Good, not perfect: A review of Cathay Pacific’s A350 in premium economy, San Francisco to Hong Kong
I recently had the opportunity to try out Cathay Pacific’s premium economy cabin from San Francisco to Taipei on a quick trip home to visit my parents, and the experience left me impressed. Here’s why.
For US-based flyers, the first places you should look when trying to book premium economy tickets on Oneworld carriers are American Airlines and British Airways. Unfortunately, you cannot yet book Cathay Pacific through AAdvantage, but you can with British Airways’s Executive Club, a transfer partner of both American Express Membership Rewards and Chase Ultimate Rewards, which means it’s easy to acquire the points needed for a redemption.
In this case, we booked with cash, since we weren’t able to find award availability on the day I needed to fly, and the fare wasn’t terribly expensive. We paid $1,386 for the one-way ticket from San Francisco to Taipei, and put the ticket on The Platinum Card® from American Express in order to take advantage of the card’s 5x bonus category on flights booked directly through the airline or through American Express Travel. We earned a total of 6,930 MR points for the purchase, which are worth about $132 according to TPG’s current valuations.
And, since we paid cash for the ticket, I was eligible to earn miles, which I credited to American Airlines. I racked up 10,391 Elite Qualifying Miles (EQMs), 1,386 Elite Qualifying Dollars (EQDs) and 6,927 redeemable AAdvantage miles for the flight.
I received an email from Cathay Pacific 48 hours before departure, reminding me that I could check in online. The process was straightforward, and I was able to view available seats on the map and pick my preferred spot well in advance. Nonetheless, I had a bag to check, so I still needed to stop in and see the agents when I got to San Francisco Airport (SFO).
Navigating the international terminal of San Francisco International Airport was easy. At the time I arrived, about three hours before departure time, the terminal was particularly empty — one employee speculated that it might have been because fewer people were traveling because of the California wildfires.
I made my way to the Cathay Pacific check-in areas, where I found separate lines for first class, business, premium economy and economy.
There were 12 self-check-in kiosks arranged three banks of four each. The agents at the eight check-in counters were kind and eager to help. They checked my bag and sent me toward security in under 90 seconds.
My premium economy ticket did not come with lounge access, so that’s not a factor in the scoring of this section. But I had time to kill, so I took advantage of my Priority Pass through the Chase Sapphire Reserve and made my way to the Air France-KLM lounge, on Level 3 by the TSA checkpoint in Concourse A.
The space was small but adequate, with plenty of seating, quiet guests and a surprisingly generous selection of Western and Chinese food. The drink selection was on the lighter side but of good quality, and my favorite features were the DIY yogurt and granola bar and the individually packaged cup noodles with hot water.
After relaxing for a couple of hours and catching up on work, I made my way to Gate A6 about five minutes before boarding time. The gate area was clean enough for how many people were present, but it felt crowded, and there weren’t quite enough seats or outlets for modern technological needs. I mentally patted myself on the back for having spent my waiting time in the lounge instead.
While the area was pretty packed with fellow travelers, the boarding process was orderly and began close to the scheduled boarding time. I ended up not grabbing a photo of the gate because of what happened next.
I lined up fairly early in the boarding process. When I handed over my boarding pass to the agent for passport check, I found myself flagged and asked to stand to the side. After a short period of internal panic — had I done something wrong? — a senior agent came by with a new boarding pass for me and informed me that I had been offered a complimentary upgrade to business class! In one of the saddest moments of my travel history, I had to regretfully decline the gesture in order to review this flight, although of course I didn’t tell them why. But it was a pleasant surprise to know that even an everyday traveler with no Oneworld status could potentially score a free boost to the next cabin up — on an international flight, no less.
The flight ended up taking off 53 minutes after our scheduled departure time of 12:15 p.m. Pacific time, with wheels up at 1:08 p.m.
Cabin and Seat
Flight CX 879 was operated on an Airbus A350-900, which features 28 recliner seats in premium economy, with a pitch of 40 inches and a width of 20 inches. There was plenty of legroom, especially for this petite woman.
My favorite feature of the seat was the footrest, which could recline and extend with a couple touches of the buttons in my right armrest. I have short legs, so I appreciated the flip-out footrest which could be adjusted to different heights with a couple of awkward kicks. The seat itself also was fairly comfortable, with good foam support.
I was also really impressed with the one-touch button that gently raised my tray table up and down so I didn’t have to awkwardly wiggle my finger into a hook to wrestle it out of the armrest.
The bifold tray table also included a small divot for a drink cup and had a sturdy feel to it. I chose 31D — left aisle seat in the center row — so my tray table was in the left armrest, right by the aisle.
There also was a small cocktail table permanently built onto the end of my right armrest, which was convenient for when I didn’t want the hassle of bringing out the tray.
I didn’t like the headrest as much. The seats were covered in a durable natural fabric with a prominent woven texture, with leather accents on the armrests and center of the headrest. The headrest moved up and down a little bit, but there wasn’t much range of motion — certainly not enough to support my neck at my 5 feet, 2 inches of height, and probably not enough to fully support someone who’s more than 6 feet tall. I did appreciate that the headrest featured strong wings that folded forward for support while sleeping.
The small cabin was curtained off from first and business class in front and from economy class behind. However, the lavatories were behind at the start of the economy class, so passengers had to duck through the curtain each time to access the bathrooms.
Amenities and IFE
Each seat had a soft pillow in a real fabric pillowcase, a thin, cotton blanket wrapped in plastic and a small, fabric amenity kit. I liked both the pillow and the blanket, although the blanket wasn’t nearly warm enough and I ended up doubling up with the set from the open seat next to me.
Plastic-wrapped over-ear headphones were tucked into the seatback pocket. But these were two-prong headphones and both pairs I tested were bent, which seriously degraded my inflight audio experience for movies and TV. Other than that issue, the no-brand headphones themselves were leather-wrapped and fit snugly on my head with no issues. While they weren’t completely noise-canceling, I found them fairly effective for tuning out my fellow travelers when it came time to sleep, even if they weren’t great for actual audio quality.
I was very impressed with the screen. It looked luxurious, with a huge, flat surface at 12 inches on the diagonal. The touchscreen wasn’t very responsive, so once or twice I ended up poking my neighbor’s seatback more firmly than I intended.
There was a pop-out remote on the right side of my seat, but the tiny buttons and finicky hardware made it more work to use than the touchscreen, which was reasonably intuitive. There were well over 200 movies available, including a large number of blockbuster releases from the last couple of months, and they were nicely organized by genre. And, there were several dozen shows available both from the U.S. and several international markets.
I was impressed with how clean and crisp the reading material looked. Each magazine looked brand-new, and the safety card and Wi-Fi instructions were both sealed in sturdy, clear protective covers.
I had a mixed experience with the onboard Wi-Fi. It worked well enough on my cellphone for me to post a couple of images to Instagram and get some emails sent, although I couldn’t access Speedtest.net to ascertain how fast the speeds were. On the other hand, the Wi-Fi on my laptop had a significant amount of lag.
Wi-Fi pricing was reasonable, considering United Airlines often charges up to $18 for a two-to-three-hour flight: I spent $19.95 for the entire flight, with no limit on data usage. However, I found the Wi-Fi purchase experience to be clunky. It required me to sign in with my username and password, but since I didn’t have access to my online list of passwords because I was midair with no cell service, I had to create a new account. Then I had to repeat the process again when I attempted to switch Internet access from my cellphone to my laptop, only to find that I couldn’t split Wi-Fi access across two different devices. So I ended up having to purchase two separate subscriptions for Wi-Fi, and ended up creating at least two new Wi-Fi accounts in the process.
I had better luck with the power outlets. There were two on the inside of my seat, and both held my laptop charging brick very firmly. The USB outlet was in similarly good condition.
The amenity kits were functional — and utterly forgettable.
This particular one was a taupe, fabric, zippered pouch with a screen-printed sketch on the outside. Inside was an eye mask, earplugs, socks and a dental kit with toothbrush and tiny toothpaste. Premium economy passengers weren’t given slippers.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Meals for Purchase
I received a nice menu and a bottle of water before takeoff, and a flight attendant brought by a tray of orange juice, Champagne, water and a warm hand towel.
The menu listed several meal options for two services, and also mentioned snacks that would be available throughout the flight, including [more!] noodles and a mozzarella and pesto folded pizza.
The standard meal service took a long time to begin after takeoff. Special meals were hand-delivered about 45 to 50 minutes after takeoff, and the meal cart didn’t make its way up the aisle until about 90 minutes after departure.
This meant I didn’t eat until almost 3 p.m. Pacific time, which was 5 p.m. for my body, which was still on Central time. I definitely recommend packing snacks if you get hungry or need to worry about blood sugar issues like I do.
The silverware was heavy and felt high-quality.
For the first meal, I had cod with black pepper sauce, kai lan (Chinese broccoli) and egg fried rice. It was good but not particularly memorable. Afterward, I wished I had tried the pappardelle with white-wine cream sauce instead. I decided to skip the shrimp salad, but the bread and butter were good. I wasn’t offered a choice of rolls, but I did get a tiny Haagen-Dazs cup of vanilla ice cream to finish out the meal.
The cabin lights went dark for a few hours after lunch was served to let people get some rest. Interestingly enough, however, Cathay woke everyone up around the eight-hour mark in our 14-hour flight to serve the second meal rather than waiting until close to arrival time, which isn’t my usual experience for flights going to Asia. I happily woke to try braised chicken with mushrooms, chestnuts, dates, kai lan, carrots and steamed rice.
A few hours after meal No. 2, I woke up from my second nap and felt hungry. So I hit the attendant call button and requested an order of instant noodles. The attendant took an order from someone else in the cabin who took advantage of her arrival, then returned to me to ask if I would like a folded pizza as well, since she would be warming one up for the other passenger anyway. I took her up on the order and got my food shortly — the instant noodles within a few minutes, the folded pizza about 10 minutes later. The noodles came in a clever little paper holder with chopsticks included. The pizza was on the dry side.
Flight attendants were friendly but pretty slow to respond, and service was inefficient.
The attendants were very kind, but service was inconsistent, perhaps because they were responsible for the entirety of the regular economy cabin as well as premium economy. I tried hitting the call button three times throughout the long flight, mostly to test responsiveness. The first two times, nobody came by at all. The third time was when I asked for my instant noodles, and she came within about 30 seconds. However, this took place during lights out, when everyone else was asleep. I did my best to whisper as quietly as possible, but she didn’t get the hint and responded to me in a very enthusiastic, normal tone of voice. I kept whispering, and she eventually understood what I was trying to signal, but a few people clearly woke up during the process, so I felt bad for initiating the disturbance.
I think inefficiency was a big part of why the flight attendants always seemed to be busy. I noticed them individually delivering meals, tray by tray, for the second meal rather than wheeling out the same food cart they had brought out for the first meal. They also seemed to walk up and down for each errand instead of combining steps. I didn’t lack for anything; it just led to a general sense of restlessness because the cabin curtain was constantly sliding back and forth as they passed in and out.
I really enjoyed my flight overall. I haven’t flown Cathay Pacific since I was a child, but this experience has definitely put the airline back on my radar for future travel.
All photos by the author.
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