For better and for worse, an embodiment of both “premium” and “economy”
Most passengers on Cathay Pacific’s long and ultra-long haul flights have to cram in to too-tight seats in the backs of the planes for hours upon hours. What miserable fates they have! Fortunately there’s premium economy, which serves as a pain-easing option for some. You’ll pay more for such relief, sure, but at least the increased comfort comes in the form of a generously-pitched and padded recliner, and what the airline claims to be improved meals, and better, more-attentive service. Cathay’s offering is no bargain though; it costs more cash than a modestly-priced upsell, and so the return on investment should be abundantly apparent all the time. That’s regrettably not always the case.
Premium economy’s appeal is, generally speaking, easy to understand: those who would ordinarily fly in regular economy can enjoy a markedly improved passenger experience without breaking the bank (you can learn more about the differences by clicking here: “What’s the difference between Economy Plus and Premium Economy?”). That’s not to say that premium economy is cheap, but you can reasonably expect the difference between it and regular economy to be marginal (whereas business costs exponentially more than both of them). In practice, you’ll usually be on the hook for a few hundred dollars extra at most should you choose to upgrade. On Cathay Pacific between Hong Kong and Bangkok however — which is the route I flew — the carrier eschews this typical pricing model. Specifically, at the time of this writing, Cathay’s base fare between the two cities on any given day is about $267.
Premium Economy meanwhile costs a whopping $693, which is nearly three times as much! This calculation is important because it sets the standard for value; is the 259 percent premium over a regular economy ticket worth it on a three hour flight? Would it be worth it on a longer flight? Only you can answer that, and it depends on how much you value the features and perks.
While paying cash here probably doesn’t represent a good deal, redeeming points for Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy does. Cathay’s own Asia Miles would seem like the logical and obvious currency to use, but for a short haul flight like this one, British Airways’s Avios are optimal. My one way ticket cost 12,500 Avios plus $49.78 in carrier surcharges, compared to the 18,000 points (and $49.78) that Asia Miles would’ve charged.
For what it’s worth, British Airways requires 7,500 Avios for this route in regular economy, Cathay requires 10,000 Asia Miles, and both attach the same fees. The respective 5,000 and 8,000 point premiums are both more in-line with the typical pricing model AND they are more reasonable than the 259% cash premiums. Anyway, per The Higher Flyer‘s valuation of 1.3 cents per Avio, this particular redemption is the dollar equivalent of about $165. That’s good for roughly 4.4 cents per mile if you factor in the extra $49.78 (or 5.5 CPM if you don’t). Either is a pretty decent value, especially for premium economy!
Cathay Pacific doesn’t offer any VIP ground services with its Premium Economy fares — there’s no inherent lounge access and the like — but there are a few perks, like dedicated check-in counters and a “priority” spot in the boarding order (in the sense that you’re ahead of everyone in regular economy). Moreover, if you hold status with Cathay or with any of its partners, you get all of the benefits that you’re ordinarily entitled to. So, your ticket won’t get you in to a business or first class lounge, but your (oneworld Sapphire or Emerald) loyalty card can still grant you access.
On this day, Hong Kong Airport was crowded but otherwise running smoothly. With a scheduled departure time of 8am, my boarding pass indicated that passengers should be at the gate by 7:20am and absolutely no later than 7:45am. The agent working asked everyone to line up according to their classes of service and/or elite status at 7:25am; first with oneworld Emerald members at the front, then business class and oneworld Sapphire members off to the left, premium economy and oneworld Ruby straight back, and economy off to the right. Boarding commenced shortly thereafter and went in that order. There were a lot of people to process, but everything went off without a hitch thanks to the well-organized process.
The gate was directly across from Cathay Pacific’s excellent first class lounge “The Wing,” so I waited there (thanks to my AA Executive Platinum status) until the crowds had cleared out a little bit. At 7:40, there were still a lot of people yet to board, but the priority line was clear; that was my time!
It was a beautiful morning in Hong Kong, just perfect for flying.
Cathay Pacific CX 705
Hong Kong International (HKG) – Bangkok Suvarnabhumi (BKK)
Scheduled Departure: 8:00 (8:47 wheels up)
Scheduled Arrival: 10:00 (10:11 wheels down)
Aircraft: Airbus A350-1000
I was the last Premium Economy passenger to board, and my first impression was influenced in part by a very light load factor. There are 32 seats on board Cathay’s A350-1000 — spread out over four rows in a 2-4-2 configuration — and only ten of them were occupied. Aside from those traveling in pairs, everyone (amazingly) had an empty neighboring seat. This made for an especially private experience, although it’s clear that on longer, fuller flights, this particular setup would still be sufficiently comfortable. Staggered blocks of seats ensure that you won’t ever have to sit shoulder-to-shoulder with seven other people, and bulkheads create a sense of exclusivity while limiting foot traffic (passengers in regular economy aren’t allowed to walk through this section of the plane after it pushes back).
Beyond that, Airbus A350s are renowned for their high ceilings — they make the plane feel more spacious than they are — and Cathay Pacific chose sharp-yet-understated cabin appointments. The white, silver, and dark green color palette looks handsome without being overbearing, and the seats themselves look clean and “professional.” One could even say they look like furnishings you’d find in dentists’ offices, which, depending on your own past experiences at them, may or may not be a good thing.
I had chosen seat 30A, a bulkhead, for the prospect of “unlimited” legroom. While there was plenty of space to spread out — I couldn’t touch the forward wall with my feet and I’m well over six feet tall — the touch-controlled in flight entertainment system is impossibly far away. That’s just a small price to pay for the convenience of being in the front though.
The other rows offer about 40 inches of pitch (as per SeatGuru), which is well above the industry average of 38. That two inch difference isn’t negligible, but it’s not enough to make you not notice when the passengers in front recline. If you’re not seated on the aisle, it can be challenging to stand up and get out, but you at least won’t have someone intruding on your personal space that much either.
The seats themselves are, from armrest to armrest, 20 inches wide, and are designed to ensure passenger comfort for the longest of long flights. For one, their padding is exceptional. The cushions are firm, but they’re not hard like a bed of rocks either; they’re supportive in key areas, like around your core, your lower back, and under/behind your knees.
More importantly, these seats can recline really far back. Of course this is relative to other premium economy products — and this won’t ever be mistaken for an angle lie-flat in business class — but Cathay’s offering is excellent and among the industry leaders. Couple that with a sturdy leg and footrest and you have yourself a chair that is as good for sleeping as it is for lounging and working. Do note that the footrest might have limited use for taller passengers. I found that even when it was fully extended it was still too short for me. That’s okay though because there’s still so much to like and appreciate here.
As is common with most contemporary airline seats, there are adjustable headrests in Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy. They slide up and down and can bend/fold inward in order to support passengers’ noggins. It’s a feature that’s not as dramatic nor as glamorous as a steep and generous recline, but they’re important and useful nevertheless, especially when it comes time to sleep.
The controls for many of these functions are off to the “inside” part of the seat on the armrest shared with your neighbor. There’s also a storage nook that’s secure, relatively easy to access, and big enough to hold an iPad and/or a travel wallet towards the back.
There’s also a remote for the in flight entertainment system and a headphone jack on opposite ends of the controls. Up top, there’s a surface area that can be used to keep a drink, in addition to another mini-table that swings outwards.
There are shared power outlets on the front-facing side of the shared armrest. Each passenger is allocated a USB port and a universal plug, and you can easily access both of them while you sit in your seat (as opposed to some that are tucked far away and inconveniently out of reach). Furthermore, both of mine ably delivered juice to my iPad and phone, but as is the case with anything on an airplane, your own results may vary.
The opposite armrest isn’t as structurally impressive as its counterpart — it’s quite narrow — but it at least it has a tastefully-appointed fake-leather cover and, functionally speaking, it houses the all-important tray table.
This particular set up is rather common in contemporary premium economy and North American first class seats, but it’s not unusual to see people struggling to operate it. You need to flip the top of the armrest upward, and then pull a switch to spring-release the table. The trigger is centrally-located but small, so keep your eyes peeled for it. From there on, the rest of the process is pretty obvious.
The tray table itself is nothing out of the ordinary. It keeps the tastefully subtle faux wood grain that’s seen on some of the seat’s other surfaces, and it fits in well with the cabin’s overall design. Beyond that though, the table is stable, it can fold in half, and it can slide in and out… just like any other good, versatile tray table (in premium economy). What more could you want?
For those who appreciate a well-lit environment, Cathay Pacific offers two built-in sources of light for its premium economy passengers. There’s a reading lamp tucked in to the headrest…
…In addition to the standard overhead “spotlights.”
If those two aren’t sufficiently illuminating for you, A350s are also renowned for their huge windows. During daytime flights, you’ll be treated to expansive views and plenty more light.
The boarding process wrapped up smoothly — the gate agents were able to get us all loaded up prior to our 8:00am departure time — but the pilot, “Captain Tim from London” (as he introduced himself), announced that there was both a mechanical issue with the plane and a lot of other airport traffic. He assured us though that even though it was rush hour, fix would be quick and we would get back on “sched-jewel” in no time. Indeed, we were wheels up 47 minutes later and we landed in Bangkok 11 minutes after our planned arrival. That’s annoying for sure, but it ultimately amounts to minimal damage.
Cathay Pacific makes its in flight entertainment systems functional on the ground, so passengers were able to peruse the comprehensive selection while we all waited. The delay was a lot more bearable than it otherwise would have been, so kudos, Cathay. Thanks for that!
Each premium economy seat is equipped with a 10.6 inch touchscreen monitor. That’s a nicely-sized display, but for those in the bulkheads — where the screens are mounted on the forward walls and there’s “unlimited” legroom — they appear smaller than they really are. They’re nearly impossible to operate by hand because they’re so far away, but there are individual remote controls that can be used instead. Passengers sitting in subsequent rows can use either input method, as their systems are built in to the forward seats and are much easier to reach.
The IFE system itself is zippy and jam-packed with content, but the menu system is a little bit cluttered. Each item is laid out in a seemingly-random mosaic pattern, and while it’s aesthetically pleasing to look at, actually finding something specific can be a bit challenging.
If you can get past all the organizational headaches, you’ll find an ample selection of movies (hundreds of them), pre-recorded shows (dozens of them each with several episodes), and live television channels (around 10 of them).
There’s also plenty of audio to listen to, but like everything else, what’s available can be difficult to navigate. There are playlists to steer you in the right directions, but beyond those, you can’t sort by content type, genre, by artist, or by album. So, you’re sure to find something agreeable for your tastes, but good luck searching for it!
The IFE onboard Cathay’s A350s in effect consist of personal tablets permanently affixed to seats. A lot of the content is streamed remotely to each device, but some of it, like games and apps, are stored locally on each hard drive. Accordingly, there’s a selection of stuff that you might also find on an iPad, including “classics” such as 2048, Angry Birds, and Bejeweled. Better yet, these are all ordered alphabetically!
Cathay Pacific has also elected to offer an RSS feed that synthesizes brief news articles and streams them from the world to the plane. Sources include the Associated Press and the New York Times, as well as the South China Morning Post and the Hong Kong Economic Times, among many others. Some of the published headlines may prove controversial with some of the airline’s clientele though…
There’s also an individually wrapped copy of Cathay’s inflight magazine, Discovery, if you prefer reading something in print.
Like on many other good, profit-seeking airlines, Cathay’s premium economy passengers can shop for duty free by way of the screens at their seats. None of the goods for sale are organized though, so if you’re looking to buy something, you’ll be reduced to the digital equivalent of aimlessly browsing. Oh well.
It’s not glamorous, but one of the best features of the in flight entertainment system is a detailed, highly-customizable moving map. It’s great for curious flyers!
For the avgeeks in particular, Cathay’s A350s have two cameras: one mounted on the tail and the other affixed to the plane’s underbelly. The feed quality is pretty good — but it’s not high definition — and they’re satisfying and, at times, interesting.
Anyway, there’s more than enough entertainment to keep anyone from boredom, even for those traveling on Cathay’s much longer flights. For a short hop from Hong Kong to Bangkok, a selection like this feels like borderline overkill… but I’m not complaining!
During the delay, the purser on board, Karen, came through the premium economy cabin to offer noise cancelling headphones to each passenger. It’s hard to be definitively sure of this, but it seems like Cathay issues “white-label” Bose headsets. It sure looks and sounds like it; these are superb in terms of build quality and audio fidelity.
Investments like this one in to the passenger experience are definitely appreciated — on an ultra-longhaul route like Hong Kong to Washington, DC, which is Cathay’s longest, these cans would be a godsend — but they stand in stark contrast to other cuts that the airline has been making recently. I get that minimizing expenses has been a corporate priority for the past few years, but hearing the flight attendant ask you: “We have a limited number of pillows and blankets onboard, would you like one of either?” is rather jarring. That’s not becoming of a premium product that charges a not-insignificant upcharge over regular economy, and such stinginess is disappointing.
In that same vein, Cathay also promises a predeparture beverage and an amenity kit on its website, but they were both nowhere to be found on my flight. Regarding the booze, that’s remarkably lame — would it kill them to serve some cheap champagne and/or orange juice? — but let’s be honest about the toiletries and whatnot: no one needs a toothbrush and pack of moisturizing creams on a two-ish hour regional hop. Perhaps too the experience is different on longer flights. Maybe you’re bequeathed with amenities and alcohol during six hour, 10 hour, or 15 hour long journeys. On those, the need for comfort items is a lot more obvious than on a route that’s the equivalent distance of flying from New York to Miami.
Anyway, at 8:30am — 30 minutes after our scheduled departure time — we pushed back and began to taxi for takeoff.
I wanted to watch the activity on the tail cam, but the live feed was soon interrupted by a safety video that played in English and in Cantonese.
By the time the bilingual screening concluded, we were in line for the runway. Then, at 8:45, we were pulling onward and were cleared for takeoff.
We were wheels up at 8:47am, and those on the port/left side of the plane (like me) were treated to great views of the Chek Lap Kok infield.
It was a beautiful, albeit kinda hazy, morning in Hong Kong. The city down below looked stunning as we flew above Hong Kong Island and Kowloon, as well as a buzzing Victoria Harbour. The IFE content available was good, but these urban vistas were both more memorable and more entertaining.
As we climbed to our cruising altitude and turned southwest towards Bangkok, Shera, the cabin manager, came by to introduce herself and thank me for being a loyal oneworld Emerald member. “Thank you for flying with us again,” she said, before asking “Which airline is your ‘home’ airline?” “AA,” I responded. “How lucky American must be to have you as an Executive Platinum member!” I don’t typically put a lot of stock in elite recognition, but this hospitality truly was a step above and beyond; it put a smile on my face! American’s flight attendants don’t go this far to make their own AAdvantage status holders feel so welcome, and Shera’s greeting left a strong, genuinely positive impression.
If the personalized “welcome aboard” marked the beginning of the in flight service, it also, unfortunately, was the pinnacle of it. There were two flight attendants assigned to the premium economy cabin, and they also appeared to be partially responsible for the first few rows of regular economy as well. Being forced to “dual-hat” is another sign of a slashed budget, and in practice this meant that the duo always seemed to be spread a bit too thinly. Not only were they up and about for almost the entire time between ascent and descent, but it took them some time to offer refills, clear trays, and respond to individual requests. It still remains unclear whose fault these gaps in service are: Cathay, for understaffing its premium cabins, or its crew members, for not being up to the rigors of staffing premium cabins. Because the latter was consistently hustling nonstop, I’m inclined to say the former. Another set of hands would’ve made a huge difference.
At around the 25 minute mark, the two started serving breakfast from (a) food and beverage cart(s). Phyllis, who worked the aisle closer to me, presented everyone with the choice of a western omelette or congee. I was unsure of what to pick, so she suggested the eggs. “Most Americans don’t like the congee because it’s too bland” she warned — that’s a fair point — but then again, when in Asia…
So, congee it was! Aside from a cup of apple juice and a mug of coffee, everything was served on a single tray. The meal, in short, was much more “economy” than it was “premium,” and that showed from the very beginning. The presentation, consisting heavily of tinfoil and plastic wrap, was underwhelming. The food underneath the “protective covering” was equally uninspiring.
The breakfast itself was fine — the congee was warm and the fruit was chilled and the coffee was caffeinated, although any sort of discernible flavor was lacking — but there’s no way that any of this could ever be considered premium. This and the omelette were utilitarian meals through and through and, as a matter of fact, the exact same things were served to those seated further back. On its website, Cathay advertises improved dining compared to regular economy, but c’mon, you at least gotta do something to make the supposedly-upgraded experience feel more exclusive. The plastic utensils just add insult to injury!
Likewise, literal cups of water are common in Asia (in the same way that cups of yogurt are in the United States), but being served a three ounce “spritzer” in premium economy is irritating. Yes, this is the epitome of a first world problem, but if U.S. carriers can use (plastic) glassware in regular economy, couldn’t Cathay at least do the same?
While the breakfast ultimately did its job — it was filling and nutritious — Cathay failed to deliver on its promise of providing an upgraded dining experience to premium economy passengers. That in and of itself isn’t too terrible of a crime, but considering that the airline charged an additional $436 over the regular economy fare on this particular route, good enough isn’t enough. There’s no excuse for simply slapping down a basic meal and then calling it a day, and the same goes for parading on-demand amenities like pillows and blankets. If Cathay wants to charge as much as it does for premium economy, it needs to offer a legitimately premium soft product. As it stands now, the seat is good, the service too, but too much of everything else lags behind.
The dedicated premium economy lavatories are emblematic of how the soft product could be married with an already strong hard product elsewhere in the cabin. The bathroom itself is clean, decently spacious, and, thanks to its bright white countertops and vanity mirror lights, it looks sharp.
In terms of toiletries, you’re not going to get anything here like you would in a business class cabin, but that’s to be expected and Cathay at least still gives you something to work with. There are a couple of high quality moisturizing creams available in addition to a lovely smelling bottle of soap. That’s definitely an “above average” offering and it’s more than what you might see elsewhere in the skies. This is a good setup that’s appropriate for premium economy class, and maintaining it won’t break the carrier’s budget either. Perhaps it could be scaled outward…?
Anyway, the meal service itself took about an hour from start to finish, but that’s because it took the flight attendants about 45 minutes to start clearing trays. In a cabin that was only about a third full, that’s an unacceptable amount of time to wait. Then again though, the crew seemed to be critically understaffed so they can only be faulted so much. Once everything was clear, the flight attendants only appeared to respond to personal service calls; they never once offered refills or a secondary drink service. An extra staff member would remedy all of this, but perhaps Cathay can’t afford that…
There wasn’t a lot of foot traffic during the rest of the flight, and that accordingly made the remainder of it a very pleasant time. This was in one part due to the (unintentionally?) unattentive service — there’s a silver lining for everything! — and another part due to the low load factor in an already small cabin. I spread out and spent the rest of the trip switching between a United States presidential debate airing live on CNN and, when things got too heated between the candidates, the tail cam. One program was zen and the other was entertaining. I’ll let you guess which was which, but know that the experience as a whole was quite relaxing.
Right after the two hour mark, Captain Tim came on the PA system with the news that we were thirty minutes from Bangkok — that announcement is a Cathay Pacific tradition — and we would be starting our descent in a few moments. He gave a detailed primer of what to expect: we would fly to the south over the Gulf of Thailand and then make a 180-degree turn to the north before heading straight in to Suvarnabhumi Airport. Soon and sure enough, the Thai coast came in to view maybe ten minutes before wheels down.
It’s during taxi, takeoff, and landing that the plane’s exterior cameras make for (potentially) compelling entertainment. As we were close to finishing off our gradual descent, the landing gear was deployed and the runway came in to view. All of this was visible from the “underbelly” cam, and it was a neat series of events to see.
We finally touched down in Bangkok at 10:11am local time, two hours and 24 minutes after wheels up in Hong Kong. Moreover, that was only 11 minutes after we were originally scheduled to arrive, so the 47 minute delay on the other end was mostly negated.
Emphasis on the ‘mostly,’ as we proceeded to go on a stupidly long taxi at a pace that could best be described as “leisurely.” At least we got a tour of the new terminal that’s being built at Suvarnabhumi, as well as some interesting air traffic.
Roughly 15 minutes after landing we pulled in next to a brand-spanking new Eva Air Dreamliner.
Then, at 10:30am exactly and a half hour late, the jet bridge had been extended and it was time to say good bye. While there were frustrating moments over the past couple hours, bidding farewell to a beaming crew is a perfect ending to leave you with a smile to match.
There’s a clear and obvious dichotomy at play when you fly Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy. The hard product is excellent, with wide, spacious recliners that are padded perfectly. The soft product, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. There’s nothing wrong with this per se — Lord knows that you’re not going to eat well on some other airlines either — but if Cathay wants to charge as much as it does for premium economy, it needs to bring the goods beyond a big seat. Then again, on long flights, that added personal space could be worth the upcharge; it just depends on what your needs are. If you value comfort and nothing else, you’ll like what Cathay has to offer. If you want a luxurious-yet-affordable passenger experience, look elsewhere.
The good, the bad, the ugly of Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy
- The Good
- The seat exceeds expectations. It’s one of the most comfortable and practical premium economy seats in the skies.
- The cabin was spacious-yet-intimate, and it looked good too!
- There’s more than enough entertainment available for much longer flights.
- The Bad
- The soft product was much closer to the “economy” side…
- …And the food was identical to what was served in economy class.
- Cathay’s budget cuts are made obvious by the lack of a predeparture beverage and amenity kit.
- The Ugly
- The service was hit or miss, and the flight attendants assigned to the premium economy cabin could best be characterized as “polite but spread thin.”
- The delay leaving Hong Kong was brutal — I just wanted to get to Bangkok!! — but not terribly long in the grand scheme of things. It’s still frustrating though…
Have you flown in Premium Economy on Cathay Pacific before? What are your thoughts?