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Cathay Pacific premium economy impressed on both the Boeing 777 from NYC to Hong Kong and Airbus A350 from Hong Kong to Newark. But there are notable differences between the two products. The 777 option excels in the lounge experience, flight timing and space onboard. Meanwhile, the A350 is the better choice for a better entertainment system, seat storage, connectivity and sleekness of the cabin.
Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific flies from seven US airports to Hong Kong (HKG) — with two of these airports just 21 miles from each other in the greater New York City area. The airline flies a four-class Boeing 777-300ER from New York-JFK thrice daily and a three-class Airbus A350-900 from Newark (EWR) once daily.
Thanks to a great sale, my wife Katie and I set out to see which premium-economy experience was better between NYC and Hong Kong.
Until October 2017, I didn’t have The Platinum Card® from American Express. Since I already had the Chase Sapphire Reserve and Citi Prestige card, I didn’t see much benefit in getting a third premium card.
But when an elevated bonus popped up, I figured I’d try it out for at least for a year. With the Centurion Lounge, Uber credits and airline-fee credits, it’s more than proven itself. And now that I’ve gifted an authorized-user card to both my mom for Mother’s Day and dad for Father’s Day, I’m locked in for the long run. Plus, it earns 5x points on airfare purchases. And we were able to enjoy the excellent Amex Centurion lounge in HKG before our return flight.
Booking inexpensive premium-economy tickets on American Airlines partners is a great way of earning elite status for cheap. In fact, just from flying this $1,183 round-trip flight, a flyer could almost reach AAdvantage Gold. Based on the Cathay Pacific E booking fares, here’s what we earned for these flights:
- Award miles: 16,138 flight miles x 100% earning rate = 16,138 award miles x 1.4 cent valuation = $226 value
- Elite Qualifying Miles: 16,138 flight miles x 1.5 earning rate = 24,207 EQM
- Elite Qualifying Dollars: 16,138 flight miles x 20% earning rate = 3,228 EQD
If starting from scratch, a flyer would be just 793 Elite Qualifying Miles short of AAdvantage Gold elite status, which TPG values at $970. Between the $226 value of the miles and the $970 value from almost getting that status, the $1,183 round-trip cost was a steal.
There are currently three daily departures from JFK: 1:35am, 10:00am and 2:50pm. If traveling for leisure, I’d certainly choose the 2:50pm departure again. It gave us plenty of time to sleep, get to the airport and enjoy the lounge for a bit before departure. And it arrived at 6:50pm local time (on the following day), enough time to drop our bags at our hotel, grab a late dinner and then head to bed to adjust to the time change.
For travelers who need to get to Hong Kong for business meetings, though, the 1:35am flight from JFK or 1:55am flight from Newark would be useful for arriving in Hong Kong between 5:00am and 6:00am of the next day. While you’d lose a day in transit, you could sleep much of the flight and hopefully wake up refreshed at landing. Just make sure to choose the A350 if you need a Wi-Fi connection.
Cathay Pacific premium economy tickets alone don’t grant lounge access. So you’re going to need to have elite status, the Amex Platinum (HKG Centurion Lounge), Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard (JFK Admirals Club lounge), or a credit card with Priority Pass membership to get lounge access for these flights.
But if you have Oneworld elite status or the Citi AAdvantage Executive card, you may want to want to fly out of JFK rather than Newark, since Sapphire and Emerald elites get to visit AA’s excellent Flagship Lounge in JFK.
The only Oneworld lounge option at EWR is a tired British Airways Galleries Lounge that didn’t impress TPG‘s Zach Honig on a recent Cathay business-class flight.
Citi AAdvantage Executive cardholders can use the Admirals Club at JFK’s Terminal 8, while EWR-departing passengers would have to use an Admirals Club in a different terminal. And, as I’ve learned from past experience, it’s not worth the hassle to visit a different Newark terminal.
Cabin and Seat
Both premium-economy cabins are arranged in a 2-4-2 arrangement rather than the 3-3-3 arrangement in economy on both aircraft. While 10-wide economy seating is coming to Cathay Pacific 777s, it wasn’t yet on this particular flight. Once it does come, though, the extra space in premium economy will be even nicer. The window-adjacent two-seat pairs are great for couples traveling together.
One noticeable difference between the two aircraft types was the feel of the cabin itself. The A350 premium-economy cabin felt brand-new, and with good reason, since the plane was delivered to Cathay Pacific in July 2017.
Meanwhile, the 777-300ER cabin felt significantly older than the actual four-year age of the plane.
The cabins on the 777 and A350 were about the same size but had different bathroom configurations. On the 777, there was a dedicated bathroom for premium-economy passengers at the forward and starboard of the cabin. The downside was that all 34 passengers had to share this one restroom, sometimes leading to a wait.
On the A350, premium-economy passengers were instructed to pass through the back curtains into the economy cabin to use the bathrooms between the front and rear economy cabins. Up to 242 economy and premium-economy passengers had to share these six bathrooms.
The older 777 cabin had its downsides, but the premium-economy seats were certainly more plush and padded than the slimmer seats on the A350. I slept much better on the 777 flight than on the A350.
However, fans of legrests might enjoy the A350 more. The 777 had footrests at each seat and legrests in the bulkheads. The A350 had legrests and extendable footrests at each seat.
Both types of seat reclined substantially. I measured a recline of 8 inches on the 777 and 8.5 inches on the A350.
The 777 cabin measures 231 inches wide vs. the 221-inch width of the A350 cabin. Yet both premium-economy cabins were arranged 2-4-2 with two aisles. While it was a difference of just 10 inches, it could be felt. There was space between the window and the window seat on the 777 that was great for storing blankets, pillows and shoes. On the A350, though, the armrest was right next to the cabin wall. The other place the difference in cabin width was obvious was the seat space between armrests. The A350 measured 18.5 inches between armrests vs. 19.5 inches on the 777.
On paper, the A350 should have had two inches more pitch, which should’ve felt like even more because of the thinner seats. I measured the A350 at 39 inches of pitch (vs. the stated 40 inches) and measured the 777 at 38 inches of pitch. That said, the 777 felt more spacious. However, neither cabin had enough pitch to make it easy to get in and out of the seats when the person in front of you was reclined.
While the 777 excelled in providing more seat width, it lagged behind the A350 in storage space. The 777 only had a seatback pocket and (useful) storage tray under the IFE screen. And the numerous seat supports made underseat storage difficult.
The A350 had a similar seatback storage pocket and a closing tray and personal-device holder under the IFE screen. But it also utilized the space between the seats to provide a useful storage well, perfect for storing a boarding pass, phone, passport, wallet and other small items.
The power situation was similar on both aircraft types. Each pair of seats shared two universal power outlets between the seats in the center console. In addition, the A350 had two USB outlets in the center console for passengers to share, while each seat on the 777 had a USB power outlet next to the IFE screen.
Both flights had the same simple amenity kit containing a cloth eye mask, socks, earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste in a cloth zipper bag.
I’ve flown a lot of flights and done a lot of reviews. But I don’t think I’ve ever had such a vivid memory of an onboard blanket as on these flights. The provided plastic-wrapped blanket was very soft and warm while still being breathable.
When it came to staying connected, it wasn’t even close — the 777s don’t have Wi-Fi, resulting in a 14- to 16-hour period where I couldn’t get any essential work done or check social media. The A350s were fitted with Panasonic Wi-Fi, and there were two Wi-Fi options on our flight from Hong Kong to Newark: $9.95 for one hour or $19.95 for the duration of the flight. There were no data caps on either plan.
That said, the Panasonic internet connection was painfully slow for much of the flight. Speed tests failed to even initialize or clocked in as disastrously slow.
The in-flight entertainment screens on the A350 were much more crisp than those on the 777. Interestingly, the two aircraft had completely different IFE systems, with the selections on the A350 being much more extensive. The IFE screens measured 12 inches wide on the A350 vs. 10.25 inches wide on the 777.
The service was top-notch on both. Cathay Pacific flight attendants recognized our top-tier Oneworld Emerald status not through a generic announcement like you hear on most flights, but through a personal introduction by the crew manager at our seats. The flight attendants gave us preferential treatment, like first selection of meals, even though we were further back in the cabin. (The crew did this discreetly as to not disappoint other premium-economy passengers, who were also greeted by name.) Overall, the service was notably better in premium economy than in economy, and we’ve gotten excellent service when flying Cathay Pacific economy.
Food and Beverage
On both flights, the food was just OK. Although premium economy had a different printed menu than economy (yes, economy also had a printed menu), it seemed that the meals were the same as economy. And some of the meals were especially disappointing, such as the breakfast before landing in Newark.
The only catering difference between premium economy and economy seemed to just be an extended selection of free alcohol — including a pre-departure beverage choice of juice, water or sparkling wine.
The pillows on these flights were a bit too large to be useful. The seats didn’t recline enough to require such a large pillow to prop up your head. And the pillow was too large to be an effective lumbar support. On both flights we ended up stashing our pillows in the gap between the seat and the window or between our seat and the bulkhead.
I enjoyed my flights in Cathay Pacific premium economy. Both the 14- and 16-hour flights flew by in seemingly no time, thanks to a seat comfortable enough to sleep in and well-stocked IFE. If I had to book the same route again, I’d likely choose the same itinerary I took this time, the afternoon 777 from JFK to Hong Kong and the A350 return from Hong Kong to Newark.
At that price, premium economy was a no-brainer over economy. However, each passenger is going to have to weigh their willingness to pay with the extra benefits they’ll receive. After this experience, I’d personally probably pay up to a $600 round-trip price premium for the extra space, extra recline and extra mileage earnings.
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