Flight number: CX831
Aircraft Type: Boeing 777-300ER
Route: New York (JFK) to Hong Kong
Class: First Class
Great onboard service and lounge, an uncompetitive hard product and an unsatisfactory ground experience.
Cathay Pacific has long been a powerhouse in premium air travel, spreading its wings across the Pacific and beyond. While it has a strong presence in Australia, Cathay does not service Down Under with its top-end product, with business class being the highest cabin from Australia. That said there are still plenty of opportunities to experience its finest services through a connecting flight to Europe or America. Just last month Cathay Pacific unveiled its new partnership with lifestyle brand Bamford and rolled out a new first class dining menu. Are these changes enough to solidify its position as a dominant premium carrier? With this question in mind let's take a look. I recently flew from New York to Hong Kong, which is Cathay's second longest route and a journey just shy of 16 hours. As I buckled up, little did I realise my trip was going to get even longer.
Flight number: CX831
Aircraft Type: Boeing 777-300ER
Route: New York (JFK) to Hong Kong
Class: First Class
This flight was purchased using cash as part of a return ticket from Asia to New York. Typically, return tickets to the US cost around $20,000, so frequent flyer points definitely come in handy if you would like to fly in first and avoid huge out-of-pocket expenses. Here is a comparison of some of the reward currencies that can be used for a Cathay redemption. Redeeming using Alaska miles is by far the most lucrative, followed by Cathay's own frequent flyer program Asia Miles.
|From Hong Kong to||Qantas Frequent Flyer Points||Cathay Asia Miles||British Airways Avios||Alaska Mileage Plan miles|
|New York |
Given there are only six first class seats in each flight, Cathay usually releases only one redemption seat ahead of time. A dummy search using the Qantas Frequent Flyer portal shows pretty consistent seat availability, so basically one seat per flight for December 2020. Cathay also releases more redemption seats closer to the departure dates if it is unable to sell them. However, these last-minute seats are generally only redeemable using Asia Miles, rather than with partner airline currencies.
First class check-in at New York's JFK airport was a fairly quick process. For some reason, the agent was initially unwilling to make changes to our seats at our request, citing the cabin was full. After consulting with his supervisor, he was mysteriously able to make the requested changes to seat 1A and 2A (we later found out the cabin was empty). At the time of check-in, we were given an invitation card to the Flagship Lounge in JFK plus the lounge passes for the Pier/Wing first class lounges in Hong Kong for our transit.
Due to technical issues, our flight was delayed for almost a day. Far from being a typical flight delay or re-time, we actually checked in, cleared customs and boarded the aircraft not once but twice. Our original boarding time was 1pm. Despite not being allowed to board until around 3pm, the flight information screen constantly showed "on-time" and "boarding" messages which was very confusing. At the gate, we were told to take a seat or go back to the lounge without any satisfactory explanation.
When we finally boarded the aircraft, we sat for almost two hours before being told our flight was aborted with minimal communication via the PA. Understandably, many passengers were extremely displeased; I've not come across so much shouting and jeering from passengers on board until this incident.
Apart from being told to leave the aircraft, no further instructions were given, so we didn't know if we should recollect bags and head to the check-in counter to get a hotel/food voucher or stay at the gate. The chaos continued for many hours in the terminal, with ground staff refusing to serve passengers from the cancelled flight as there were passengers checking in for a separate flight.
Overall the 22-hour delay was poorly handed. Including bag reclaim and re-ticketing, we spent many hours in the airport on the day of our scheduled departure. When I left the airport at 8:30pm, there were still more than 200 people at the check-in counter trying to re-ticket or get hotel vouchers.
There is more to be said about the poorly handled "crisis" and I've subsequently reached out to Cathay customer service regarding this awful experience. For the record, the first class crew members were very pleasant. They personally communicated with us as best they could, despite the engineers and cockpit crew releasing little information to them about the problem and subsequent decision to abort.
While technical problems are unavoidable it was disappointing ground crew were not willing to care for the inconvenienced customers in a more respectful and efficient manner. When we returned to the airport the following morning, check-in staff were very flustered and uncoordinated. We were told to stand aside for around 30 minutes, until they had closed the check-in for the 9am flight. There was again a huge build-up of passengers (from the delayed flight the day before) at the check-in desk.
The general area of the Flagship Lounge is quite comfortable and modern, offering a decent buffet and spacious showers. What impressed me the most was the Flagship First Dining experience, featuring a separate bar and sit-down dining facility. As we arrived at the reception, staff greeted us and personally escorted us to the exclusive Flagship First Dining area.
In partnership with the James Beard Foundation, American Airlines offers the Flagship First Dining in only four of its hubs: Los Angeles, Miami, Dallas and New York. The entry requirements are rather stringent and it's available exclusively for AA first class passengers in qualifying routes and cabins. First class passengers with oneworld carriers and status holders are generally not eligible, with several exceptions. Thankfully, Cathay Pacific has special arrangements for its first class passengers leaving from JFK to use this excellent facility.
First of all, the staff were professional and pleasant. The menu and drinks list were also phenomenal. I had the chance to sample several dishes from the lunch and breakfast menus. The dishes were beautifully plated and scrumptious. It's one of the most impressive airport lounge dining experiences I've had. From the drinks list, I enjoyed the Grande Cuvee champagne. The list also includes signature cocktails and a selection of premium wines from Europe and California. Just in case you're undecided with your choice of beverage, each dish on the menu also comes with recommended wine pairing.
From the starters menu, we ordered the roasted pumpkin hummus and Maryland-style crab cake. We also tried several other dishes from the entrees menu: the peppercorn crusted filet mignon, black bass and vegetable ramen. They were all fantastic. As there were only two other guests during our entire time there, it was a nice spot hidden away from the crowd during busier times in the Flagship Lounge.
Boarding the aircraft on the second day felt like déjà vu, with the same aircraft (now cleared for take-off), same seats and same crew. Senior attendant Devi and crew members Whelan and Jacqueline warmly welcomed us again and apologised for the delay. I was then offered a tray with sparkling JING Tea, a hot towel and a handwritten welcome note from the crew, which was a nice touch. I also enjoyed a glass of vintage 2004 Krug champagne prior to take-off.
Cathay Pacific first class cabin layout (Credit: Seat Guru)
Cathay is in the process of updating its first class cabin with several enhancements, such as onboard Wi-Fi and a nicer IFE screen. Unfortunately this service featured the pre-refurbished cabin, which was a little tired-looking.
In terms of cabin layout, there are a total of 6 open first class suites in 1-1-1 configuration. The A and K seats are window seats, while the D seats are located in the centre. With seats measuring 36 inches in width, they are the widest in the skies. Each suite is even wide enough to fit two people, but it would make more sense for the second person to sit at the ottoman across, especially when dining together.
As the middle seats and K seats share the same aisle, I figured the A seats are a little more private given they have their own aisle. I consider Cathay's first class suites quite comfortable and above average, but it cannot be compared to the more spacious and exclusive suites with closed doors offered by Etihad Airways and Singapore Airlines.
The cabin does not have an overhead compartment, so it appears quite spacious. Each suite comes with a cabinet with cloaking space and space for other personal items such as your shoes and bags. A bigger bag can fit under the ottoman rather than the cabinet. There is also a small compartment on the side to store your personal items. There are two lavatories at the pointy end of the aircraft for a maximum of six guests, which represents a pretty good ratio.
At your request, crew members offer turndown service, curating a plush and comfy flatbed. Most recently, Cathay started using Bamford's ultra soft bedding and duvet, accompanied by a pillow mist scented with lavender, frankincense and marjoram to help you to unwind. The bed is quite cozy, but I had a minor issue with the bed specification. The ottoman is much narrower than the seat (similar to British Airways First), therefore the flat bed has a disproportionately larger "head-space" to the congested "foot-space".
As part of the improved amenities, you have a choice of soft, medium and firm pillows from the pillow menu. Soft for me as always! The ultra comfortable first class relaxed-fit sleepwear is made by PYE, but a little on the large side (size S was just right for me). The new Bamford amenity kits are nice, but I don't think it's something to get excited about as I've received more comprehensive kits in other first class products. It features skincare products from Bamford grooming department catered for men and women. The moisturiser and face mist came in glass bottles to reduce plastic waste. Interestingly, perfume and aftershave are omitted from the package.
Cathay's inflight entertainment Studio CX offers a good selection of movies, shows and music, enough to entertain you the entire journey. This is coupled with a quality noise-cancelling Bose headset. However, the TV screen was pixelated and wobbly when fully extended. Thankfully, Cathay is in the process of improving its hardware to include an HD screen and an additional touchscreen handset. It's a shame that Wi-Fi service was not available on this long-haul flight, particularly for business travellers looking to get in a day of work while in the air.
The menu has three sections: a lunch menu, an all-day dining menu and a dinner menu. The meal times are flexible, which is welcome for a long-haul flight. Soon after take-off, crew members were prompt to gather our meal preferences. Given I'd had quite a substantial meal in the Flagship Lounge, I chose to dine about three hours into the flight. The enhanced menu now includes a "wellness" section for those who are health-conscious or prefer lighter options.
The caviar service was sensational, serving up Imperial fresh caviar with the standard accompaniments. The caviar had a rich and intense creamy flavour, perfect when served together with Krug vintage champagne from the onboard cellar (retails at $400 per bottle).
Following the caviar service, I had a choice between Chinese favourites and international options. I opted for the Chinese cuisine, which was a combination of entree dishes using prized oriental ingredients such as abalone and ginseng, followed by braised pork ribs for the main. I was very satisfied with my choice of ribs, which were tender and beautifully seasoned.
After the main meal, I switched back to Western options as I'm not a huge fan of Chinese desserts. I enjoyed a cheese platter and a blueberry ricotta pancake dessert.
At the end of dinner service, a hot towel was offered along with high-end pralines in a small Cathay Pacific box. I also ordered JING-branded herbal tea.
About eight hours into the flight, I was feeling peckish and ordered a cheeseburger snack. It was delicious except for the chunky fries being a tad dry. I also had a cappuccino and some cookies to munch on while enjoying the inflight entertainment.
To maximise sleep, cabin crew offered to wake me up as late as possible for dinner service. Sure enough, the crew came around about two hours before landing to initiate dinner service, beginning with a refreshing beetroot juice and a hot towel. We took this opportunity to dine together, which was made possible by expanding the tray table with the crew's assistance.
I opted for the baked monkfish dish served with mashed peas and sweet potatoes, a fancy version of the classic fish and chips. I was also offered a colourful fruit platter and an artistically crafted dark chocolate tart, which was seriously rich and delicious.
Cathay's first class crew were excellent as always. Whelan and Jacqueline were personable and always eager to assist us. They addressed us by name at every interaction and it felt like we'd known them for years. Whelan even escorted me out the aircraft to the ground service manager to arrange an alternative flight to our final destination. The cabin crew made our journey a pleasant one even with the flight disruption.
En route to Hong Kong, we flew over some fascinating landscapes across Russia and Mongolia, ranging from snow-capped mountains to frozen rivers. Due to airspace congestion over Hong Kong, we landed about 24 hours later than the scheduled arrival time. Consequently, we remained in Hong Kong overnight due to a missed connection.
I enjoyed the new amenities and the dining experience on this flight. The kindness and warm hospitality by Cathay's top-notch first class crew also impressed me. In spite of the great service on board, the delay and the unsatisfactory ground experience in JFK left a bitter taste. The hard product, especially in the pre-refurbished cabin, is also not as competitive as Cathay's top rivals. That said, all other first class experiences I've had with Cathay have been pleasant. So, I'm hoping that this ground service failure is more of a one-off anomaly. Finally, it's reassuring to know that Cathay is undertaking cabin enhancements to include Wi-Fi and an improved entertainment system. As such, I'm willing to give it the benefit of the doubt and I rate this service 4 out of 6 stars.
Fantastic service and a smooth and easy journey is what I received on the inaugural Gold Coast–Seoul flight. Read more…
A mediocre hard product, coupled with a much improved dining experience and genial service. Read more…
We fly from Tokyo to Singapore to test out JAL's business class seat. Read more…
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