A Royal (dis)HHonor: Cathay Pacific First Class San Francisco to Hong Kong

Filed Under: Awards, Cathay Pacific

Cathay Pacific 873
San Francisco (SFO) – Hong Kong (HKG)

Saturday, March 23
Depart: 12:05AM
Arrive: 6:00AM (+1 day)
Duration: 14hr55min
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER
Seat: 1K (First Class)

At the door we were greeted by the inflight service manager, Laurena, who pointed us towards our seats. While Cathay Pacific has had their current first class product for years now, it’s still one of the sleekest products out there, in my opinion. I settled into 1K, while my friend settled into 1D.

My seat, 1K

Seat 1D

The seat is extremely wide, and well padded both for sitting and sleeping.

Seat 1K

Seat 1K

To the right of the seat is a storage compartment as well as the entertainment and seat controls.

Entertainment and seat controls

Once settled in the two first class flight attendants, Alou and Kitty, introduced themselves. Alou was Hong Kong based and Filipino, and she was extremely friendly, energetic, and polished. Kitty was San Francisco based, and friendly though a bit more reserved.

One of the things that makes Cathay Pacific unique is that they have crew bases at almost all their destinations. Cathay Pacific has two flights a day between San Francisco and Hong Kong, and last I heard the San Francisco based crews were working the daytime flights in both directions while the Hong Kong based crews were working the redeyes. So I found it quite interesting that there was a “mixed” crew working this flight, consisting of both San Francisco and Hong Kong based flight attendants.

Kitty offered me a pre-departure beverage, and I ordered a glass of Krug.

Pre-departure champagne

Pre-departure champagne

I was also offered Cathay’s “signature” Shanghai Tang pajamas as well as an amenity kit.

Shanghai Tang pajamas

Shanghai Tang pajamas and amenity kit

The amenity kit had Acca Kappa branded toiletries, and while it wasn’t a huge kit, at least the contents were high quality.

Amenity kit contents

Lastly I was offered a hot towel.

Hot towel

As the departure time rolled around, the San Francisco based captain informed us of our longer than usual flight time of 15hr15min, which would put us into Hong Kong about 40 minutes late. The flight is blocked at 14hr55min, so having a flight time 20 minutes over the block time does translate to a sizable delay. In comparison, the Singapore A380 I flew from San Francisco to Hong Kong a couple of months earlier had a flight time of 14hr30min. While the A380 is a bit faster, that’s still a sizable difference.

Anyway, we began our push back right on time and the safety video began to play. For an airline as refined as Cathay Pacific, they sure do have a low budget safety video, in my opinion.

Our taxi to runway 28R took about 15 minutes, and once there we were immediately cleared for takeoff and began one heck of a gradual climb.

View on climb out

As we climbed out I began playing around with the entertainment system, StudioCX. It’s one of the better entertainment systems out there, and I decided to watch “Silver Linings Playbook.”

Entertainment system

Entertainment system

The seatbelt sign was turned off about 15 minutes after takeoff, at which point Laurena made a round through the cabin to welcome each passenger aboard and distribute the menu and wine list.

Menu and wine list

To drink I ordered a glass of Krug as well as a Diet Coke with lemon, which was served with warm almonds.

Krug, Diet Coke, and almonds

At this point the dinner service began. The menu read as follows:

And the wine list read as follows:

One of the cool features of Cathay Pacific first class is that they have a table extender so you can comfortably dine with a companion. We asked them to set that up so we could dine at my seat, which they gladly did.

At that point the table was set, including bread baskets and the standard handwritten “welcome aboard” cards that they give first class passengers.

Table setup

Handwritten card

To start I had the caviar and smoked salmon, both of which were excellent. I wish more airlines would serve both caviar and salmon, so Cathay gets lots of bonus points for that in my book.

Caviar and fine smoked salmon

Then I ordered the salad, which was spectacular. Easily one of the best salads I’ve had on a plane.

Mesclun salad with king crab, tear drop tomatoes, cranberries, and balsamic vinaigrette

Cathay’s western main course options are typically pretty underwhelming, and usually consist of either a pasta dish or a mediocre beef tenderloin. I would’ve gone with something off the Chinese menu, but none of the options sounded especially appealing to me.

So I went with the cannelloni, which was actually one of the better pasta dishes I’ve had on a plane.

Artichoke and cheese cannelloni with tomato sauce and cream sauce

My friend had the beef tenderloin, which he said was average at best.

Prime beef tenderloin with red wine sauce and bearnaise sauce, parsley potatoes, asparagus and baby carrots

For dessert he had the fresh berries, which are always good (I’ve had it many times in the past).

Seasonal fresh berries with cream

Meanwhile I had the bread pudding with vanilla ice cream, which was really good.

Bread and butter pudding with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce

To finish off the meal I had Hong Kong style milk tea, my favorite hot beverage on any airline, perhaps along with the pulled tea on Malaysia Airlines.

Hong Kong style milk tea

I was also offered a hot towel and toothpick at that point.

Hot towel

Kitty did most of the serving while Alou was “in the kitchen,” and while she wasn’t rude, she was also extremely reserved and didn’t smile a whole lot. The pace of service was a bit off as well. We were served courses about five minutes apart even though we were dining together, which I found odd.

That being said, the actual meal service was much better than what Singapore offers on their San Francisco to Hong Kong flight which leaves around the same time.

Anyway, after dinner the cabin lights were dimmed and I requested turndown service.

Dimmed cabin lights

Cathay Pacific may not have the most modern, fully enclosed first class suites, but damnit are they comfortable. Not only is the seat itself very spacious, but the bedding is just phenomenal. The only airline I can think of that has more comfortable bedding in first class is Qantas. So I fell asleep with about 13 hours to go to Hong Kong, and got a solid seven hours of sleep, waking up with about six hours to go to Hong Kong. Usually my strategy on the San Francisco to Hong Kong “redeye” is the opposite — I try to stay up for the first half of the flight and sleep until close to landing given the early morning arrival in Hong Kong, but in this case I was beat, after returning from Europe just a day earlier, and couldn’t keep my eyes open.

Turndown service

Turndown service

So after waking up I kind of “rolled around” in bed for an hour before committing myself to actually fully waking up. By that point we were approaching the coast of Japan.

Airshow approaching Japan

There’s an important point I try to make about Cathay Pacific first class with every trip report, because I think a lot of people don’t understand their first class service mentality. Cathay Pacific is not Singapore Airlines. Their flight attendants aren’t trained to walk through the cabin every five minutes throughout a 15 hour flight to see if you want anything. They won’t try to convince you to have a mid-flight snack as if they’re being paid a commission on every pound of food you eat. They’re reactive and not proactive. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

They want you to push the call button. And when you do push it, they show up within five seconds (literally). Americans are often conditioned not to push the call button, because in the US many flight attendants go so far as to refer to it as an “emergency” call button. At Cathay Pacific I literally picture the flight attendants standing behind the galley curtain praying for someone to push the damn call button so they can do something already. Okay, maybe that’s a bit of a stretch, but the principle is true — if you want something you’re supposed to push the call button, and when you do they’ll show up cheerily within five seconds to get you what you want. This isn’t an airline where the flight attendants roll their eyes when passengers use the call button.

With that point out of the way, I had a look at the snack menu, which read as follows:

I decided to order the wonton noodle soup. Alou appeared within seconds when I pushed the call button and took my order, and returned about 15 minutes later with my snack. I ordered a Diet Coke, though she apologized profusely that they had run out. I don’t really get how that happens halfway through a transpacific flight, but I’m not one of those people that’s just horrified at the prospect of Coke Zero, so it was fine by me.

The wonton noodle soup was excellent, and I almost wished I had ordered that as my main course for dinner.

Wontons in noodle soup

After that I ordered a Hong Kong style milk tea, though unfortunately they had run out of that as well. Seriously, isn’t that just powder? How do you run out of it so quickly in first class? So instead I had some ice cream.

Vanilla ice cream

At this point I watched a few sitcoms in StudioCX. I really do love StudioCX and think they have a great selection, though it’s rather frustrating how many ads they have. Hell, even the airshow has a sponsor.

“Time brought to you by”… really?

I watched a couple of episodes of “Day in the Life,” which I quite enjoyed, including one about “will.i.am.” While the rest of the flight was smooth, we hit quite a bit of chop about three hours before landing, just past Japan.

Day in the Life

About 90 minutes before arrival the cabin lights were turned on and breakfast service began. The menu read as follows:

To start I ordered some fruit, along with a glass of orange juice and some English breakfast tea.

Fresh seasonal fruit, orange juice, and tea

I was also given a bread basket, which consisted of a croissant, some toast, and a cheese danish.

Bread basket

I then had some muesli and strawberry yogurt. I do find the yogurt presentation to be a bit funny.

Muesli and yogurt

For the main course I went with dim sum, which wasn’t very good. The Chinese breakfast on Singapore out of San Francisco was much better, and for that matter I should have probably instead had the dim sum breakfast on my flight out of Hong Kong, since it’s usually catered a bit better “locally.”

Dim sum

Dim sum

During breakfast the sun slowly began to rise, which made for some stunning views.

Views of sunrise

About 30 minutes out we began our descent for Hong Kong, which was smooth and gradual. The captain informed us we’d be arriving about 40 minutes late, which would give us a bit over an hour to make our connection. As we were beginning our final descent the inflight service manager once again came around to each first class passenger to thank them for flying Cathay Pacific.

View on approach

View on final approach

We touched down on runway 7L, from which it was just a quick taxi to our arrival gate, N36.


Taxiing to the gate

Taxiing to the gate

Once at the gate we bid farewell to the crew and headed straight for transit security.

Cathay Pacific provides one of the most consistent products out there, in my opinion, and they grow on me even more with every flight. The food is good — certainly not amazing like Asiana or Swiss, but still better than most carriers. The seat is extremely comfortable for both sitting and sleeping. And when you understand how Cathay Pacific service works, you kind of appreciate that you’re not always being “watched” by the crew. I’ve certainly had better crews on Cathay Pacific, but this crew was certainly not bad. But it only got better from here!

  1. Excellent report, as always!
    I agree with most of your impressions on Cathay.
    BTW, what was the mielege redemption award for 1st class that you had to pay?

  2. @ David — Thanks! The one-way first class award from Seattle to San Francisco to Hong Kong to Singapore cost 67,500 miles plus about $20 in taxes.

  3. Thanks for the great report!
    How was 777 first class compare to 747 in terms of space and ambiance? If you had to choose between 777 and 747 which one would you choose?

  4. @ sk — I like both the 777 and 747 for different reasons. I prefer the 747 because it feels a bit more private in the nose. There’s little traffic up there, especially if you’re in row one. So if I’m traveling with someone else I LOVE being in 1A and 1K, and if I’m traveling alone I love either 2A or 2K.

    That being said, the service tends to be better on the 777. There are only six seats in first class, while the 747 has nine seats in first class. Despite one cabin being 50% bigger, both cabins have two flight attendants.

    So even though I’ve flown both products a handful of times, I really can’t say which I prefer.

  5. Awesome report! How would you compare the service with your Emirates First experience? From reading your report, I feel both airlines have a similar concept on being more reactive than proactive (and to use that call button!)

  6. Great trip report as usual. I had the dim sum from HKG to YVR and it was very good – in fact, it was better than some of the dim sum i’ve had in chinatown

  7. @ Joey — That’s a great question. I’d say the major difference is that on Emirates you can order room service by phone, while on Cathay you have to order face-to-face. 😉

    In all honesty, I find Cathay Pacific is a lot more consistent. On Cathay I don’t feel like the crew is putting on a show for me, as they are on Singapore or Emirates. I feel the service is generally sincere, friendly, and not over the top.

    On Emirates the service is over the top. Not the quality of the service, but the words they use (“it will be my absolute honor to service you today, Sir”), though sadly the words aren’t followed up by actions.

    So I think Cathay is consistent, and Emirates isn’t. On Emirates you can get a very good flight attendant or you can get a completely indifferent flight attendant.

    Hope that makes sense…

  8. Loved reading this! You’ve convinced me to book on Cathay Pacific for our first ever visit to Asia. Thank you.

  9. Hi Ben. Is this something that can be booked straight from AA.com or do do you have to call in? Thanks!

  10. @ Winston — You do have to call to book, as Cathay Pacific award space doesn’t appear on aa.com.

  11. Wonderful read! I booked my husband and our teenage daughter for the 747 flight to HK for this Christmas in first class. Wish I was the one flying instead of the kid 😉 Instead I would be in biz class with the other two kids few days earlier. I wonder if it would be worth the change fee of $75 plus 12500 miles each to change to first class if seats open up two weeks prior to my travel day?

  12. @Lucky, yep that made sense. Love reading these trip reports and can’t wait to read the HKG-SFO return on CX F (also can’t wait to read your detailed trip report on the flight before that on Royal Jordanian…)

  13. @ Sharon — Thanks! Yes, if you’re using American miles and the space opens up I’d definitely say it’s worth the cost to switch. And Cathay is GREAT about opening up more award space close to departure, so it’s quite likely something will open up.

    Enjoy your trip regardless!

  14. Thank you for your comment! I have malaysian airlines a380 in first kul-lhr but thinking about changing it to cathay first kul-hkg-lhr. How does malaysian compare to cathay?

  15. @ sk — That’s a toughie, they’re both great products that are worth trying. Frankly between those two I’d probably go with whichever has a more convenient schedule. Or I guess you could try them both and fly the Malaysia A380 from Kuala Lumpur to Hong Kong, and then Cathay Pacific from there.

    But you really can’t go wrong with either airline…

  16. I just flew CX 889 to YVR last week in F and completely agree with your point about the call buttons. The flight attendants are really particular about keeping the curtains closed so as not to disturb passengers with light from the galley, and they don’t walk around much. However, when I woke up and wanted a drink, I pressed the button and the flight attendant popped into view in a matter of 3 seconds. She thanked me profusely, and seemed genuinely excited that she was able to get me something.

  17. for a first class service… they ran out of many things… there was no diet coke left in business or first?

  18. Was this booked using Avios or AAdvantage miles? Very impressed that they served Macallan 17 Fine Oak and Johnnie Blue – some very impressive Scotch!

  19. Nice, flying the opposite way coming back from Oz in Sept business class. Do you get jammies in J as well?

  20. @Subspacetom – The Hong Kong-style milk tea is actually an instant 3-in-1 pack made by Lipton. Just so you know it is available in all classes – including EY!

    I used to be a CX flight attendant and I constantly drank those milk tea in-flight to stay awake 😉

  21. Cathay doesn’t require that all electronics to be turned off during land or you just covertly taking photos?

  22. @ Eitan — Hah, happy to hear others agree!

    @ Lantean — That’s how it seemed, unfortunately.

  23. @ Truthiness — It was booked using AAdvantage miles for the lower redemption rates and lack of fuel surcharges.

  24. @ TravelOG — Unfortunately pajamas are only offered in first class.

    @ David — The latter. 😉

  25. If aa award itinerary is consisted half on business and half on first, will redemption amount be in between? (i.e. 60000+80000/2 = 70000) It happen to me before where combination of economy and business quoted less than business all the way.

  26. @ sk — For any given one-way you’re charged for the highest class of service you’re flying in that direction. But if you did something like first class on the outbound from San Francisco to Hong Kong and business class on the return from Hong Kong to San Francisco, you’d be charged the individual prices (67,500 miles and 55,000 miles, respectively).

  27. For AA awards, is there an advantage to booking “roundtrip”. Or are they all simply just treated as one ways.

  28. @ E — Nope, no advantage either way with American. They allow a stopover at the North American gateway on both one-way and roundtrip awards.

  29. Interesting, you used to love the steak dishes on Cathay in the past. I guess now that you’ve sampled other airlines versions (especially the steak on Asiana), it’s not as good as you once thought it was?

  30. @ wwk5d — Yes, after you’ve had steaks on Asiana and Swiss, Cathay really can’t compete.

  31. Great report. Thanks for something to look forward to in October when we take the 747 to HKG.

  32. When I flew SF0-HKG in Cathay F in November, I had a SF based crew. After I turned on the entertainment system, I realized that the flight attendant I had was the same girl featured on the splash screen of the entertainment system you have above. I asked her about it and she said they can volunteer to be part of promo materials, and she was chosen as one of the 4 (2 male 2 female FA) that are on the 4 different splash screens that randomly rotates as you turn it on.

    I forgot her name but yes, she was fantastic (they all are).

  33. About Hong Kong Style Milk Tea, I think they just use the powder stuff on board, not the fancy version that you can find in local Hong Kong style cafe.

    MIxed crew – there has been lots of complain about the SFO and LAX based crew, so I believe that’s CX strategy to operate with a mix HK/SFO/LAX crew, whenever possible. That happens to my London flight too… a mix of HK/UK crew. I guess mixed crew is the future of CX, and now with some Mainland F/As in the mix too (interns from CA/MU for a year).

    In Hong Kong, Coke Zero is definitely preferred diet soda these days, so I guess CX has increased the amount of Coke Zero stocked, and reduced the amount of Diet Coke (Coke Light is the term referred in Asia) stocked.

    The Dim Sum is always better catered out from HK but SF is actually not too bad in terms of Chinese food.


  34. Reactive service is no service at all. As a FA recently told me, one shouldn’t ever have to use the call button in FC. That’s ok in BC, but not FC.

    It’s difficult of course to be proactive without being overbearing. The top hotels manage to achieve that balance. But CX? Don’t see the point of FC there.

  35. Drinking Krug and Diet Coke at the same time is as bad as strolling into a pub in Dublin and asking for an Irish Car Bomb!

  36. Interesting. We were on the ORD-HKG flight on 4/17. They must have multiple sets of Pyjamas, ours were Blue with Red ribbon. Also no handwritten cards for us. Other than that I could have written the same report. 😉 My wife LOVED it that I moved us from Business to First two days before departure.

  37. Ben,

    My father and I have JFK-YVR-HKG-KUL booked for 24 May; first flight in F, second in J. Is there a Malaysian flight from HKG-KUL that has an F cabin we could fly instead for the second leg? What would be best way to search for it, BA?


  38. @Lucky

    Can the flight attendants tell if you’ve booked your ticket with cash or with miles? I wonder if they would treat folks differently if they knew how it was paid for.

  39. @BigTex

    I don’t know if they can tell, but when I did the same flight I told the FTs that I’m on an award ticket and their service remained impeccable. If they did know and treated me differently since the beginning, I wouldn’t know since I can’t imagine how much more the service can improve. It was damn good.

  40. @ Mike Smith — Yes and no. While I agree I prefer the proactive service, on an airplane I can also appreciate reactive service. Cathay is great about keeping the curtains shut all the way, so I kind of like that the cabin is always dark. In a way that’s better than the curtains being opened every five minutes so they can see if you want anything.

    And on airlines that have proactive service I do almost feel guilty when I push the call button, because I feel like they’ll think they’re a failure for not having anticipated my needs at the right time.

    So I like the Cathay “model,” though I do wish they’d clarify the process to passengers. Maybe explain at the beginning of each flight that they’ll leave us alone to maximize our privacy, but if we need anything we should push the call button and they’ll be there right away.

  41. @ Michael — Definitely! Can’t beat another segment in first class, let alone on an A380. Enjoy!

  42. My favorite quote:

    “I wish more airlines would serve both caviar and salmon.”

    That thoroughly cracked me up; most of us who’s usual travel is domestic first class are just happy to survive the meal!

  43. @ BigTex and lucky – No on a CX flight the flight attendant cannot tell if you paid full fare or used miles. They definitely know if you are an op-up or an ID (staff) though. Also, your oneworld status is also on the list and sometimes ground staff would add special messages.

    I personally saw notes that say “smooth handling” next to a passenger’s name a couple times meaning that the passenger was not happy during check-in due to whatever reason so we were expected to go above and beyond to do service recovery throughout the flight 🙂

  44. @ hahaha03 — Awesome, thanks for letting us know.

    Guess I’ll have to throw more of a fit at check-in next time… :p

  45. Great report as always! This July, we’re ticketed in CX First from Hong Kong to Tapiei on a 747, possibly the SHORTEST Full-service International First flight in the world (1h40 mins, using exactly the same hard product as to America, and 13,500 Avios each way). I’m looking forward to seeing how the service compares to a transcontinental flight.

    Sadly 1A and 1K are blocked out so we’re seated in row 2. However, Row 1 is available to buy as a revenue ticket. In your experience, does this open up closer to departure?

  46. ^ – OK Probably not the shortest – although I wonder if the shorter flights (eg: SIN – KUL) have a full meal service? Emirates also used operate triangular flights DXB – SIN – KUL – DXB, and I wonder what service they offered during the Straits hop.

  47. @ James H — They may be blocking it off for elite members, so I’d suggest calling them vs. trying to select seats online, as there’s a chance they may let you reserve those seats.

    As far as service between Singapore and Kuala Lumpur goes, I’ve flown the route in business class, and here’s what that service was like:

  48. Since we’re not ‘elites’ in any sense of the word (BAEC Blue), I might leave it until we get to the airport to see what they can do. Thanks for the advice.

    Ah yes – thanks I remember reading those reports when you posted it and thinking that it was rather impressive to have a hot food option. Thenagain, I’ve done the Singapore – Kuala Lumpur hop in Singapore Economy before, and even then was impressed that they managed to do a rather rushed juice, tea and coffee round to an entire 777 in what seemed like only a half-hour flight.

  49. Lucky, great trip report! I really think you’ve summed up the service approaches between SQ and CX.

    I’ve never had the pleasure of taking a flight with Janesis (hopefully soon). I’ve taken about 8 flights now in SQ F/R and never been completely blown away by any the crew members on SQ flights. They’ve ranged from good to “meh.” On the other hand, I’ve hand some exceptional CX, TG and Jet (India) crews in F. Don’t know why I keep striking out with SQ! 🙁

  50. Ben,

    Will AA allow me to book SIN-HKG-LAX for 67,500 miles? (I actually need to get from SIN-SNA).


  51. Thanks Ben – I have a couple of options on the return.

    I have never flown F in the 773 (only flown F on the 744 HND-HKG). 773’s are on offer HKG-LAX, but the 744 is on offer HKG-SFO (I could then do SFO-LAX I assume – therefore SIN-HKG-SFO-LAX, 67,500 miles?)

    I thoroughly enjoyed HND-HKG, but the dilemma I have is more towards the menu on offer based on a 12.55pm or 4.25pm dep to LAX, or mid afternoon to SFO. 6 F pax on the 773 could be the deal breaker.

    Which way would you lean?

  52. @ Simon — I’d go with whichever is more convenient. Both products are equally good, in my opinion — slightly prefer cabin on 747 but service on 777. Meal services should be identical as well.

    You could indeed do SIN-HKG-SFO-LAX for 67,500 miles.

  53. Thanks Ben – the SFO departure would give me more time to enjoy The Wing in HKG, and I really would like to experience F in the 744 nose again. I appreciate your response.

    Did you fly CX870 HKF-SFO on your recent return (last leg of current trip report)?

  54. I just returned from HKG into JFK and unfortunately noted some differences from my previous JFK-HKG flight (both in F). On the outbound, everything was great.

    But on the return I couldn’t help but notice several flaws: no turndown service was offered and noticed at least two other pax who also did not have their mattress pads while sleeping, no welcome card, and no pajamas and amenity kit were offered (recieved these after asking following takeoff). This experience was in contrast to my outbound which was pretty flawless.

    Not meant to be a gripe, merely an observation for others who might have experienced something similar. Just immensely grateful for being able to fly in F for ~15 hrs each way (despite paying an arm and a leg in Avios points and fuel surcharges 😉 ).

  55. @Ben, I like your commentary about the FA standing behind the curtain just waiting for someone to ring the call button! I always feel guilty, but I shouldn’t, I know.
    You didn’t mention the great real woven quality British blankets that I’ve amassed a rather large collection of over the years. Which curiously have remained very close year to year. I would have thought they might have gone the way of all the other nice things in the air. Keep up the great and accurate reports.

  56. Since it is a midnight flight, how many people choose to sleep instead to eat? If they sleep, can they eat dinner later?

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