Experiencing the pinnacle of Cathay Pacific service: a look at first class from Hong Kong to New York

Cathay Pacific may have lost some of its prestige to luxury carriers from the Middle East, but it hasn't lost its touch.
Cam MacMurchy

Truth be told, this wasn’t supposed to happen. Hong Kong has been beset by protests and and unrest all summer, adding more uncertainty to a city already filled with anxiety. It was time to get out of the mayhem and take a break. I spent some time looking for seat availability using points and was shocked to uncover a business class ticket to New York City for just 85,000 Asia Miles. I’m in.

I didn’t know it at the time, but those 85,000 miles were going to get me a lot more than I anticipated. When I got to the gate, the Cathay Pacific gate agent scanned my boarding pass and the machine beeped. She looked up and shuffled through some boarding passes on the counter, then grabbed one and handed it to me: “You’ve been upgraded,” she said with a smile.

I travel a lot, and I’ve been upgraded a handful of times to premium economy or business class — but never to first. I have long wanted to give it a try, but it never made much sense: overseas business class on most airlines is plenty comfortable, and the food is about as good as you’ll get anyway. So why pay so much more, in cash or rewards points?

But who am I kidding — of course I was pumped when she passed me that new boarding pass, because this isn’t just any old first class seat. It’s the Hong Kong to New York flight — the flagship route on Cathay Pacific. It’s the pinnacle of what Cathay Pacific offers its guests, and something I may never experience again.

The first class experience

Cathay flies a 777-ER between New York and Hong Kong, with a 1-1-1 configuration in first class. There are just six seats — ahem, “suites” in Cathay’s parlance — right at the front of the aircraft. Back in business class (I love saying that) Cathay uses a 1-2-1 configuration. Each first class suite is about double the size of a business class seat.

There is no stepping over passengers and squeezing into this seat. Everything is extended and spread out, with plenty of table space, a private closet, storage, and a physical seat that is wide enough to leave items beside you and never bump into them. The flight attendants offered welcome drinks after I sat down, and being 9am I opted for orange juice.

A unique aspect of first class is the complete lack of overhead bins. The suites are large enough for each one to have its own storage closet, and anything that doesn’t fit in there can slide in under the ottoman. Having no overhead bins really opens up the cabin and makes everything feel more spacious and less crowded.

Each seat has a 17 inch touch-screen monitor for Cathay Pacific’s in-flight entertainment (IFE) system. I almost never use the in-flight entertainment anymore, instead filling up my iPad with magazines and podcasts before boarding. I wasn’t going to break routine on this flight, so my first act after sitting down was to switch off my monitor. (I obviously can’t review Cathay’s entertainment offering as a result, but I hear it’s pretty good!)

Underneath the monitor was a very spacious storage compartment where I put my Cathay-issued noise-cancelling Bose headphones, amenity kit for males, and other items like my boarding pass and passport.

It seems obvious, but one thing I really enjoy about flying in premium cabins is the table space, and this suite is no exception. There is plenty of room for a bottle of water, coffee, iPad, Kindle, a travel wallet, and any other reading material that I would want to keep close by during the flight. There’s even a hidden little compartment for valuables.

Caviar and champagne

After I put away my luggage and got comfortable, the fight attendant came over carrying two navy blue garment bags and asked me if I would like the pajamas in medium or large. This being Asia, and me being from North America, “large” was the much safer bet.

Then another flight attendant passed me the menu: we would get lunch and dinner on the flight, with a few options for the on-demand snack service. Full on-demand dining has been attempted by several airlines, often with mixed results. It’s a nice perk, but it’s not a deal breaker. Plus, on-demand dining is a lot more work for flight attendants.

I looked at the menu but, as usual, had no plans to eat right after takeoff. I’m a bit peculiar on flights because I would rather eat before boarding to leave more room to spread out and relax, read, or do some work. Sometimes busy flight attendants can leave empty trays on the table for extended periods of time, which has always been a minor nuisance to me.

I had grabbed a croissant and coffee in the lounge earlier, so I told the flight attendant I’d be happy with one of their signature Cathay Pacific drinks once we reached cruising altitude. Cathay actually has a track record of some pretty delicious signature cocktails and non-alcoholic drinks, and rare is the day that I don’t enjoy one. The flight attendant told me the signature cocktail for the flight would be the Pacific Sunrise, a combination of champagne and Drambuie with a hint of orange and lemon. The non-alcoholic option was the Cathay Delight: a kiwi fruit-based drink with coconut milk and a touch of fresh mint. That’s the one I picked (remember it’s 9:30am, people).

When the Cathay Delight arrived it was even better than I expected, with a consistency more like a smoothie than a juice. As I enjoyed the beverage I thought of an article penned by Lucky, the eccentric personality behind the popular travel hacking site One Mile at a Time, about the more mundane parts of his job reviewing airlines — and one of them was ordering food for the sole purpose of writing about it, even when he wasn’t hungry. So, dear reader, in the spirit of a full and complete examination of Cathay’s first class offering, I decided to suck it up, take one for the team, and make the ultimate sacrifice: I ordered the king prawns. You’re welcome.

I’ll discuss the prawns in a moment because there were plenty of other dishes lined up first, and one of them stole the show: caviar and champagne. I am not a regular caviar consumer (is anyone?), but I developed a strong appreciation for it during a stay in St. Petersburg, Russia, a couple of years ago. Caviar can also be hit-or-miss, but this was a massive hit — a home run. Cathay serves Calvisius caviar, which comes from Italy, served with the traditional garnishes of blinis, chives, creme fraische, and chopped eggs. The flight attendant also poured a flute of Krug 2004, a rare treat. This dish alone made me grateful that I decided to order lunch.

Next up was a tomato, orange and basil soup, which was good if not particularly noteworthy. It was followed by a vitello tonnato with truffle mascarpone cheese, a dish I suspect you might not be familiar with. Here’s what our good friends over at Wikipedia have to say:

…a Piedmontese (Italian) dish of cold, sliced veal covered with a creamy, mayonnaise-like sauce that has been flavored with tuna. It is served chilled or at room temperature, generally in the summertime, as the main course of an Italian meal or as “an exceedingly elegant antipasto for an elaborate dinner.”

This was probably my least my favorite dish during the meal, and definitely the least flavorful. I left enough of it behind to concern the flight attendant, who asked me if there was any problem. I replied that it was fine, but was saving room for the entree. (Hey, it’s partly true.)

Now to the main course: the king prawns arrived having been pan-fried and served with lemon herb garlic butter, asparagus, and millet. Putting lemon herb garlic butter on anything makes it better, so it’s no surprise the prawns were magnificent. The dish was also noteworthy because it wasn’t heavy, which can sometimes happen when “fried” and “butter” come together.

If the caviar was the star of the show, the runner-up was the dessert: a pumpkin coconut sweet soup. Hong Kong is known for almond tea and coconut or sesame desserts, so I expected something like that — but this was different. Unfortunately the flight attendant brought it over just before some fairly severe turbulence, so a lot of it ended up spilling onto the table. The parts that made it into my mouth, though, were absolutely excellent: it was sweet but not too sweet, not too heavy, and it’s coconut and pumpkin. Need I say more?

The most comfortable bed in the sky

I only got around three hours of sleep the night before, so after filling my face I was ready for a nap. I told the flight attendant I would probably nap a bit later — envisioning reading for a bit with the seat comfortably reclined — but she jumped to attention at the word “nap”, darting into the galley and coming back with a mattress pad. I stood to the side as she transformed my seat into a beautiful, cozy-looking bed.

This is one of the more notable differences between business class and first. Business class has lie-flat seats, but they are quite narrow without a lot of room to maneuver. The first class bed was much wider, longer, more comfortable, and the bedding was top tier. In short, this was basically better than any bed I slept in until I was about 35.

Being first class, the pampering couldn’t stop with just the mattress pad. Passengers flying long haul are also given pajamas — and not just any pajamas. I’ve been fortunate to have traveled enough to actually compare pajama offerings by major airlines, and Cathay beats American, Etihad, and United hands down. These are made with 100% pure cotton and come from a stylish, boutique fashion shop in Hong Kong called PYE. But don’t be calling them “pajamas”; Cathay and PYE are proud to offer “sleep suits”. Here’s a description from PYE’s website:

The sleep top, featuring a double sided collar, can be worn either up as a Mandarin collar or down in a classic pajama style. A single button sewn with a bright red thread adds a subtle signature to this special co-branded product. The sleep suit also comes with a pair of matching slippers and an eye mask, packaged in a variation of PYE’s reusable tote bags.

Decked out in my “sleep suit”, exhausted and with a full stomach, I fell asleep almost instantly after my head touched the pillow. There would be no reading. I slept for about five hours, waking up periodically by some turbulence along the way.

Post-nap munchies

When I woke up I was extremely hungry. I saw the flight attendants had left behind a box of pralines and bottle of Evian, but I figured now was a good time to try the snack service. My heart was set on the hamburger purely for novelty’s sake, but I have had it before so wanted to try something new. My options included roast duck with lai fun noodle soup, shrimp and fishball laksa (this was tempting), and Movenpick ice cream. I opted for the afternoon tea set and a latte.

This is a good spot to mention Cathay’s coffee service, which has been on point for a while now. Their lattes and cappuccinos are much better than one would expect, if not quite at the level rivaling the best boutique coffee shops. I remember the days of re-heated black tar on board aircraft, so almost anything is an upgrade on that.

The tea set was basic but hit the spot. The scone and clotted cream with strawberry jam were excellent, while the key lime cheesecake and savory options were just okay. I didn’t want to eat too much because dinner service would begin in a couple of hours. As I nibbled on mini cakes I hauled out the iPad Pro and began writing this review, making use of all of the available table space.

Descent into New York City

There was still about six or seven hours to go, so I went back to sleep. This time I regret to report that I selfishly slept right through the dinner service. Here’s what I missed:

  • Starter: Seasonal fresh fruits
  • Main Courses (choice of):
    • Pan fried black cod, asparagus, shimeiji mushroom, capsicum, carrot mash and parsley cream sauce
    • Stir fried chicken, black beans, broccoli and steamed jasmine rice
    • Tagliolini, porcini and Kalamata olives
  • Dessert: Key lime cheesecake and mixed berry compote

If I was awake at the time, I probably would’ve opted for the cod.

It was a flight attendant who eventually nudged me awake to inform me that we’d be landing in New York soon. The shades were being opened and it looked like a spectacular day with blue skies and sunshine.

Having just woken up, I asked the flight attendant if I could bother her for one more latte. She glanced at her watch and looked a bit nervous, as we were getting closer and closer to landing. To her credit, and my great appreciation, she agreed and brought me back a hot latte shortly thereafter. It hit the spot as I gazed out the window.

Before wrapping this up I should also mention the amenity kit. Cathay Pacific has teamed up with Aesop to give customers a male or female travel kit (I guess Cathay didn’t get the memo). The male kit contained the usual items: toothbrush, toothpaste, mouth wash, comb, moisturizer, disposable razor, shaving cream, that kind of thing. I don’t think it was missing anything and appreciate the kit as a perk in first class, but it also didn’t stand out either. It was one of the few items on the flight that was run-of-the-mill — good, just not great. The problem is good stands out when everything else is great.

Wrapping up

I mentioned at the beginning of this post that I didn’t see enough value in first class to justify the cost – in points, miles, or cash – when business class is already so comfortable. That still holds true today, and it’s partially why this flight was so special: it may never happen for me again. It was a glimpse into a different world, with different service standards, different food, different amenities, different snacks, and even nicer hardware like the Bose headphones and 17 inch touchscreen monitor. It’s a luxurious experience geared towards passengers who don’t think twice about dropping US$20,000 for an airline ticket, but still can’t quite afford to fly on their own Gulfstream.

Cathay Pacific doesn’t have the prestige that it once had, even before it got tangled up in Hong Kong’s summer of protest. But the airline remains one of the best in the world, and service on their Hong Kong-New York route was a good reminder of why. Today’s upstarts from the Middle East and Singapore might have more bling, but Cathay still has that quiet, classy confidence that has served it well over the years. I suspect that will keep many of its customers — at least first class ones — loyal for a long time to come.

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