Review: Cathay Pacific First Class, Hong Kong to Los Angeles

While Cathay Pacific does not currently offer first class service to Australia, it does offer its flagship product on selected flights between Hong Kong and key markets in Europe, North America, and Asia. We flew from Hong Kong to Los Angeles on one of Cathay Pacific’s four daily services offering first class: CX898, CX884, CX882 and CX880.

Airport experience

Upon arrival at Hong Kong International Airport, we were drawn to the Cathay first class check-in podiums at aisle B. There were plenty of Cathay Pacific staff milling around (and no customers), so we were promptly assisted.

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There were no questions about our carry-on luggage and in no time at all we were checked in and handed a boarding pass and lounge invitation card.

We were then off to security, the real weak point in departing from Hong Kong International Airport. There are no priority lanes at security. Furthermore, the staff are quite strict about having laptops separated from carry-on luggage here, but there is only a vague and ambiguous reference to this requirement on the signage at the check-point.

We only present our boarding pass to enter lounges and that seems to work fine. Perhaps the lounge invitation is useful for some to know where they can go.

There are two first class lounge options: The Wing and The Pier. 

The Wing overlooks low numbered gates 1 – 4, which is where flights bound for the United States tend to leave from.

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While less convenient, we prefer to head straight for The Pier. It is far less crowded and as we wrote in our review of The Pier a few weeks after it opened, Cathay Pacific have really seized the opportunity with this lounge.

Its worth noting that you can take the terminal train most of the way out to Gate 63, but with a local numbered gate you have to come back on foot using the travelators as the train only operates in the outbound direction for departures.

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We arrived at our gate about half an hour prior to scheduled departure to find the flight hadn’t yet started boarding.

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We sought out the priority boarding lanes. It hadn’t taken long for a large snaking business class line of passengers to form. The first class line to the left, however, was zealously guarded by the ground staff. A oneworld Emerald member joined us to wait for the next five minutes or so until the flight was ready to board.

Flights departing Hong Kong International Airport (on any airline) to countries that observe liquids restrictions (such as the United States and Australia) have an additional security theater within the boarding gate. Quite how having your underwear riffled through in full view of a long line of people behind you makes anyone safer is, of course, a question outside the scope of our website. At least we didn’t have to wait in line.

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Overall, we aren’t overwhelmed by the first class ground experience at Cathay Pacific’s hub. It is identical for first class passengers and oneworld Emerald members – a missed opportunity in our view.

The first class cabin

Entering the cabin we were greeted by several crew members and shown to our seat, 2A. The cabin has six seats, two rows in a 1-1-1 configuration.

We prefer the second row as we find the light coming through the front curtain can be noticeable at night (those that claim that Cathay Pacific have ‘light blocking’ curtains are probably used to flying American carriers which only have see-through mesh curtains).

We find the ‘A’ aisle of seats to be superior because the middle seats open into the other aisle. While there is a small perspex window from the middle seats, the aisle is practically yours once the plane has finished boarding.

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The entire business class cabin boards through the first class cabin. While Cathay Pacific doesn’t have fully enclosed first class suites, they are plenty wide so that isn’t too intrusive.

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Cathay’s first class cabin doesn’t have any overhead bins, although the shape of the ceiling is driven by the crew rest area above.

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Instead, the suites have cupboards built into them behind the entertainment screen. The flight attendants worked wonders to make our roll-aboard suitcase fit (a tricky maneuver involving the soft side of the suitcase facing the curved inside of the cupboard).

We did idly wonder how much more personal space there would be if there were overhead bins instead of cupboards. That would go against the trend that has swept the world of making first class feel as ‘light and airy’ as possible. In any event, the trade off Cathay Pacific seems to have made is to have three seats per row– instead of the more common four-abreast configuration found in many first class cabins on wide-body aircraft.

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These suites were initially introduced by Cathay Pacific in 2007. A mid-life refresh followed in 2013, but the key fundamentals of the seats are unchanged. They are gently angled towards the window and feature plenty of personal space and privacy.

The white leather and dark grey surfaces are well contrasted by walnut finishes.

Eagle-eyed readers will notice the orchids in the holders on the cabin wall. Not quite the Lufthansa first class rose, but certainly a nice touch.

What most people will notice first in Cathay Pacific first class is the width of the seat.

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One of the questions with a super wide seat is whether it is too much (for example Singapore Airlines provide a width-reducing pillow). Well to that we say this – pulling on the tag on the left of the pillowed seating area will bring down an armrest.

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The pillow is literally stuck to the headrest. It works well.

In addition to the overhead ceiling light, there are lights on either side of the sitting area.

There are some buttons to convert the seat into a bed located inside the shell of the seat near the aisle (which makes things easy for the flight attendants).

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There is a touchscreen to adjust the seat. It still sports Cathay Pacific’s old logo, rather than the new logo (which is not radically different in any event).

We did notice that the in-flight entertainment remote is mounted the other way up than would have been logical to read it when in its holder.

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Pre-departure service

Settling into our seat, we were promptly offered a drink. We settled on Champagne Krug.

A glass was set next to our seat. A flight attendant then leaned over to pour a drink.

We found that kind of awkward, and would suggest Cathay Pacific should follow Singapore Airlines lead and have a little silver tray that crew can use to pour drinks at your seat.

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This drink was followed by an amuse bouche. On Cathay Pacific, these can sometimes be really good, and other times not so. On this occasion, we immediately regretted trying it.

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The crew handed us a pair of Bose QC15 headphones. When laid on their side at just the right angle these could fit in the cubby below the IFE remote.

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The crew then handed out pajamas by PYE (once upon a time Cathay Pacific used to have Shanghai Tang, but this brand is nice too). The sleep set also contained an eye-mask (something most airlines put in the amenity kit) and slippers (which were actually western sizes).

This was quickly followed up with an Aesop amenity kit.

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The male kit contained Aesop 15 mL Creme Nut Facial Hydrating Cream and 6 mL Rosehip Seed Lip Cream, along with a toothbrush set, wooden comb, earplugs and glasses cloth. There was a shoehorn listed on the contents card in the amenity kit, but it wasn’t anywhere to be found.

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There are two first class restrooms up front. The one on the left is better. It has a changing table, cloth handtowels and a nifty mixer for water: press hot or cold then press power and get a consistent stream of water. Another button controls the drain.

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There was a rack in both bathrooms of Aesop products: ‘Immediate Moisture Facial Hydrosol’, ‘Geranium Leaf Hand & Body Balm’ and ‘Fabulous Face Cleanser’. We found the face cleanser made for a great soap to wash your hands.

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The flight

Cathay Pacific’s safety video is kind of old and at over six minutes is also quite long (although they do need to get through a few languages). What it lacks in brevity it makes up for in being unobtrusive – contrast Air New Zealand‘s full bore noise extravaganzas).

Only after the safety video did StudioCX, Cathay’s in-flight entertainment system, come to life. That is a bit late in these days of gate-to-gate entertainment systems. After boarding passengers might have liked to flip through the selection and see what they wanted to watch.

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We selected the outside camera mode for the departure. The resolution of the camera isn’t great so it didn’t really add a lot over what you might get looking out the window.

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As we taxied out we passed several United and American planes, including some in the hangar.

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Once in the air, the crew quickly shut the curtains between cabins and started on fixing drinks for the cabin.

Dining

The menus have changed since July 2015 and now have a new design. They used to be glossy, now they are on a more subdued paper with Cathay’s new logo and prominently listing the month on the cover.

It was presented on a little reading board.

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A stewardess came around and welcomed us on-board again. We noticed a high level of use of passenger names through the meal service – a hallmark of excellent service.

The stewardess mentioned that we could dine on demand and then did her best to push us into having a meal right now without making it seem like it.

While dine on demand is a nice idea, we tend to find that on every airline apart from on Etihad crews always try to push you into eating at a schedule that suits them. In any event, we were hungry at the start of this flight, so we took the meal then as suggested.

Pushing back against that isn’t always a good idea: we’ve found on some flights with other airlines that they don’t have the food you wanted later. A particular experience sticks in the mind of a Virgin America flight from Los Angeles to Boston in first class, we’d specifically ordered and asked for one option to be saved (as the other didn’t have any meat) – only to be told two hours out of Boston that only the vegetarian option was available.

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This was quickly followed up by the table being laid. We thought this was too early at first (some airlines certainly do like to lay your table a long time before you need it, but this is more a business class problem), but the caviar was right out.

A nice touch on Cathay Pacific is a little handwritten welcome card from the crew that is presented with the meal. In a nice touch, some crews use their pre-departure interactions to gather information on why the passenger is traveling in order to customise the note.

There were two glasses that looked like wine glasses placed (and we weren’t even drinking still wine). It turns out one is for water.

The caviar is presented in a tin, and we’d asked for it to be served with blini.

They have the mother of pearl spoon so you could just spoon it straight from the tin into your mouth, but we do like to savour caviar. We used the call bell and asked for three more blini, which were brought right out.

This was an excellent start to the meal service.

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This was followed by a ham and cauliflower soup. This was actually really good and certainly much better than it sounded on the menu.

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As we flew over Taiwan, we finished up on our soup and whacked the call-bell. A simple gesture as if to say take this away and it was done.

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The soup was followed by a mixed salad, grilled cajun prawn, sliced portabello and balsamic vinaigrette. As you might expect, the salad dressing was particularly tart. We thought they’d gone a bit overboard on the peppers. There was just too much going on in this salad.

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You don’t make friends with salad

We were never offered any refill of the bread basket, but that was not necessarily a bad thing.

By this point of the meal, we’d pulled the entertainment screen from its mounting so that it was directly in front of our table.

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While there didn’t seem to be anything particularly impressive on the wine list (compare to Singapore Airlines which serve Penfolds’ excellent RWT up front), we switched to red wine with the steak.

We had a Syrah: Delas Cornas ‘Chante-Pedrix’ 2012. Rhône Valley wines are Cathay’s wine promotion for the month (as they were in July). It was a relatively intense drop.

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We had the grilled ‘USDA certified’ Angus striploin as a main. It certainly very large and flavourful. Unfortunately, the meat was quite tough and chewy.

We did wonder whether a smaller piece of higher quality meat might have made sense for the first class menu. This was reinforced when the stewardess made small talk about how we did a good job in getting through so much of it: “you know, usually it just kind of goes to waste”.

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The other main options on the menu were a chicken breast or a pasta (truffle tagliolini). Cathay don’t have a great reputation for their pasta, but in fairness we didn’t try this one.

We certainly did follow the received wisdom of flying Cathay Pacific, which is to use the call bell early and often. Every plate, as soon as we were finished: bang, call bell. This is a stark contrast to the mentality on Singapore Airlines, where they almost look offended if you use the call bell.

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Sleep

After dinner, we went to the lavatory to freshen up and came back to find a towel and assorted chocolates.

With the seat reclined into the bed position, the power outlet is kind of in the way as when sleeping it is easy to knock if you have one of those adapters that stick out (which is like every computer and phone charger these days it seems). Qantas (among others) also have an unfortunately positioned power outlet in their first class cabins, so this is just a general observation about aircraft seat design.

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We are constantly in search of the perfect bed in the sky (and in our minds that would be pretty close to an actual bed from the ground just flopped down in the cabin). Cathay Pacific have done a great job in first class.

These seats have been around a long time. Was Cathay Pacific the first airline to come up with a great sleeping surface in the air? Certainly it has lasted the test of time.

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The mattress pad the crew put down isn’t very thick but it still makes for a comfortable bed. After all, the cushions below are already very comfortable.

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There is lots of width for the upper body. Worth noting that the width at the top is strangely shaped as you have a kink for the fold down armrest. We slept extremely well.

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As we’ve found on Etihad and other airlines, the seat controls are awfully bright when the cabin is dark. A dimmer switch would be handy.

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We slept a solid eight hours and woke up feeling great. A good night’s sleep is really where this flight stood out for us.

Snack

It had been a while since lunch so we ordered the grilled Australian prime grain fed beef burger with Swiss cheese and pickled gherkin.

It took a bit of back and forth to get the steward to understand that we wanted to eat in 1A (which was empty), and then lie down again in our seat 2A afterwards.

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The burger took about ten minutes to arrive. It had an excellent beef patty. It would have been good to have more than just lettuce and gherkin on it maybe.

The potato crisps next to the burger is kind of odd to an Australian (but something that wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in the United States).

Arrival

We dozed for a bit. The crew didn’t proactive offer us anything from the breakfast menu, correctly surmising that we didn’t actually want breakfast anyway.

We went off to get changed and came back to our seat already set up for landing.

Before long, we’d passed over San Francisco and were lining up to land in Los Angeles. Just prior to landing, the lead stewardess came around and was very gracious in thanking us for flying Cathay Pacific.

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The best airline is the one that takes you where you want to go.

As we mentioned at the outset, Cathay Pacific don’t offer first class service to Australia. Unless you have a specific need to go to Hong Kong and continue elsewhere, it probably makes more sense to take first class all the way from Australia on another carrier.

We’ve reviewed first class on a number of airlines this year including Japan Airlines (JAL), Qantas, Etihad, Lufthansa, Thai Airways InternationalEmirates and Singapore Airlines. Cathay Pacific is certainly up there among the world’s best.

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