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Cheap but not low-cost, Hong Kong Airlines pleasantly surprised me for my one-way flight across the Pacific. Pros: cheap fares (even at the last minute), efficient service and a diverse inflight entertainment selection. Cons: standoffish service and a strange boarding experience.
Hong Kong Airlines began flying in 2006, but for the first decade of its existence, it operated as a regional Asian airline and remained unknown to most Americans. That changed in 2017, when it launched routes from Hong Kong to Los Angeles, San Francisco and Vancouver. Since then, the airline’s consistently low fares have driven down prices between the US and Hong Kong as other airlines try to compete.
Recently, the airline became a lot better known in the US from a spectacular $561 round-trip business-class error fare — which the airline wholeheartedly honored, thrilling passengers. TPG‘s news editor, Emily McNutt, snagged that deal and reviewed the Hong Kong Airlines business-class product. But TPG still didn’t have an economy review, and this was a product I had on my hit list to fly in 2018. So, when I needed to position to Hong Kong (HKG) from Los Angeles (LAX) for a flight, the choice was obvious. I added Hong Kong Airlines as my 25th airline of 2018.
One of the benefits of Hong Kong Airlines’ entrance into the US-to-Hong Kong market has been cheap one-way transpacific fares. And I was certainly a beneficiary of that for this trip. Despite our booking just 10 days before the trip, the one-way fare from Los Angeles to Hong Kong cost just $321. That price was so cheap that we added on a $109 extra-legroom seat when we booked.
We used the American Express Business Centurion card to make this booking, as this allowed us to cash in American Express Membership Rewards at 2 cents each toward paid flights. If we didn’t book it through the Business Centurion, we would have used the Platinum Card® from American Express to get 5x points on booking airfare directly with the airline.
If you’re willing to give up some points for trip-delay reimbursement, baggage delay, trip cancellation and other travel insurance, you can book with the Chase Sapphire Reserve or Citi Premier Card to get 3x points along with these protections.
When I arrived at the airport about two and a half hours before departure at 10:45am, there was an empty web check-in line and a packed standard check-in line.
Kicking myself for not checking in online, I joined the longer line. I figured that I could try to check in on my phone if it were slow, but I was surprised by just how quickly the line moved. Eight check-in agents definitely helped the cause. By the time it was my turn to check in, I found out why it was moving so quickly: efficient agents. My check-in agent processed my passport, checked my bag, answered my questions about seats and upgrades and printed my boarding pass in under one and minute and 45 seconds. From entering the line to being checked in took around 12 minutes.
At the check-in counter, you could opt to upgrade to business class for $742 one-way, which the agent described as a limited-time offer. Or passengers could purchase an extra-legroom seat for $109. Platinum, Gold and Silver card members could choose an extra-legroom seat for free.
Clearing standard security — as Hong Kong Airlines wasn’t a TSA PreCheck airline — took 10 minutes.
After scouting out the gate, I pulled up my Priority Pass app to check my options. For a while, the only Priority Pass lounge in Tom Bradley International Terminal was the Korean Air lounge, but it recently partnered with P.F. Chang’s to give members $30 each toward food and drink.
However, neither of these were open to Priority Pass members for this early departure. KAL was open at the time but didn’t accept Priority Pass members until 12pm, and P.F. Chang’s didn’t open until 11am. So I stretched out my legs before the long flight by taking the LAX terminal connector from TBIT to American Airlines’ Terminal 4 and used my Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard to stop by the Admirals Club for a bite to eat and a coffee.
For the sake of the review, I made sure to get to Gate 157 well before boarding time. With no line at the gate counter, I stopped by to inquire again about the cost to upgrade. On the night before my flight, I’d noticed that Hong Kong Airlines was showing zero seats for sale in economy, so I was curious if the upgrade price would decrease to avoid an oversell situation. The gate agent said they weren’t able to take payment at the gate, so they weren’t able to sell upgrades. Since I was at the counter anyway and I save my boarding passes, I asked for and received a new boarding pass. (My hunch was correct: At boarding, agents tore and retained part of the boarding pass.)
A minute later, I was flagged down by the gate agent and told that there was an issue with my passport. The gate agent took my boarding pass, checked my passport and told me to have a seat and wait for the supervisor. After boarding began, the supervisor showed up and simply informed me that I would have to be the last passenger to board, without providing any additional information.
So I had no choice but to wait as 297 passengers boarded the plane before I was finally able to board as the second-to-last of the computer-listed 299-passenger count for this flight. I still received no explanation for the delay, and my passport wasn’t checked again. Since I didn’t know what caused the issue in the first place and didn’t want to test my luck, I didn’t push for a reason.
Cabin and Seat
The relatively young airline has maintained a young fleet, averaging just 5 years old. This average age is being helped by the ongoing addition of 21 brand-new Airbus A350s. It took delivery of its first in September 2017 and has since built up a fleet of five. For this flight, it operated its second A350 (registration B-LGB), which was delivered new in November 2017.
Economy class was split across two large cabins of almost completely 3-3-3 seating. (Most of the photos are from after the flight because the passport situation at boarding.)
The first 12 to 13 rows of economy were Economy Comfort seating. These 102 seats had 34 inches of pitch.
And, based on the ExpertFlyer seat map the morning of the flight, the airline was really struggling to sell these seats, so it had to resort to assigning passengers to these seats without the $40-or-so add-on.
Behind these extra-legroom seats were 193 standard economy seats with 32 inches of pitch.
All of these seats measured 18 inches between armrests, had a seatback fold-down, bifold tray table and a literature pouch between the inflight-entertainment screen and tray table (instead of below the tray table) to maximize legroom.
Each economy seat had an headrest that could adjust vertically and had folding wings to cradle your neck or head while you slept.
The only exception to the 3-3-3 arrangement was Row 51, the emergency exit and bulkhead row. This row was arranged 2-3-2 with no window seat on either side. There seemed to be enough room for a window seat, but it looked like Hong Kong Airlines didn’t want to frustrate passengers sitting in these seats with the emergency-exit-row slide protruding into their legroom.
This arrangement created the only two pairs of seats on the aircraft: 51B and 51 C, and 51J and 51H. And it created two solo seats that had the distinction of being both window and quasi-aisle seats, 52A and 52K.
In the middle of the bulkhead row were the bassinet seats, 51D to 51G. Each of these seats had at least one thick and immovable armrest, with seats 51C, 51G and 51J being squeezed by thick armrests on either side — lowering the seat width to 17.5 inches. The seats with one firm armrest (51B, 51D, 51E, 51H, 52A and 52K) measured 17.75 inches between armrests.
All armrest-stowed tray tables were small bifold tables measuring 16.5 inches by 9 inches.
It turns out I was the only one on my flight who paid the extra $109 for an extra-legroom seat in back cabin (seats 52A, 51B to H, and 52K). Squatters quickly scrambled to take these seats during boarding, but they didn’t get to enjoy them for long. Before we pushed back, flight attendants told the squatters to return to their seats or pay for their self-upgrade.
Per the placards left on these seats, you had to pay 940 Hong Kong dollars ($120) for these seats on board.
It’s a long 15 hours from Los Angeles to Hong Kong, leaving passengers plenty of time to enjoy a movie (or two or three) and still get a nice amount of sleep. Around four hours after takeoff, the flight attendants adjusted the lights from sunset to the off position. The flights attendants struggled to get passengers to keep their window shades closed, and it was light outside for the entire length of the flight.
The seatbelt sign remained off for most of the flight. While pilots didn’t flip the switch for some periods of light chop, a couple of times the sign was on for upwards of 20 minutes even though the ride was mostly smooth, leading me to assume that they were only turning it on when expecting turbulence, instead of as a reactionary measure.
The lights stayed off for most of the flight, with flight attendants gradually turning the lights on for dinner three hours before landing. From there, the lights stayed on through the end of the flight. The cabin was secured 15 minutes prior to landing, and taxiing on the ground only took four minutes. My flight arrived at the gate in Hong Kong at 5:59pm, 36 minutes early.
I stretched my legs on the long walk from the gate to immigration and cleared the process before my bag dropped out. My noticeably more scuffed bag fell out the shoot 50 minutes after the aircraft arrival at the gate.
Each seat, including the exit rows and bulkheads, had a 9-inch inflight entertainment screen. Under the screen were a headphone jack (one-prong) and a USB outlet.
On my flight, the IFE system offered 100 movies and 54 TV shows, including the entire first season (seven episodes) of “Breaking Bad,” a couple midrun episodes of “Friends” and, naturally, several Chinese movies and shows in Cantonese and Mandarin. The system also offered three channels of live TV (CNNi, BBC World News and Sport24).
The emergency-exit row and bulkhead seats had an IFE screen that extended from the seat on an arm. These screens had to be stowed for taxi, takeoff and landing, meaning that these passengers couldn’t enjoy the aircraft’s tail- and downward-facing cameras during these critical phases of flight.
The Hong Kong Airlines A350-900 was enabled with Wi-Fi. Packages were data-based rather than time-based and cost anywhere from $4.99 for 15 MB to $22.99 for 105 MB.
For the first few hours of the flight, the Wi-Fi payment system wouldn’t continue from the package selection to take my payment. But, eventually, I was able to complete the process on my phone, though the Panasonic Wi-Fi speed-test results were abysmal.
In addition to the USB outlet on the IFE screen, there were universal power outlets at each row. Most three-seat pairs shared two outlets. Bulkhead and emergency-exit rows had two seats under their seat, except the two-seat pairs, which shared just one outlet.
At boarding, each seat was stocked with a plastic-wrapped soft blanket and an unwrapped pillow. The pillowcase was wisely designed with a perforation in the middle, letting passengers transform the standard pillow into a neck pillow. However, I found the pillowcase material to be scratchy after a few minutes around my neck.
After boarding completed but before pushback, flight attendants passed through to hand out plastic-wrapped earbuds and plastic-wrapped amenity bags. The drawstring amenity bag contained an eye mask, socks, earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
The earbuds were of poor quality; I’d recommend using your own earbuds or headphones instead.
The bathrooms didn’t contain any amenities.
Food and Beverage
Shortly after takeoff, flight attendants passed through the cabin to hand out bags of mixed nuts as other flight attendants began a first drink service. Carts began at the front of the front cabin and the back of the back cabin, meaning those of us in the middle would be the last to be served. Drink choices included juices, sodas and two types of beers. I opted for the Tsingtao.
Lunch was a choice of cheese ravioli, braised pork with rice or a vegetarian meal. I got the braised pork with rice and found it to be pleasant to my Western palate — no fatty or gristly pieces of meat. The entree also contained a side of bok choy and three slices of cooked carrots. The main dish was served with a peculiar salad of cold grilled chicken, egg crumbles and cooked mushroom on top of a chopped salad. Dessert was a multilayer chocolate mousse cake, which was a nice, light not-too-sweet ending to the meal. I passed on trying the cold roll that was served with the meal.
Lunch was served with another choice of drinks. The choices were similar to the first drink service, with wine swapped in instead of beer as the complimentary alcohol.
Between meals, there was a self-service drink and snack bar in the back galley, unguarded by flight attendants who were hanging out behind the closed curtain. As I stretched in the back galley, I observed multiple passengers greedily filling bags with these snacks, meaning the basket seemed to frequently run out. These snacks would be the only food available for more than 10 hours of the flight.
A few hours before landing, flight attendants served the second meal, chicken with potatoes or beef with rice. I chose the chicken. This one didn’t turn out as well as the first meal, with the meat being of lower quality and the potatoes not warming up quite right. That said, it was fine for an economy meal.
The main takeaway throughout my Hong Kong Airlines experience was efficiency, from the quick check-in line to the prompt service. That said, service felt by the book, as if the flight attendants seemed eager to get the required tasks done before disappearing behind the galley curtains for most of the flight.
For an example of this efficiency, here’s how the flight began: Wheels up occurred at 11:59am, and the seatbelt sign was turned off at 12:05pm. Within 20 minutes, all 270 or so economy passengers were served an appetizer of nuts and a first drink. At 12:38pm, I was the last person to be served lunch and a second drink. That’s 33 minutes from the seatbelt sign being turned off to the point when all economy passengers were served a snack, two drinks and a hot meal.
After a prompt collection of the trays, there was no sign of a flight attendant for hours. During the eight-hour artificial night, flight attendants passed through a couple of times with water and a couple of times with snacks. During service, there was a slight language barrier when speaking with some flight attendants, and FAs were personable but not overly friendly.
I came into the experience expecting a much more low-cost carrier experience than I got. The aircraft was new and well-stocked with entertainment for the long ride. The flight attendants were no less standoffish than many other economy flights. The food was a little lacking in portions for such a long flight, at least to this American’s appetite, but was otherwise fine. Overall, I got an incredible value from my $321 one-way last-minute transpacific fare.
If you want unlimited legroom or a pair of seats, the $109 upgrade to the emergency-exit row is worth it. Or, if you love a good window seat — although you’ll be asked to keep the window shut most of the flight — but still want aisle access plus extra legroom, opt for 52A or 52K. Taller passengers may find it’s a wise investment to pay around $40 for the 34-inch pitch seats at the front of the cabin.
The main frustration that I take away from the flight was the strange and unexplained delay at the boarding door. Besides that hangup, I certainly enjoyed the flight and can recommend it for those looking for a cheap trip across the Pacific.
Know before you go.
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