15 Hours in Lie-Flat Biz for Under $600: Flying Hong Kong Airlines' A350 From LAX to HKG
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When I think of flying from the US to Hong Kong, my mind immediately jumps to Cathay Pacific. Hong Kong's largest carrier has long dominated the market for flights between the US and the Southeast Asian megacity. Over the years, it's built up a large amount of brand cachet, mostly thanks to its terrific first- and business-class products.
However, another Hong Kong-based carrier, Hong Kong Airlines, has plans to disrupt the status quo. The airline's been around for more than a decade, but just recently has dipped its toes into the competitive market for flights between the US and HK — with brand-new Airbus A350-900s to boot. Currently it serves Los Angeles (LAX) and San Francisco (SFO), but has plans to expand to New York in the future.
And while its long-haul fleet of A350-900s is anything but old, Hong Kong Airlines is already attempting to outdo its own product. Just this week, the carrier announced a new interior for the A350s that have yet to be delivered.
This review, which was booked before that announcement as the result of a mistake fare, focuses on the current — and, for now, only — Hong Kong Airlines A350 interior. In the coming weeks, the new interior will show up on some flights on the LAX-HKG route.
So, just how does this newcomer's product stack up in the highly competitive US-Asia nonstop market? For less than $600, I got the chance to test it out myself.
This flight was booked as part of the widely circulated mistake fare that Hong Kong Airlines published in August. Upon first seeing the deal, I was quick to hop on, plug in my details and book a round-trip ticket from Los Angeles to Shanghai (PVG) via Hong Kong for $561 round-trip in business class.
A round-trip price on the same route with Hong Kong Airlines typically costs around $3,000. To say that I — and many others — got a good deal is an understatement. And the carrier earned a lot of respect by honoring the mistake fare when many other airlines in the same predicament have simply cried, "It didn't count!" and canceled the purchases.
I used my Chase Sapphire Preferred to book, earning me 2x Ultimate Rewards points on the purchase. In total, I earned 1,122 UR points, worth $22 based on TPG's most recent valuations.
Unfortunately, Hong Kong Airlines isn't a member of any major alliance, nor does it partner with any US carrier, a bummer for US-based flyers that won't help Hong Kong Airlines woo customers in the States. So while I was able to take advantage of this phenomenal deal, not everyone will be willing to fork over $3,000 for a ticket that won't earn them redeemable miles or elite mileage credits. This, of course, might change in the future.
I struggled with the airline's website, which felt severely dated. There was no option to manage my booking, and, more importantly, there was no seat-selection tool. When I called customer service less than 48 hours prior to departure, they said I could only reserve a seat via the online check-in feature within 24 hours of departure. Otherwise, I'd be forced to wait until check-in at the airport. It seemed crazy to have such a dated process for something as simple as seat selection.
Once I got to Tom Bradley International Terminal at LAX, about three hours before departure, I headed straight to the small check-in counter for Hong Kong Airlines. Given that I was so early (you can never really tell with LA traffic!), there were few other passengers in line. In fact, I was the only business-class passenger in the queue.
Part of the reason I came so early was that the seat-selection debacle suggested I should prepare for the worst. Even then, by the time I arrived, all that was left for window seats were those that were directly adjacent to the aisle. Reluctantly, I selected 19C anyway, as I love to be able to look out the window even if it isn't the most accessible.
Business-class passengers at LAX were granted access to the Los Angeles International Lounge, the same lounge used by Air Tahiti Nui, El Al, Philippine Airlines, Japan Airlines and Hainan Airlines.
The lounge turned out to be a standard independent US lounge with the usual light snacks and drinks.
There was also a self-service bar. I had a decent glass of California Merlot.
There was a selection of white wine in the refrigerator, which also had packaged sandwiches and soft drinks.
The food wasn't the most abundant and what was there was quite spread out. For example, the chips and pineapple and grapes were at the main counter.
And across from that were the granola bars, dry cereal, muffins, croissants and Oreos.
Next to them on a different table were the pretzels, mixed nuts and Milano cookies. What I'm saying here is that things were all over the place. And don't expect to have a full hot meal before you get on your flight.
My favorite part of the lounge was its location. It was in the same area as the Emirates lounge, meaning there was exterior seating with an open vantage down at the action in the terminal below.
Was this the best lounge out there? Absolutely not. But while the food wasn't notable and it wasn't exactly luxurious, it was an enjoyable experience, especially because of that view from above the terminal.
Not knowing how far away the gate was, I left the lounge about 15 minutes before boarding. It turned out Gate 148 was about a two-minute walk from the lounge. But much like car traffic in LA, foot traffic at TBIT can be hard to predict, so I played it safe.
Boarding was delayed by about 15 minutes because the aircraft arrived late. In that time, gate crew set up boarding areas, and people queued in an orderly fashion.
Hong Kong Airlines utilized two jet bridges for the A350 at LAX, one for business class and the other for economy comfort and economy. Boarding into business class on a separate jet bridge provided an air of exclusivity to the whole process, which went smoothly overall.
Cabin and Seat
Hong Kong Airlines' A350-900 featured three cabins: business class, economy comfort and economy. The economy cabin featured 199 seats arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration. Each of the seats offered passengers 31 to 32 inches of pitch, depending on the location within the cabin, and 18 inches of width.
The economy-comfort cabin featured 102 seats in a 3-3-3 configuration. As far as a hard product, the only thing separating the economy comfort from its standard-economy counterpart was a guaranteed 34 inches of pitch.
At the front of the aircraft was the business-class cabin. The cabin had seats in a 1-2-1 configuration, guaranteeing every passenger direct aisle access. Each of the seats featured 44 inches of pitch and 23 inches of width. On this flight, all 33 seats were occupied. The carrier assigned letters to the seats in a unique way — window seats in the odd-numbered rows, for example, were marked as "C" and "H," while the window seats in even-numbered rows were the more conventional "A" and "K." Though this method does make it easier to determine which seats are better than others — in this case, "A" seats are preferable to "C" seats, since the latter aren't protected from the aisle.
The cabin's aesthetic was at first jarring, with the deep red of the seats contrasting with a bland white cabin. I grew to tolerate the color scheme, though, including the gray bedding on each seat.
The hard product featured staggered Solstys seats — these are the same you'll find in business class on other major carriers such as Alitalia, Iberia and Thai Airways. If you appreciate a window and are traveling alone, you'll want to spring for the best seats in the cabin — those in even-numbered rows, flush against the cabin walls and supremely private.
Those even-numbered window seats also had more room. There was even a foldout portion of the footwell so you'd have more legroom when when stretched out in a lie-flat position. None of the other seats in the cabin offered this.
As a point of comparison, here's my seat. Note the much smaller footwell.
If you're traveling with someone and want to stick together, you should look at odd-numbered middle seats (those lettered E or F). The two middle seats offered privacy from aisle traffic while ensuring you remained close to your neighbor — honeymoon seats.
If you're traveling alone in a middle seat, consider either an even-numbered seat for privacy from your neighbor but exposure to aisle traffic or an odd-numbered seat for privacy from the aisle at the cost of being closer to the stranger next to you.
My seat, 19C, wasn't ideal. I found the seat itself to offer less privacy than usual in its lie-flat position, even for an aisle-facing seat. That's because the armrest went down when the seat was in its lie-flat position. It meant I woke up a couple of times with my arm hanging in the aisle.
Other than the lack of privacy, I found the seat to be comfortable. Below the seatback in front was a small storage compartment, where I put one of my carry-on bags. This storage space was the only place where I saw any sign of wear and tear. The lining on the bin came loose every time I took the bag out or back, and it had loads of glue on it.
The aircraft, with the Hong Kong registration B-LGC, was just nine months old, according to PlaneSpotters.net. Delivered to the airline in November 2017, it's one of five A350-900s Hong Kong Airlines currently has in its fleet.
Each of the business-class seats had a small storage area to the side and above the table that contained a place to put the airline-provided headphones. Underneath the seatback entertainment screen was a small literature pocket, though it seemed too small to be of any use.
Hong Kong Airlines Flight 69 was scheduled to depart LAX at 12:10pm, but we didn't leave until 12:44pm. I later learned that it's a trend for Flight 69. According to FlightRadar24, not a single HX69 flight has departed on time since it switched its departure time from 11:45am to 12:10pm on March 25. Since then, the closest HX69 flight came to departing on time was on May 29, when it departed at 12:14pm.
More recently, however, HX69 flights have been departing later and later, and since the airline's already pushed back the departure time twice — from 10:45am to 11:45am and from 11:45am to 12:10pm — it seems likely that another pushback might be in the works.
That being said, it shouldn't be a huge issue from a passenger perspective, since each of the delayed flights since at least Aug. 16 have made up the time in the air and arrived at HKG either early or within a few minutes of being on time.
Overall, I found the cabin and seat to be comfortable. As it folded down into a lie-flat position with a wide seat, I was able to get sleep. Still, some seats were much better than others.
Amenities helped to make the flight complete. My favorite was none other than the amenity kit itself, which had an eye-catching design. Inside were the usual basic offerings — socks, eye mask, dental kit, lip balm and hand cream from L'Occitane — but the design of the kit itself made it something I'll continue to use.
Each of the seats had a pillow and blanket, emblazoned with the airline's signature orchid. I found the bedding to be incredibly comfortable. The pillow was firm, and the blanket was cozy without being too warm.
The service was commendable during every part of the flight. Within two minutes of boarding, I was personally greeted and offered an orange juice or water. About five minutes later, I was given a set of slippers — a must to avoid having to put shoes back on midflight to use the bathroom. That level of service continued throughout the flight, and the crew's attention to detail was impressive.
Each seat in the business-class cabin was equipped to provide plenty of power. Below the small storage space with the headphones were two USB ports and the headphone port. Below each seat was a power outlet.
The headphones themselves were functional, though not the best for noise cancellation.
Hong Kong Airlines' A350s come equipped with Wi-Fi. On my flight, Wi-Fi prices ranged from 15 MB for($4.99 to 100 MB for $22.99. Unfortunately I found the speed to be dismal overall.
The in-flight entertainment had plenty of options, with a number of new releases and live TV (only available over the continental US). For a short period, I was able to livestream the US Open.
The screen could be controlled either via touch, which I found to be very responsive, or a remote control.
As an AvGeek, I loved the tail camera on the A350, and thoroughly enjoyed watching our climb out of LA and descent into Hong Kong from above. You really can't beat that view.
There were eight lavatories, two of which were at the front of the aircraft for business-class passengers. The lavs were spacious and were stocked with L'Occitane hand wash and lotion.
In one of the business-class restrooms, there was a gnarly crack in the mirror, which was taped up.
Food and Beverage
In the best way possible, the highlight of meal service on this flight was the menu, which had a design that conveyed a fun, lighthearted message inspired by the city of Hong Kong. The creative menu art, created by Los Angeles-based and Hong Kong-born illustrator Victo Ngai, was a fun way to begin the meal service.
Thankfully, the food was almost as enjoyable. Given our midday departure, lunch was served shortly after takeoff starring with a beverage and a few nuts. I tried a glass of a crisp Luis Felipe Edwards Sauvignon Blanc from Chile, which retails for around $12 per bottle on the ground.
The starter course was a fresh organic side salad, duck foie gras terrine with summer truffle, smoked salmon and prosciutto. I don't eat foie gras, but its accompaniments were delightful. In particular, the prosciutto and salmon were bursting with flavor.
Following was a lobster bisque, though I was disappointed that there weren't any actual pieces of lobster to enjoy.
To round out lunch service, passengers could choose from seared arctic char with red quinoa, farro and roasted mixed vegetables; braised chicken with Chinese sausage and wood ear mushroom in oyster sauce, steamed rice and seasonal vegetables; and sautéed pumpkin gnocchi, pearl onions and tomato with creamy herb sauce and buttered broccolini.
I opted for the pumpkin gnocchi, which was a bit on the dry side. The powerful herb sauce offset the dryness without overpowering the pumpkin flavor, though.
Hands down, my favorite food on the flight was the delicious garlic bread. Flight attendants came through the cabin several times to serve a selection of breads, and the only thing people took was the garlic bread.
For dessert, I tried the coconut mousse cake, which was divine. Other options included Häagen-Dazs ice cream and a selection of cheeses.
About two hours before landing, a final meal was served. I chose the shrimp fried rice instead of the braised beef short ribs with penne and seasonal vegetables. The shrimp was a little too fishy for my liking. It came with fresh fruit and a cassis mousse cheesecake. I also got garlic bread with this meal, which turned out to be the highlight once again.
While some areas of the food service exceeded others — the garlic bread was vastly better than the rice — I was satisfied with the offerings. Coupled with the friendly and efficient service, it made for a good experience.
The first version of Hong Kong Airlines' business class on the A350-900 is a perfectly comfortable way to cross the Pacific. Is it the most luxurious business-class product out there? No. But at the price I lucked into, I can't complain at all.
I found my seat to be comfortable (though some are more comfortable than others), the food tasty and the amenities on par with what rivals offer on the route. Plus, unlike what you'll find on many American carriers that operate the same route, the service on board this flight was exceptional — friendly, fast, engaged and with a palpable sense of joy from serving customers.
This Hong Kong Airlines business-class product did its job admirably. But with the carrier's recent announcement that it'll upgrade its newest A359s to a better business-class product, there is plenty to look forward to. Factoring in a more comfortable hard product to a soft product that's already great will help take Hong Kong Airlines to the next level.
Now all it needs is a stronger partner network to appeal to frequent flyers chasing miles.