Brand-New Route, Brand-New Bird: Cathay Pacific (A350-1000) Business Class, DC to Hong Kong
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I've been anticipating my first Cathay Pacific business-class flight for years. I'd flown and reviewed Cathay Pacific economy and premium economy — and had excellent experiences on both — but up until recently I could only read TPG reviews about the excellent hard product and superior soft product in Cathay's business class.
I was especially interested to try out Cathay's business class now, since the airline is at a crossroads. In a time of record airline profits, the Hong Kong-based carrier has posted painful losses. While the carrier is hoping to right the ship with cost-cutting, it's also revamping its business-class meal service and launching new routes to Seattle (SEA), Brussels (BRU), Copenhagen (CPH), Dublin (DUB) and Washington, DC (IAD), which launched on Sept. 16 and is now its longest route.
So how would it all pan out? Let's take a look.
I took my own advice here and booked 16 hours in Cathay Pacific business class for just 50,000 miles in December 2017, when CX award availability was wide open on its new route from Washington, DC, to Hong Kong (HKG). Since Alaska Mileage Plan allowed a free stopover even on one-way awards, my wife, Katie, and I originally booked a two-week stay in Hong Kong before continuing to Tokyo Narita (NRT).
Since we booked before Alaska ditched its free-change policy over 60 days to departure, we were able to change our second leg to Singapore (SIN) for me to catch the inaugural Singapore Airlines Singapore-Newark (EWR) flight.
Because we booked this ticket before the Citi Prestige devalued its trip-delay protection, we put the $51 per person in taxes and fees on the Citi Prestige. If we booked it now, we'd put the taxes and fees on the Chase Sapphire Reserve, valuing the 3x earnings plus solid trip-delay protection over the 5x earnings on the Platinum Card® from American Express for the minor fees.
We were to start this ticket in Washington, DC, but first we needed to get there. So, we did what we do best and booked a Beijing mileage run, where we enjoyed poor man's business class, to end at Dulles airport. Building in a buffer in case there were issues, we ended up landing in Dulles on a red-eye flight 20 hours before our departure on Cathay Pacific. We arrived at the empty terminal to an advertisement for the brand-new route we were about to experience.
After working from the Virgin Atlantic Clubhouse (via Priority Pass) for a few hours, we checked into an airport hotel to get some rest before the 1:20am departure.
"Which airline?" the hotel shuttle driver asked.
"Cathay Pacific," I responded, but only received a blank stare in return.
"OK, but what airline?"
It seems that the local hotel-shuttle drivers hadn't heard of the new airline in town. And the lack of Cathay Pacific signage outside the airport didn't help. Thankfully, Katie caught a glimpse of Cathay Pacific signage inside a door marked with Delta and Southwest's names.
On Cathay's website, it noted that airport check-in wouldn't open until three hours before departure — 10:20pm in this case. We figured at least one of us could go through security with a mobile boarding pass while the other waited landside for check-in to open to check our large bags.
When we arrived at the airport at 8:45pm, agents at the check-in desks said they'd open at 9:00pm or 9:15pm, so we figured we would stick around. But it ended up being 9:30pm before we were welcomed as the first to check in for Cathay's third flight from DC to Hong Kong.
The small army of 11 Swissport agents, sporting Cathay Pacific outfits, didn't seem to be ready for showtime, and we could sense the frustration from the managers. Our check-in process was slow but generally uneventful.
With boarding passes and lounge passes (both for the departure lounge and the arrival lounge in HKG) handed over, we were directed to head to security. Thankfully, I noticed that we hadn't received our bag tag. The agent eventually found it underneath his keyboard.
After clearing TSA PreCheck, we headed first to the Turkish Airlines lounge, using our Priority Pass to spend about an hour eating baklava and drinking Efes beer until the lounge closed at 11:00pm. From there, we headed to the British Airways lounge using our Cathay Pacific lounge invitations.
Check in took a while, as the BA front-desk agent manually wrote down our boarding-pass information despite us having already handed over invitation cards, but the lounge staff was particularly friendly throughout our stay. More than half of the lounge was roped off, leaving only a portion open. But, with the light load on our flight, it wasn't crowded.
There was only a selection of finger foods and chips. The lounge offered sodas, tea and coffee via espresso machines. A self-service wine dispenser provided thirsty passengers a selection of pinot noir, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
Don't expect to get a shower at the BA lounge before this late flight: Both showers were dirty both times I checked them. The Turkish Airways lounge had one shower, but you'd need to complete the shower before the 11:00pm closing time to take advantage of it.
The BA lounge, in Concourse B, was a bit of a walk down the terminal from Gate A32, which is where our flight was departing from. So make sure to leave yourself enough time.
I collect boarding passes, so I headed to the gate desk and asked for a boarding pass reprint. Again, the Swissport agent didn't know what to do, and the manager eventually snapped at her for not knowing what to do.
Accommodating the dozens of passengers who materialized in the preboarding line required multiple rounds of assistants wheeling passengers to the plane. This took extra time and delayed boarding by 10 minutes.
Cabin and Seat
Our aircraft was just the fifth Airbus A350-1000 delivered to an airline (registration B-LXB). It was handed over to Cathay Pacific in late August and ferried to Hong Kong from Aug. 31 to Sept. 1, less than three weeks before our flight. Basically, we had a brand-new bird. Some of the overhead seatbelt signs still had the protective plastic on them.
The business-class cabin had 46 business-class seats arranged in a 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone configuration. Strangely, the cabin began with Row 11, which only had two middle seats, and continued back to Row 23, skipping Row 13. Although I'd selected window seats, each time I pulled up the seat map, we somehow kept being moved to middle seats.
This flight had a light load. While waiting to check in, I pulled up the seat map on ExpertFlyer and counted just 10 assigned business-class seats, though a check-in agent said there were actually 12 business-class passengers. At the gate, though, economy passengers tried to finagle free upgrades to no avail.
The window seats were set up for privacy, with a large shell surrounding much of the passenger. The reverse-herringbone seat arrangement meant the seat was angled toward the windows. While many seats had two windows, the window spacing resulted in some rows only having one.
The middle seats were best for couples. There was no divider between the two seats and a short divider between the footwells of the two seats. While you didn't see your seat partner when sitting back, it was easy to see them when leaning slightly forward.
Next to each seat was a small, well-designed cabinet that latched shut. At boarding, this cabinet was loaded with the amenity kit and noise-canceling headphones, which hung from a hook for just this purpose. The cabinet also contained the seat's universal power outlet, USB outlet and headphone port. The bottom of the cabinet was designed so the headphone cord could pass through while the cabinet was closed.
There was also a mirror and mesh pocket that I found perfect for holding my cellphone as it charged.
Under the table, each seat had a compartment large enough to hold a laptop and much more. There was plenty of footwell space both when slightly or fully reclined.
The seat controls allowed passengers to extend or retract the legrest, move the seat forward or back and lower or raise the seatback. Two buttons made the seat flat or returned it to takeoff and landing position.
The 77-inch bed was long enough for most travelers, although the shape of the seat in front made the seat best for those with small hips or those who like to sleep on their side facing away from the aisle.
A small button on the aisle side of the seat extended out a bit, making the bed a few inches wider.
Next to the aisle was another button, allowing you to raise and lower the armrest. Under the armrest was a conveniently located cupholder, which came with a water bottle.
Those who preferred a headrest with a neck cradle were in luck. Unlike many business-class seats I've experienced, these headrests could be shaped to cradle your head or neck.
There were just two bathrooms dedicated to the business cabin, both forward of the 46-seat cabin. Two other bathrooms were in the galley between business class and premium economy, and seemed to be shared between the two cabins. While we never had to wait for a forward bathroom, I could see this being an issue on full flights.
A fun aspect of the forward bathrooms: a window!
The cabin was very dry on this flight: My hygrometer read in the single digits for most of the flight, bottoming out at 5% humidity. But the temperature stayed incredibly consistent, ranging between 69 degrees to 72 degrees throughout the flight.
The business-class seats had 18.5-inch individual in-flight-entertainment screens that extended out from the seat in front of each passenger.
They had to be stored for taxiing, takeoff and landing — a bummer for those who wanted to watch the A350's tail and underside cameras during takeoff and landing. Those sitting in middle seats could trade off, though, as the stowed screen faced the opposite seat. Katie tuned her screen to the tail camera while I selected the underside camera, and we watched each other's screens.
I found Cathay Pacific's IFE system to be extensive, just as it was when I reviewed premium economy earlier this year on the A350-900. There was seemingly an endless number of movies and TV shows, including full seasons of quite a few shows as well as three channels of satellite TV: BBC World News, CNN (international feed) and Euronews. I ended up getting lost watching the entire first season of HBO's "Barry," which certainly helped pass the 16-hour flight.
I usually try to remember to test the headphone outlet with my personal headphones to see if an adapter is needed, but, frankly, I forgot. The provided noise-canceling headphones were good enough that I never thought to switch them out. And, unlike other airlines, Cathay Pacific trusts its passengers enough that it doesn't collect headphones before landing.
Panasonic Wi-Fi was available on this flight from gate to gate. A one-hour pass cost $9.95, and a full-flight pass cost $19.95. So, for those looking to stay connected during the 16-hour flight, the full-flight pass seemed like the obvious choice.
The Wi-Fi service started out fiery. On the ground in DC and shortly after taking off, I was able to clock impressive speeds.
- 759 ms ping, 30.9 MBps download, 3.90 MBps upload, 78 ms jitter
- 787 ms ping, 30.6 MBps download, 3.74 MBps upload, 128 ms jitter
But the connection slowed significantly as the flight continued. As we entered the Arctic Circle, about four hours after takeoff, the connection slowed to 7.65 MBps for downloads and 3.58 MBps for uploads, and then further to 6.82 MBps for downloads and 0.93 MBps for uploads. Slower, but still respectable.
Unsurprisingly, the Wi-Fi didn't work for many parts of our polar crossing, but we had no trouble with the connection over mainland China. Overall, I'd say that the Wi-Fi was well worth the price, which isn't something I usually get to say about Panasonic.
The amenities were strangely lopsided. In the jetway, there was a surprisingly diverse number of newspapers. At boarding, a small amenity kit, a small pillow, a thick and soft comforter and noise-canceling headphones were basically all we got.
I confirmed with a flight attendant that there were no pajamas, slippers or a mattress pad. The small flower vases installed at each seat and in the bathroom were empty. The crew blamed US agricultural restrictions.
The amenity kit contained a pair of cotton socks; a thick, cotton eye mask; earplugs, hand cream; day cream; mouthwash; a toothbrush and toothpaste:
The bathrooms offered Jurlique-branded body lotion and foaming cleanser.
Food and Drink
During boarding, flight attendants passed through the cabin with trays of sparkling wine, orange juice and water in sleek, real-glass glassware. Shortly later, flight attendants passed through the cabin to explain the seat and the menu. Washington, DC, was one of the first routes to get the new dining concept, so the flight attendants took extra time to explain the dine-on-demand options and the absurdly large menus.
(Side note: As Katie pointed out, the cover of the menu went into great detail about an item that wasn't available on the menu.)
Since only some dishes were available, Katie and I selected our first main course from the other three selections: creamy tomato soup with sour cream and chives; wok-fried black cod with oyster sauce with asparagus, bok choy and steamed jasmine rice; and seared rack of lamb with salsa verde, potato gratin, roasted carrots and snow peas.
No appetizers were listed, so the flight attendant recommended the soup (one of the six other dishes listed) as a starter. But I never got the one I ordered. Instead, I got a salad with black olives and cherry tomatoes, and the flight attendant explained that the turbulence meant they couldn't serve hot items.
The large portion of cod was wonderfully seasoned and cooked to a perfectly flaky finish. Indeed, it was more productive to scoop up the fish from below with a fork rather than piercing it from the top. The oyster sauce was a delicious complement, both to the fish and the otherwise plain sticky rice.
The meal was finished off with a dessert that I didn't order but gladly consumed: a tiramisu. The other desserts included a cheese plate, ice cream and fresh fruit.
There were three entrees available at any time during the flight: beef burger with Monterey Jack cheese, bacon, pickled onions and zucchini on a toasted brioche bun and served with chunky fries; spicy prawn laksa with rice vermicelli noodles in broth; and warm quinoa salad with farro with roasted fennel, cherry tomatoes, Parmesan cheese and Italian vinaigrette.
Midflight, I ordered the burger. It was cooked medium-rare and was served on a well-toasted bun with slightly melted cheese — all in all, it was pretty excellent. However, the fries didn't reheat well.
Flight attendants passed through the cabin often, offering those still awake any drinks or snacks that they wanted. There was also a basket of snacks and bottles of water in the galley.
Passengers were asked to fill out a breakfast card with their morning-meal choices that they then hung on the seat's coat hook or handed to the crew before they went to bed. For the full breakfast, served approximately two hours before landing, passengers could choose a Chinese breakfast (fresh fruit, congee with sliced beef and ginger and dim sum), Western breakfast (fresh fruit, bacon, potato cake and roasted cherry tomatoes) or Continental breakfast (fresh fruit, warm pastry and toasted granola with natural Greek yogurt).
You could order an express breakfast to be served one hour before landing, consisting of a warm pastry served with a beverage. You could also opt out altogether and sleep as close as possible to the 5:15am arrival.
Katie and I both chose the Western breakfast. The omelet was small and uninspired, but the bacon was surprisingly tasty. The fruit was still fresh and crispy even after the long flight. The sweet bread was all right, but the croissant was well past its prime and not worth the calories.
Chatting with the flight attendants, I learned that this flight was catered as if it were carrying a full load of passengers because it was 1) a new flight and 2) a laboratory for the airline's new meal-service style. Cathay was trying to figure out what meals were popular.
The flight attendants were friendly and tried hard, but service came across as disjointed, likely due to a combination of the new route, the new dining system and at least one flight attendant who ended up on this flight only because of the typhoon.
On the positive side, a flight attendant showed me personally to my seat from the boarding door and, after noticing all of my picture taking, offered to take photos of me. As I was (quite naturally) playing the role of an AvGeek happy to be on the A350-1000 for the first time, I happily indulged.
But the lack of communication showed. A couple of times during the flight, one flight attendant would take an order and go off to collect it, then another flight attendant would come to take the same order before the first one returned.
Near the end of the flight, the inflight service manager stopped by my seat to hand me a comment card, asking if I could provide honest feedback about my experience. She also handed me a handwritten note thanking me for flying with them, with the names of the crew.
Personally, I'll take friendly and caring attitudes over flawless, robotic service, so I can certainly overlook these missteps. But Cathay has a few kinks to work out on this route.
I came into this flight with high expectations and left slightly disappointed. While the food was excellent and the service friendly, the lack of amenities and disjointed service leave it short of getting top marks. Cathay Pacific business still is a great way to fly across the Pacific, but this experience didn't blow away the competition in the way I'd expected it to. American and United might have much less friendly service but also have top-notch business-class seats to Hong Kong. And both of these offer more extensive amenities — although you might have to ask for them.
For the 50,000 Alaska miles that I paid for 20 hours in business class (that's including our onward connection to Singapore), this redemption was a steal. But I suspect that this experience doesn't live up to those that others have had on Cathay. I hope that this is a temporary setback as the airline works to introduce its new meal service and perfects its flow on the new DC flight — and that it's not a sign of the new normal at Cathay Pacific.