged from finger sandwiches to a large tea selection, cheeses, hot foods and desserts.
Tucked by the buffet was The Haven, the dining room.
A server took me to a seat for one. Not quite knowing yet if I'd have time to head to The Pier, I ordered a main, the pappardelle with pork ragu, Grana Padano and gremolata. The dish had great flavor, with the pasta a perfect al dente.
The lounge had five cabanas, which had a bath and shower, day bed and working space. I didn't have time to check them out myself.
The lounge was attached to The Wing, Business Class Lounge, and you could easily move between the two as a first-class passenger.
After spending about 30 minutes in that lounge, I was off to the real star of HKG, The Pier First Class Lounge. The lounge was about a 15-minute walk away from the security area and The Wing, near Gate 63 and downstairs.
After descending the escalator, I could immediately sense the calm and relaxing atmosphere. The space was full of distinctly different areas where you could find what suited you.
The library was straight through from the entrance. Out of all of the lounges I'd visited, this library had, by far, the most variety of reading material.
The dining room was made to feel like a restaurant, and staff escorted guests to seats. The space itself fit with the vibe of the rest of the lounge, largely green and brown, with wood finishings. Even though it was busy by the time I left, it still remained quiet and enjoyable.
Because I had just eaten in The Wing I decided to sample something small, the ricotta fresca starter, with caramelized red peppers, garlic, rosemary and seeded crisp bread. Much of the menus in both lounges were the same, though there were more options in The Pier. The starter, as expected, tasted great.
There was also a grab-and-go section with mostly cold foods, desserts and cold beverages.
Next to the dining room, The Retreat offered showers, spa services and day suites. I didn't have time for it, but TPG Senior General Assignment Reporter Katie Genter did during her visit and found them to be great.
The Bureau featured six quiet, private work spaces with iMacs.
Most of the lounge was dedicated to, well, lounging. There were dozens of plush seats scattered throughout. The color scheme and lavender-juniper scent made the experience comfortable and relaxing — almost as if I'd entered a spa.
There were plenty of power outlets throughout the lounge, disguised as drawers in most of the side tables.
In the middle of the largest lounge is the bar, which was grand.
I ordered a favorite of mine, an Aperol spritz, which was delicious.
The Wi-Fi was blazingly fast. Download speeds measured 50.1 Mbps, while upload speeds measured 46.5 Mbps. I had no issue with the connection on my laptop and phone.
The whole space was impeccably clean. The restroom was the cleanest area, both calming and spotless.
The Pier is widely regarded as one of the best lounges in the world, and I could see why. It was expansive and clean, relaxing and enjoyable. If you're flying first class with Cathay or if you're an eligible Oneworld flyer, be sure to spend time here.
The one thing I disliked? It got overcrowded at times. It doesn't feel as exclusive because it's not restricted to first class.
I left the lounge at 2:20 p.m., hoping to be among the first to board. The boarding process was set to begin at 2:30 p.m., but after 10 minutes and people beginning to queue, there was still no word on when we would begin. Soon enough, the gate, which was right above The Pier, quickly became crowded with passengers lining up. Boarding started with no announcement at 2:47 p.m., more than 15 minutes late with no explanation.
The process itself went off without a hitch, though, and first-class passengers boarded at the same time as Oneworld Emerald members.
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Cathay Pacific's first-class cabin is one of the most exclusive in the skies. The cabin features just six seats, arranged in a private and spacious 1-1-1 configuration.
Although the first-class suites don't feature doors or curtains, like many competitors offer even in their respective business-class cabins, Cathay's cabin is incredibly private. Perhaps it's because there are only six seats in a large space, or because of the partition between the passenger's head and the aisle at each seat.
On top of the privacy, the standout feature of the cabin is how incredibly large each seat is. Each of the six seats in the cabin measures 36 inches wide, while the bed in its lie-flat position measures 81 inches.
If you're traveling alone, select one of the seats on the port side of the cabin in Row A, which are more private than the rest of the cabin. That's because they're separated from the middle row, D, by a wall. Passengers seated in Row D (I was in 1D) enter and exit their seat via the starboard aisle, closer to Row K. If you're traveling with someone, snag either seats 1D and 1K or 2D and 2K.
The wall that separates the middle row from the A seats is fairly translucent. If the passenger seated in Row A has their window open or their inflight-entertainment screen on, you can see the light through the wall.
Each seat is incredibly wide.
Inside the seat are two seating areas and a footrest, which doubles as a seat for dining companions and as the bottom of the bed when the seat's in its lie-flat position. That second seat features a seatbelt, required for someone to dine with you. Each of the seats features a tray table large enough to accommodate two passengers sharing the same surface.
Each of the seats has a fresh flower in it.
Attached to each of the seats is a personal closet large enough to hold several jackets, as well as several small bags. I easily stored my backpack and tote bag.
The cabin is completely devoid of overhead bins, which also means no overhead air vents. If you have a larger bag, it's best to check it, though the closet is supposed to fit larger carry-ons.
On my flight, all the extra storage proved handy. In addition to the closet space, there was a fair amount of storage in the seat. Directly next to me was a small pop-open space, which was perfect for a phone, AirPods case, passport and wallet.
Directly next to that were both the retractable remote for the inflight entertainment and the touchscreen seat controls. Each of the seats had a built-in massage function, enjoyable without being too loud or aggressive.
On the other side of the seat were three preset seat controls: upright for taxi, takeoff and landing, lie-flat mode and a button to turn ambient lights in the seat on or off.
Each seat featured one USB outlet and one universal power outlet, unobstructed between the seat and footrest.
There were two dedicated literature spaces, one opposite the storage area and one directly underneath the IFE system. The one on the wall against the aisle was strictly for literature, but the other was large enough to store my 15-inch MacBook Pro. It also featured a bottle holder.
The cabin was spotless. For a nearly 10-year old aircraft, one would expect more wear and tear, but saw only minimal scuff marks, a remarkable feat given the number of flights the aircraft has operated.
Above both shoulders in each seat was a reading light in addition to the overhead light.
In the first-class cabin were two lavatories, more than enough for the six passengers on my flight. The two first-class lavatories were also shared with crew. They weren't large — don't expect to find a shower in the lavatory — and felt cramped when I was changing into and out of pajamas.
Overall, the Cathay first-class seat was a comfortable one for a long journey, with a wide seat, long bed-mode dimensions and cleanliness. The Cathay seat and intimacy of the cabin are sure to make for a comfortable journey.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Amenities and IFE" tpg-rating="12" tpg-rating-max="15" screen="17" tv-shows="218" live-tv="No" tailcam="No" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
On my flight, I was one of the first passengers to experience Cathay's new first-class soft product. As of Nov. 15, Cathay offers an enhanced soft product in both first and business class. According to a press release, among the changes are enhancements to service, soft products and culinary offerings — and the improvement was noticeable, as each seat was stocked with both a small pillow attached to the headrest and a larger, plusher Bamford pillow on the seat. There was also a red throw pillow on the seat.
After being welcomed on board and escorted to my seat, I was brought a set of pajamas, a set of headphones and a white amenity kit. I was told that the amenity kit was part of the brand-new offering by Bamford, a U.K. brand known for its sustainable principles, and was offered in different variations for men and women.
The kit, white with brown accents, was aesthetically pleasing. Inside were clear Bamford and Cathay Pacific branding and standard amenity kit offerings: dental kit, eyeshade, earplugs, mouthwash, cotton pads and Bamford-branded moisturizing cream, eye cream, lip balm and balancing tonic.
I found the variety fantastic, an effective part of Cathay's goal to make the experience a calming one. The new product offers more choices and in larger containers than the previous version of Cathay's first-class amenity kits, which were Aesop-branded.
The Bamford-branded products didn't end with the amenity kits. In each of the lavatories were three Bamford products: a face cleanser, body lotion and face mist.
When it came time for turndown service after the first meal, it was time to experience another of Cathay's improvements to first class: the bedding. But first, it was time to change into the pajamas, which were presented in a nice, reusable tote bag. Inside the bag were also an eyeshade and pair of slippers. I found the pajama set to be comfortable and soft without being too hot. Notably missing, however, were socks. In addition, each passenger got not one but two eyeshades in total, which seemed like a waste.
After changing into the pajamas, I headed back to my seat, which had already been turned down by cabin crew. On top of the set was a lavender pillow mist from Bamford, which I found calming. The new bedding itself, also made by Bamford, had a 600 thread count, sustainably sourced mattress and duvet, and a soft, full-size pillow.
The mattress pad had holes for the seatbelt to go through to keep it in place. It wasn't the most plush offering in the sky, but it was still comfortable. I was able to feel creases in the seat below the mattress pad, which was disappointing for a brand-new product. However, I found both the pillow and the duvet to be incredibly soft and comfortable — again, without being too hot. In a pamphlet describing the set, Cathay said that the linen was designed to be soft with cooling features for a more restful sleep, which I found to hold entirely true.
Knowing that sleeping isn't a one-size-fits-all concept, Cathay now offers a choice of pillow: soft, medium or firm pillow. The soft one was incredibly plush and comfortable — even better than the one on my own bed.
I was able to comfortably sleep for several hours and take advantage of the long, wide bed.
When I woke up, it was time to explore the inflight entertainment. Upon boarding, each passenger was given a set of Bose headphones, which had a Cathay Pacific-branded wrapping on them. The two-prong headphone port was underneath the armrest that housed the remote control. They were crisp and noise-canceling, and the set wasn't collected before landing, so I could watch programming until pulling up to the gate.
The screen itself was 17 inches, though it did show its age. Some views were fuzzy and distorted, especially the live camera from under the aircraft.
The screen itself had to be stowed during taxi, takeoff and landing, and was slightly unaligned from the seat. Once in the air, the screen could be extended to be more in the passenger's line of sight.
While not touchscreen itself, the IFE system could be controlled by a touchscreen remote control, which was stored in easy reach. The retractable remote was responsive. One of my complaints with the IFE was that it was incredibly disorganized and hard to find anything you were looking for. For example, the selection of more than 300 films couldn't be organized alphabetically. In the western category, there were 213 films, ranging from new releases to classics. On the TV side, there were 218 selections, both American and international.
My other major complaint was that you were required to watch about five minutes of advertisements. There was no indication they could be skipped, but you could fast-forward.
There was an option for a wake-up call from the IFE system. You could choose if you wanted to wake up for a certain meal or pick a "Do Not Disturb" mode.
Many of Cathay Pacific's 777-300ER aircraft are not equipped with Wi-Fi, and mine was one of them. In 2017, the airline said that it hoped to have all wide-body aircraft equipped with Wi-Fi by 2020.
There's no doubt that Cathay has made significant improvements to its first-class soft product. There are several aspects to the soft product that could put it ahead of its competition — the amenity kits are well-stocked, the bedding is comfortable for the most part, and the small touches create an enhanced, calming experience. However, when coupled with its dated inflight entertainment with no guaranteed Wi-Fi, there's still room to improve.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Food and Beverage" tpg-rating="23" tpg-rating-max="25" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" meals="2" champagne="Taittinger 'Comtes de Champagne' 2007" dine-on-demand="Yes" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="0" turndown-service="0" /]
Upon boarding, I was greeted by one of the kind first-class flight attendants, who asked if I wanted a predeparture drink. I had a glass of Champagne, before which I was served sparkling tea, a hot towel and a note on a tray. The sparkling tea was a lovely — and unexpected — way to start the trip and is part of Cathay's new offerings.
Also part of Cathay's new first-class soft product is a distinctly different menu. According to Cathay's press release, the first-class menu now features "lighter options for the main and breakfast meals to healthy alternatives such as superfood bowls and lighter protein side dishes."
After finishing my welcome tea, I was presented with the glass of Champagne that I had ordered, which was poured at the seat — a Taittinger Comtes de Champagne 2007, which retails for about $129 per bottle.
At 4:10 p.m., 31 minutes after our departure, the amuse-bouche was served. It was salmon over cream, which was flavorful without being too fishy.
At 4:27 p.m., my tray table was set with a clean, white tablecloth to cover the 21-inch-by-18-inch tray table. Shortly thereafter, at 4:34 p.m., the caviar was served. The 20 grams of King's Imperial caviar was served alongside blinis, chives, crème fraîche and chopped egg, and was incredibly delicious.
Interestingly, Cathay's new soft product doesn't offer distinct appetizers and mains. Instead, you can order either Chinese favorites or international favorites, with soup or salad as a starter. I found the menu confusing, but found it to be nice to have the options when it was explained to me.
At 5:02 p.m., my appetizer was served, a smoked red bell pepper soup with cucumber and dill yogurt. The soup was poured out of a small soup pitcher. Paired with the croutons and a bread basket, the soup was amazingly flavorful.
At 5:19 p.m., came my main: a clay pot of five-spice wagyu beef cheek with red and white jasmine rice and choy sum. The beef cheeks were absolutely phenomenal in taste and texture — a true delight. There was a lot of rice to go along with them, but the quality and taste of the beef offset that. To pair with dinner, I got a glass of white wine — a Lamblin & Fils Chablis 2017. The wine was nice, with soft citrus hints and a dry finish.
To round out the "lunch" service, I had a selection of cheeses, which were served at 5:48 p.m. The plate featured a Stilton, Saint-Paulin and camembert with crackers, grapes, walnuts and a few other goodies. The plate had a range of flavors and consistencies, though by this point I was incredibly full.
Before being completely done with the meal, I was offered tea or coffee. Tea selections were listed in the menu, and I had a cup of peppermint tea, which was served at 6:05 p.m. alongside a hot towel and chocolates. The chocolates — raspberry with dark chocolate and bourbon vanilla bean milk chocolate — were delightful alongside the tea.
In all, the lunch service was really tasty. From start to finish, the service took about two hours, which was on the long side. However, for a nearly 13-hour flight, two hours spent on a meal isn't bad — especially if the food is good.
Before turndown service, each passenger was given a full-size Evian bottle of water. Throughout the flight, Cathay now offered an all-day menu with snacks and an afternoon tea set. Passengers are welcome to order anything off the menu at their leisure.
About two and a half hours before landing, the second meal service, dinner, was set to begin. At around 1:55 a.m. Hong Kong time (5:55 p.m. London time), the service started with a wake-up drink and hot towel. The wake-up drink, a watermelon juice from Bless, was incredibly refreshing and a part of the new soft product.
Around 2 a.m., I was served a fresh fruit plate of kiwi, mango, raspberries, strawberries, a blackberry, grapefruit, dragon fruit and a slice of lime. The fruit was so tasty and fresh.
I also had Cathay's Betsy beer, supposedly brewed exclusively for flying. As a beer fiend, I'd read about the beer and was incredibly excited to try it. Thankfully, the pale ale lived up to my high expectations, with hints of orange to give it a slight kick.
For dinner, I got the mezzi rigatoni with slow-roasted tomato sauce, buffalo mozzarella, basil and Parmesan. The dish, which was served at 2:15 a.m., was nice but not extraordinary.
The final course, dessert, was served at 2:35 a.m.: an oven-baked dark chocolate custard with caramel ice cream, extremely tasty without being too sweet. A perfect way to end the meal.
Unlike the first meal service, the final meal service was quick, perhaps because each of the passengers was spaced out.
Overall, I found the meal service to be extremely tasty. The dinner course could have been more flavorful and the first lunch service quicker, but the other selections were delicious. It's worth adding that with Cathay's new soft product, it introduced new china from Noritake, cutlery from Robert Welch and full-size wine glasses from Riedel — all of which I found to be lovely both aesthetically and functionally.
[flight_stats ticket-class="first" review-stat-section="Service" tpg-rating="17" tpg-rating-max="20" live-tv="0" tailcam="0" headphones="0" comp-alcohol="0" extra-pillows="Yes" turndown-service="Yes" /]
It's hard to say anything bad about the onboard service from my experience. I was escorted to my seat by Irene, one of the two crew members taking care of me for the flight. The other member of the crew assigned to the first-class cabin, Patrick, was equally as friendly and attentive. In tandem, both offered service with a smile and tried to offer me the best experience possible
Unlike the cold customer service at HKG, the service on board was exceptional. The flight services manager came around to each seat, introducing herself and offering a Fast Track pass for Heathrow. Prior to deplaning, Irene came around to personally thank me for flying with Cathay. It was a nice way to end the flight.
With that being said, the on-the-ground service experience didn't match that of the air, and left a lopsided impression.
Cathay Pacific's recent soft-product improvements were long overdue and help to bring the aging product more on par with some of its competitors. But the hard product still has out-of-date elements, such as the inflight entertainment, and the ground experience and the air experience are vastly inconsistent, though the improved bedding, dining, amenity kits and service touches are welcome.
Of course, one of the the things that hasn't changed with this refresh and that continues to be one of the best parts of the seat is the value to be had using points and miles. My seat on this flight would have cost more than $16,000 one-way, and I only paid 100,000 miles and a small amount in taxes and fees.
Is Cathay the best first-class product out there? Probably not. But with its recent enhancements and continued great onboard experience, it definitely deserves a spot at the table. To continue improving, Cathay should look to the ground — and that starts at check-in.
All photos by Emily McNutt/The Points Guy.