Business as usual: A review of Cathay Pacific’s A350-900 in business class, Hong Kong to Newark
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Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific is a standard bearer — or at least has been — when it comes to long-haul business class. It’s known to have one of the best business-class products around, and even more so in the travel rewards space, with Alaska Airlines’ MileagePlan miles offering near-unprecedented value. Excluding their subsidiary Cathay Dragon, Cathay Pacific operates a widebody-only fleet from its base in Hong Kong to destinations far and wide, from Perth to Barcelona, Bali to Boston.
For decades, the carrier used mighty 747s as the backbone for long-haul flights, but in the past decade has phased them out in favor of four-class 777-300ERs and, more recently, three-class A350s. It was on these 777s that Cathay installed its version of the reverse-herringbone model that US Airways pioneered in 2009. Cathay began retrofitting its fleet in 2011, and since then the seat has gained wild popularity among passengers and airlines, from the U.S. to China.
I’ve been itching to try Cathay business class since I was a teenager, so I was so excited to try out this cabin, especially in its latest, updated iteration on the A350 between Hong Kong (HKG) and Newark (EWR).
As a Oneworld partner, Cathay Pacific flights can be redeemed with an array of points and miles, but using Alaska miles is one of the best deals in award travel. As I’d be arriving in Hong Kong via Taipei (TPE) aboard EVA Air on a United award ticket (highly recommended, by the way), the good folks in TPG’s reviews department booked me on a nonstop one-way ticket from Hong Kong to Newark for 50,000 Alaska miles and $61. Alaska’s MileagePlan is one of the most versatile programs around, and provides many “sweet spots” for redeeming miles.
If you want to build up your MileagePlan balance quickly, consider signing up for the Alaska Airlines Visa Signature® credit card, which is offering a limited time offer: earn 50,000 bonus miles and Alaska’s Famous Companion Fare™ from $121 ($99 fare plus taxes and fees from $22) after you make $2,000 or more in purchases within the first 90 days of opening your account.
You can also earn miles by actually flying Alaska, too. You’ll earn miles based on the actual distance flown each flight instead of the ticket price, fare class and the factors that most airlines now use to determine mileage earning rates.
After my ticket was booked, I selected a window seat on Cathay’s site. Note that Cathay restricts advance seat selection to premium cabin awards. Tickets booked in economy require passengers to wait until 48 hours prior to departure to choose their seat.
Cathay’s home airport in Hong Kong is huge and stocked with premium lounges offering plenty of perks.
Check-in is available for Cathay Pacific flights between 48 hours and 90 minutes prior to the flight. I completed check-in online the day prior through Cathay’s website (you can also use its app), but Cathay offers another opportunity to check in should you not want to do it online or at the airport. Under the giant IFC tower, in the IFC mall on Hong Kong Island, just beside the Airport Express train to HKG, passengers will find actual check-in counters, should that tickle your fancy.
With ongoing anti-government protests, the MTR station by my hotel in Kowloon was closed, so I took a taxi. But typically the Airport Express, accessible from a few key points in Hong Kong and connected to MTR stations with complimentary hotel shuttle buses, costs $12 and offers an under-30-minute ride to and from HKG. The train even picks up and drops off right inside the terminal building. Cabs take just as long but are considerably more expensive.
I pulled up curbside at 3:25 p.m. at Terminal 1, Zone 2, outside of the absolutely gigantic main passenger terminal building.
Cathay recommends arriving two hours prior to your flight. I wanted to be sure to check out the lounge, so I arrived earlier than that.
Notably, there were people checking boarding passes and other travel documents before passengers were allowed to enter the terminal, a measure taken to prevent anti-government protesters from disrupting airport operations inside the terminal. This took only a minute or so.
Hong Kong’s check-in areas are organized by letters (A through H) that are prominently displayed for easy reference.
Digital boarding pass in hand, I still wanted a hard copy of my ticket. Check-in desks became available at 3:40 p.m., roughly two hours and 50 minutes prior to departure. The board showed check-in was available at the B, C and D areas, which meant dozens of check-in kiosks and stations. I went to B.
Near the dedicated first-class area, the B Zone also offered several self-serve kiosks near a rather empty check-in and bag-drop area.
The line for business class took five minutes. It was early, but with so many places to check in and bag drop, I wouldn’t expect it to take more than 15 to 20 minutes even at a busier time. After another two minutes to check my passport and print my boarding and lounge passes, the agent told me my boarding time and that the gate had yet to be assigned. He recommended I relax at The Wing, known to be the biggest (and best) lounge for business-class passengers at HKG.
Five minutes later, after a quick passport check and efficient security screening, it was lounge time. The airport is indeed huge, but the recent drop in Hong Kong tourism became apparent, and the airport seemed particularly empty.
Cathay’s lounges are above the main concourse level. There are four of them scattered throughout Terminal 1 (The Wing, The Pier, The Bridge and The Deck). Some lounge spaces are shared between business- and first-class passengers, but there is dedicated first-class-only space. While first-class passengers are best served at The Pier, The Wing has the most for business-class passengers, including a noodle bar and coffee room, showers and a staffed bar. The Wing is by Gate 2, just a few minutes’ walk past security. I noticed larger duty-free shops, food and other concessions just beyond security by the gates.
The lounge entrance is clearly marked, with agents checking passengers in. Marble is a clear theme throughout The Wing, and it worked for me aesthetically.
The majority of the lounge is upstairs.
Up the stairs, business-class passengers turned left, while first-class ones turned right to the first-class-only area. In the business-class zone, a large, open seating area accompanied the primary food buffet opposite the sleek full-service bar, offering sweeping views HKG’s southern half, including Lantau Island and departures from Runway 25L. It was relatively busy but still felt extremely peaceful and relaxed.
This buffet (yes, there were more than a couple in this lounge) offered primarily Western options. Fruit, water, soft drinks and other nonalcoholic beverages were available here, as well. Suffice it to say, you could easily fill up on food and drink here if you just wanted to sleep on the flight. And by fill up, I mean have a several-course meal.
Seating options varied from cozy chairs to private workstations, booths, couches and bar seating, with plenty of charging, to boot. Seating options were plentiful, but I was there before peak time. 9 p.m. and later is busiest, I was told.
But that was just the beginning.
Beyond the restrooms and a wall offering dozens of newspapers and other reading material was a noodle bar and coffee lounge.
The noodle bar offered made-to-order ramen and udon in a space that honestly felt like it could have been its own lounge. There was no waiter service, though. It only took a few minutes of waiting nearby, and I didn’t mind, since it felt more casual.
Other more Asian-style options like fried noodles and steamed dumplings were available in the buffet in this room.
I skipped those but got udon, which was tasty.
Nestled around the corner, lounge-goers could relax in a coffee bar setting, with pastries and other treats. Like the noodle bar, the baristas received orders but you needed to claim them. I ordered a cappuccino and tried a few cookies and enjoyed each. There were additional magazines in this part of the lounge, as well.
Though huge lounges like these sometimes lack the airport views I crave, the bar was the exception here.
After ordering a bourbon on the rocks, there I sat, cappuccino, noodles and appetizer plate in hand(s), to soak in the stunning airport views with one final Hong Kong sunset. The bartender and all of the lounge staff were courteous and even happy to chat. I found even more snacks, like chips, guacamole, potstickers and a Hong Kong favorite, cucumbers with chili oil, bookending the bar.
Notably, the lounge offered free high-speed Wi-Fi (requiring a password) that could even handle high-definition Netflix streaming without issue.
Back downstairs, there was yet another buffet and lounge chairs in a darker lounge space. A room with day beds was across the hallway. Down this hallway, I found the shower rooms.
I counted 10 showers, all cleaned between uses and with a special shower reception desk at the back of the lounge. There was no wait, and everything was in pristine condition and stocked with Jurlique lotion, soap and shampoo.
At 5:25 p.m., it was sadly time to leave, and head toward Gate 36 for boarding at 5:40 p.m.. It was a 10-minute walk to the gate, the bartender informed me.
The main concourse was grand, littered with mostly duty-free shops and the occasional coffee and snack station, with more substantial food and shopping closer to security.
At the gate, seating was limited for this full flight. No worries, I thought, since nearby gates offered plenty of additional seating.
There was no dedicated business-class seating area, but that figured, since Cathay’s business-class lounges are where passengers are expected to spend their time anyway. Free Wi-Fi was also offered terminal-wide.
Notably, the gate area lacked charging ports next to seats. Passengers could use a nearby charging area with computers. The iMacs were a nice touch, but I’d advise against relying on gate-side chargers.
With a few extra minutes, I managed to take in the bird that would be flying us some 8,000 miles back to the East Coast. Registration B-LRS, just 2 years old.
Boarding began right on time. As Cathay’s A350s don’t offer first class, business-class passengers boarded first. After waiting a few extra minutes for a brief passport check, gate agents scanned my boarding pass, and down the jetway we went!
Cabin and Seat
Cathay’s A350-900s, the smaller sibling of the airline’s A350-1000s, are laid out in a three-class configuration. The -900 offers 38 seats in business, 28 in premium economy and 214 in economy. Business is laid out in a 1-2-1 reverse-herringbone configuration, premium economy in a 2-4-2, and economy in a 3-3-3.
Business class is split into two cabins. While the aft cabin is considered more private, I tried the larger one. As anyone will tell you, Cathay’s internationally configured premium cabins are easy on the eyes.
I noticed minor wear and tear on this airplane, but, delivered in 2017, it was still in great shape.
I was in Seat 16A, a window seat and, like nearly all of Cathay’s business-class seats, quite private. The best rows for windows are 12 (first row), 14, 17, 18, 19. Row 16’s window are slightly obstructed; only one window was fully mine, which made getting a good view out the window somewhat tricky.
Cathay’s A350 business-class seats are an updated version of the well-regarded seat found on its Boeing 777s. There a few differences between the two, but the most noticeable are the newer HD 19-inch screen and additional padded space that doubles as a storage unit, along with a newer remote control.
The green fabric seats were comfortable and featured a signature large privacy visor and made each seat feel quite private. My seat had no noticeable wear and tear. Notably, Cathay didn’t install personal air vents for its A350s, similar to the 777-300ERs.
The window side of the seat featured a faux-wood side table. It was smaller than some competitors, but the compartment under my legs made up for it and proved particularly helpful to store the bulkier stuff that usually doesn’t fit anywhere, like a 13-inch MacBook, a headphone case, clothes, etc. Plus, with so few people per overhead bin and a 1-2-1 configuration, accessing the large overhead bin for other items was easy. Shoes could be stored under the footrest, as well, providing even more storage space.
There was a cubby just aft of the table, on the lefthand side of the seat, stocked with Cathay’s standard over-ear headphones, an amenity kit, an Evian water bottle, mirror (with a nifty sliding plastic cover) and mesh pocket for small items like phones or chargers. A universal power outlet and standard USB slot were also inside this cubby. Both ports worked consistently throughout the long flight and could be used even with the cubby door closed.
Thee footwell itself felt spacious, too (I’m a U.S. size 10), and the updated seat design made each seat feel roomier than most, particularly around the legs while in lie-flat mode.
On the aisle side of the seat, there was a movable armrest that housed an additional cupholder with a slot for reading materials just above the floor. Flight attendants required these to be in the stored position during takeoff and landing.
At 6:25 p.m. local time, the red beacon lights illuminated, and the heavy A350 pushed back for engine start and taxiing. The caption informed us our flight time would be 15 hours on the dot.
Inside the cabin, flight attendants didn’t require that passenger’s screen be stowed — a small but still noteworthy contrast to the 777 — which allowed for gate-to-gate entertainment. Ten minutes later, we were thundering down Runway 7R before a right turn into the broken cloud layer above Hong Kong.
Once airborne, I was able to inspect the seat in more detail.
The seat controls, IFE remote and reading light were just beside the actual seat. The seat controls looked identical to the seat in Cathay’s 777, with mostly intuitive controls to fully customize the seat’s position.
The seat headrest was adjustable, as well, but since we were given pillow and mattress pads in Cathay biz, I never bothered to use this feature.
The visor proved effective and really worked to increase privacy.
The tray table, stored under the side table, was nicely sized. It was also bifold, enabling passengers use a half table for drinks or work. And it swiveled for easy egress!
Some 30,000 feet over Japan came the real test: the bed. Cathay cleverly incorporated a small latch to add additional bed width next to the aisle-side armrest. Clever and good attention to detail.
The bed itself didn’t disappoint, especially with the amenities Cathay provided. The mattress pad, while not out of this world, was appreciated. Meanwhile, the duvet and pillow were both quite comfortable (though it was no Saks Fifth Avenue bedding that you’d find on United). Meanwhile, the additional leg space made the seat even more comfortable and really made it feel spacious, even compared to other top-notch reverse-herringbone seats. A leather armrest, while not adjustable, provided additional surface storage space while in bed mode.
I slept a good five hours and decided to stay awake after to minimize jet lag, but the cabin was hot for the first half of the flight. It did cool down by the second seven and a half hours, however. Dress in layers to avoid any issue here (or sleep above the duvet!).
Lavatories on these planes were a treat. There were three business-class lavatories, two in the front by the cockpit, and one in the galley between the two business-class cabins. They were stocked with Jurlique soap and body lotion, and two of the three even featured windows!
Amenities and IFE
Upon arriving at my seat, I got an overview of the Cathay’s business-class amenities.
A duvet and pillow were waiting for me near the footrest, along with a mattress pad and complimentary slippers, two items Cathay added to business class in October. The items came in a zippered gray bag. No pajamas were offered in Cathay business class. Once more, I’d recommend bringing a readily accessible change of clothes for sleeping.
I found all items got the job done, though neither the pillow nor the mattress pad were industry-leading. Still, the pad was appreciated, the duvet was plush and soft, and the now-larger pillow made sleeping pretty easy.
Inside the cubby, I found Cathay’s latest business-class amenity kit and complimentary over-ear headphones. Simple and modern on the outside, the amenity kit offered the usual stuff inside: socks, eye mask, earplugs, Jurlique hand lotion/cream, toothbrush, toothpaste and mouthwash.
The noise-canceling headphones got the job done. While it was no Sony WH-1000XM3, I could hear audio and video content well throughout the flight, and that’s what matters.
Now to the IFE.
Bright, high-def and 19 inches measured diagonally, the screen was one of the highlights of the whole experience, especially considering the array of content available.
Touchscreen but also controllable via the digital remote (more on that in a minute), the entertainment screen offered swaths of movies, TV shows (including live TV), games, podcasts, music, maps and my favorite, external cameras. Stowage was easy, with a simple push until it snapped into place, and there was a button for popping it back out.
While in the stowed position, I actually found it possible to sit somewhat comfortably on the other side of the seat, which is something the 777 seat doesn’t afford.
I counted 300 movies, from “Interstellar” to “Apollo 11” to some 10 Marvel films, “The Post,” “Blade Runner,” “Toy Story 4,” “Up,” “Finding Nemo,” “Yesterday” and so on, with subtitles available, plus films in Japanese, Chinese, Hindi and more.
The 150 or so TV shows included seven or eight popular shows with full seasons like “Westworld,” “Chernobyl,” “Game of Thrones” and “Veep,” while some others offered four or more episodes. The majority stocked one or two episodes. Live TV channels like BBC, CNN and others worked until we made the long Pacific crossing.
There were lots of games as well, including 2048, Angry Birds and chess.
The screen was responsive, with a clean and intuitive design that made for easy browsing.
The inflight map offered a variety of viewing options, including explore mode and cockpit view.
I wished it were more customizable, especially with the remote, but I’m nitpicking. Nevertheless, the map modes made using the live camera feed, with a camera on the tail and near the nose landing gear, even more fun. Indeed, the cameras were especially nice because cabin crew asked that passengers keep shades closed for almost the entire flight as people slept.
There were digital reading options, something I hadn’t seen before, and lots of audio content, including albums playlists of music and podcasts. I was well entertained for the 15 hours of flying time.
Though the screen could be controlled via touch, Cathay offered a digital remote that let you control the main screen without leaning forward and provided easy browsing to all of the IFE content while you watched on the main screen. It was actually quite convenient and made multitasking easy.
Specifically, I loved watching the inflight cameras or moving map on the remote while movies played on the big screen.
Brightness, volume and even the call button could be managed via the remote or main screen. There was a “Do Not Disturb” option, as well, but Cathay went a step further: You could set a wake-up call via the IFE for first meal, second meal or landing.
I found only two minor issues with the IFE: One, the remote basically never turned off. Even after I’d turned both the screen and remote off in the setting menu, the remote turned on again once snapped into place. That said, the screen’s brightness was no match for the provided eye mask.
Two, the screen didn’t doesn’t tilt, making it harder to watch while in full bed mode, but I preferred saving lie-flat for sleeping anyway. Most premium cabin screens don’t tilt, either, and I plenty enjoyed watching all flight long.
Cathay offers Panasonic Wi-Fi on all A350s and some 777-300ERs. It was priced at different tiers: $9.95 for an hour, $12.95 for full flight for flights under six hours, $19.95 for full flight of flights six hours and up. $20 for 15 hours is a good price, but the Wi-Fi was weak, even over the continental U.S. I could barely load TPG articles. If you need to send to emails, it’ll work, but I wouldn’t rely on it.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
At boarding, a menu awaited my arrival on the table beside the window.
The menu felt a little cheap, since it was unbound paper. But, the newspaper style was definitely fun. There were two meals served on this flight: dinner and brunch, with on-demand food and snacks in the galleys for the duration.
At 6 p.m., some 10 minutes after taking my seat, cabin crew came around offering orange juice, Champagne and Cathay’s signature drink, the Cathay Delight, which was a kiwi-based drink with coconut milk and fresh mint and no booze. I asked for all three, and found the Cathay Delight to be refreshing and delicious.
I was offered a hot towel a few minutes later. About 15 minutes after being served, flight attendants collected the drinks as we prepared for pushback. Service felt efficient but not rushed.
A little later, the main flight attendant introduced herself and asked me by name if I’d had a chance to look at the menu. I certainly had.
The menu offered Cantonese and Western meals. I ordered the Hong Kong special, prawns in a superior broth with baby Chinese cabbage with wolf berries and steamed jasmine rice. There was a whole page on the back of the menu about the dish, and even though I’d eaten enough shrimp during my five days in Hong Kong for the rest of my life, I thought why not? I also ordered Champagne and another Cathay Delight — I was hooked.
The drink arrived 10 to 15 minutes later and was served with nuts, which were tasty.
Another 20 minutes later, the first course came out: salad with chicken. I also got my choice of bread from a basket — I went with garlic, of course.
A little too cold and needing salt, this dish was kind of bland. Still, it was above average for business-class meals. Next up, the prawns.
The prawns were disappointing, pretty good for airplane food but again lacking flavor. I felt similarly about the noodles. Of course, having set my expectations for something comparable to what I had eaten in Hong Kong was on me.
After finishing the main course, I was given a cheese assortment served with Carr’s crackers and grapes, which proved simple and delicious. Fruit had also been an option, but no one offered them.
Lastly, cabin crew came around offering three types of Godiva chocolate: I went with a raspberry one. It was expectedly tasty. Still craving more fruit, I asked for the fruit plate, which was delivered shortly after.
After that final course, flight attendants offered coffee or tea. Hoping to get to sleep shortly after, I had more water instead. Crew also passed around a survey for passengers to comment on the recently updated meal service. Considering the somewhat disorganized manner of dinner, I had a better understanding why: They were getting used to it.
With 12 hours and 49 minutes left to go (some two hours in flight) we got another round of hot towels. As we approached Japan, flight attendants dimmed the cabin lights and asked passengers to close their window shades.
I woke up five hours later, slid open the shade and caught a sunrise as we passed the Aleutian chain.
Noticing that I had awoken, a flight attendant promptly offered me tea or coffee, which I appreciated immensely. I had English breakfast tea and yet another Cathay Delight, which was served with nuts.
Shortly after, addressing me by name, a flight attendant asked what I wanted for my arrival meal. It was still several hours away, but I understood the cabin crew seizing the opportunity to ask while I was awake. I ordered the Western meal over the congee. As I got up to change clothes, I noticed an inflight snack bar in the galley. Not that premium-looking, but a nice gesture. I grabbed a miniature granola bar.
One of the biggest treats of flying business class, especially Cathay biz, is the food available on request. Throughout the flight, passengers can order any of the three snack options, which includes noodle soup, a hamburger and a roasted squash, spinach and orzo salad. For years, I’d heard about the burger, so I hit the call button on the remote to order one. Twenty seconds later, I placed my order; the flight attendant explained it would be about a 20-minute wait. I had nothing but time. “No problem at all,” I replied.
Right on schedule, the burger arrived with a Perrier that I’d requested, just as we approached the West Coast. The burger was served on a brioche bun with Monterey Jack cheese, bacon, grilled onions and zucchini, with potato wedges, lettuce, tomato and ketchup. Thick and juicy, it lived up to the hype, and was easily the best culinary experience of the flight.
After finishing up my meal, the flight started to feel long. During these in-between hours when only a few passengers were awake, I wished the cabin crew had been more eager to offer water or drink refills. Getting up and asking for more or ringing the call button was no complicated task, especially with direct aisle access, but I was surprised to not see more of an effort to proactively serve passengers. It was not a huge deal, but a difference compared to some other top-notch business classes.
In the meantime, I snuck some #wingview photos by briefly popping up the window shade in the otherwise dark cabin as the sun set for the second time since boarding in HKG.
Around 7:30 p.m. Eastern time, with a little over two hours left, orange mood lights eased on, and 15 minutes later, flight attendants prepared my tray table for the second meal.
Thirty minutes later, brunch came out: an omelet with mushrooms and bacon, a cooked tomato, a side of mixed fruit and a choice of danishes and croissants. “Brunch” felt misplaced as darkness fell in New York, but everything tasted good, regardless.
Roughly 45 minutes after the meal was served, dishes were collected and we received another towel.
I managed to flag down a flight attendant and ordered oolong tea. It arrived a few minutes later, and she apologized for the delay. Though that wasn’t really necessary, perhaps she recognized the the crew was being distant, I thought. Maybe they were slightly off their usual game. Nonetheless, I enjoyed the oolong as our trusty A350 descended toward Newark.
Cathay’s business-class service felt business-y. On this flight, cabin crew members were courteous and generally pleasant, but they were generally not proactive or assumed everyone wanted to sleep the whole flight, often lacking the personal touches that make other carriers’ business products really shine.
The service felt standard — not bad, just at times unfriendly and unexceptional. Just once offering water, coffee or tea during the 11ish hours between meal services surprised me, especially considering other airlines do that more frequently in economy. Hot towels after meal service are a nice touch, but if you wanted anything you needed to ring the call button each time. While that was far from a deal breaker, I was particularly sensitive about being “that passenger” and hesitated to ask for something. After reading other Cathay reviews, this doesn’t seems particularly uncommon. And though meal service felt somewhat disorganized, I think these are mere growing pains with Cathay’s updated cabin service. At the end of the day, though, my somewhat mediocre service experience would by no means keep me from flying Cathay again.
Cathay 890 pulled into the gate at Newark’s Terminal B at 10 p.m. local time, 10 minutes ahead of schedule. I arrived rested enough (it was still Monday, the same day that we left), well-fed and grateful to have finally flown the nonstop from Hong Kong.
A stellar ground experience, fantastic seat, top-notch IFE and a near-unbeatable points redemption overshadowed the hit-or-miss food and inconsistent service that lags behind some East Asian and Middle East competitors. While Cathay’s product might not be the best business class in the world (behind the likes of Qatar, and a couple others), it’s certainly earned its place among them, especially with the latest seat and added features aboard these A350s. Imperfect, sure, but I look forward to my next journey on Asia’s world carrier, hopefully in the not-so-distant future.
Featured image by Zach Honig/The Points Guy. All photos by the author unless otherwise noted.
Updated on 9/08/21
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