Cathay Pacific business class: a good use of AA miles


Cathay Pacific 777-300ER business class has been reviewed plenty of times across the net. Frequent Miler’s focus is chasing down the mileage you need so that when you travel, you can enjoy a great experience. While we don’t often review flights or hotels, every now and then we all like to enjoy the fruits of the pursuit. After all, if we put the time and effort into collecting the miles, we also want to maximize the experience we get from them. In that vein, I thought it might be useful to share some thoughts on my flight last night (this morning? yesterday? Hello, jet lag!), a few of Cathay’s quirks about which I’d forgotten, and how I feel about my redemption.

The Seat

Let’s start here because, truth be told, this is what really matters most when you’re about to spend ~19 hours in transit. Here, Cathay lived up to its reputation completely. While I haven’t traveled as widely as some bloggers and certainly haven’t made it my focus to seek out and review premium flight experiences, I have at least flown a good handful of well-regarded airlines in business and first class, including Singapore, Emirates, Etihad, Qatar, Japan Airlines, Thai , Lufthansa, and more. I’ve often heard people say that using miles for first class doesn’t seem like a great value anymore because business class has gotten so good in many cases. From the perspective of the seat alone, Cathay makes a case here.

Tons of space ad the seat — even with my legs fully stretched out, I didn’t hit the ottoman.

No, the seat isn’t as private as Singapore Suites or Emirates / Etihad first class. It isn’t the most padded I’ve ever experienced. But it is reasonably private and it is spacious. I did not feel the least bit cramped for space in any sense.

Thanks to a good night’s sleep, I woke up ready to get some work done – like writing this post.

The armrest on the outside can be kept up or down, the seat reclines to plenty of comfortable angles on its way to a fully flat bed, and my feet couldn’t reach the ottoman unless I reclined a bit (though smartly, there was another step before the ottoman that was the perfect height on which to rest my feet while I typed this).

The table on the inside had plenty of space for my USB bank to charge my devices while also accommodating a drink and a bottle of water. I love how the TV swivels out from the side — it both made the seat feel more spacious and made it easier to see the screen clearly when I watched a movie. The overhead compartments are designed in such a way as to provide plenty of space inside while folding far enough up that it doesn’t feel like there is a low ceiling overhead. My wife tends to feel claustrophobic on flights, but she was comfortable thanks to this layout.

Cathay Pacific’s 777-300ER felt plenty spacious with this 1-2-1 layout.

Speaking of my travel companion, the layout of the seats means that you won’t see your seatmate unless you lean forward to look around the table. It’s not hard to do; if you’re traveling with a partner, you can still have some conversation. But if you’re flying alone, you won’t feel like you’re sharing a common area.

A bit of bad luck

That said, it wasn’t all perfect. I wasn’t thrilled with dinner. This was the dinner menu from New York to Vancouver:

Personally, I don’t care for mushrooms: the texture, the taste — the fact that they are fungus – I just don’t care for any of it. That’s not to say I’ve never had one, but I’d never choose one. I like polenta, but the mushroom polenta dish with wild mushroom and truffle cream sauce sounded like way too much mushroom for me.

The chicken dish didn’t sound as appetizing as the beef dish. Further, they served my wife’s side of the plane first and she had chosen the chicken…and said it wasn’t very good.

The chicken supreme didn’t even look terribly appetizing compared to some meals I’ve been served in business class.

Two or three rows in front of me, I heard the flight attendant saying that she didn’t have any more beef, but they could check to see if there was any left. People in each of those rows elected to hold off and see if there was another beef dish. I didn’t have much hope when it got to me, but I said that I would like the beef if they had any more. Of course, it turned out that they had run out. They again offered the mushroom dish or the chicken dish and I politely declined, asking instead for some bread. They had previously served bread with the salad course, but the attendant had just inadvertedently skipped me.

To the flight attendant’s credit, she seemed to feel legitimately bad that they had run out. She asked if I’d like a cheese plate, but I again politely declined. When she returned with bread, she also had the cheese plate, looking to offer it one more time. While I love cheddar, brie, parmesan, provolone, and many other kinds of cheese, you can probably guess from those mild selections that I’m not into strong cheeses. There was far more blue on the plate than suits my taste, so I again politely declined and said the bread was all I’d like (for the record, I didn’t make a big deal of this as it was my choice). Still clearly feeling bad, the flight attendant asked if I would like another salad. I did take her up on that as the salad was perfectly good and truth be told I could use some more vegetables in my life. She brought that back and said that if they could get me more cake or more salad or anything else they had to let her know.

I think from a customer service standpoint, the flight attendant did all she could, and it’s not Cathay’s fault that I don’t like mushrooms or blue cheese. I completely understand that the airplane isn’t a kitchen and it is hard to know how many people will order Dish A or Dish B today, but here’s the thing: if they had the space for extra salads and extra cakes, they could have packed a few extra meals. It wasn’t like there were one or two people who didn’t get their first choice on the meal. There were at least three people before me, and I was seated around the middle of a fairly full cabin, so I might bet there were several more behind me who didn’t get their first choice either. In a premium cabin on a long-haul flight, I think Cathay should be doing better than those numbers. It surely costs them something to load extra meals, but the ability of other carriers to supply such a range of dine-on-demand meals leads me to feel like Cathay should have a larger supply when only preparing three options.

That said, I knew there would be another meal service after the wait in Vancouver, so I figured it wasn’t the end of the world. Little did I know that I would sleep right through that service and not eat the next meal, either – but that is hardly Cathay’s fault. I don’t miss many meals, so no real harm done; it was just a little disappointing.

The Quirks

Cathay also had a couple of quirks about which I might have known but forgotten. Quirk #1 is reasonable but worth being aware of: Cathay won’t serve more than one alcoholic drink at a time. Since we had a baby in January, my wife hasn’t had a glass of wine in more than a year. As we were unable to bring our son on this trip, she ordered a glass of Chardonnay with her dinner. When the drink cart came around to my side, I also ordered a glass of wine. My wife then asked if I could get her a glass of champagne as well. I don’t think she had any plans to double fist champagne and Chardonnay, but rather figured that while the cart was here she would order it and slowly enjoy both.

However, the flight attendant saw that my wife had a glass of wine already and told us that she could not serve a second alcoholic beverage. She said that if my wife finished her Chardonnay, she would be happy to bring her a glass of champagne.

On the one hand, that’s not unreasonable at all. If you don’t have some limitations, people may certainly both over-imbibe and/or waste drinks that do not come without cost to the airline. On the other hand, I’ve had flight attendants on other airlines who insisted on pouring me a new glass of wine with each course, loading my table with four or five glasses at a time (as I neither drink that much nor that quickly). Sometimes I just don’t like the wine I’m given. Neither my wife nor I are frequent drinkers, and we aren’t really the type to drink the glass just because it’s there. If she didn’t care for the Chardonnay, she would then have to ring the bell to explain that to a flight attendant and ask them to pour it out for her to get a different glass of wine. That’s not the end of the world, but not as smooth as when an attendant instead notices that the wine hasn’t been touched in a while and asks if you would like them to remove it. Moral of the story: make sure you order something you like, because if not you’ll be stuck asking someone to pour it out so you can get something else. That’s not a reason not to fly Cathay Pacific, but rather something to keep in mind as a quirky difference with other airlines.

Quirk #2: No hot drinks when the seatbelt sign is on

After waking up, I had a Hong Kong style milk tea from the drink menu. It was pretty good and just what I needed – a little pick-me-up without being the jolt to my fairly empty stomach that a coffee might have been. A couple of hours later, I decided to order another. However, the flight attendant told me that since the seatbelt sign was on, she was unable to serve any hot drinks but that she would be happy to serve it as soon as the sign was off (and bring me a cold drink in the meantime).

Now, I’m all about safety and all – nobody wants a hot drink spilled on them – but I hadn’t even been aware of the seatbelt sign because the flight had been smooth as butter since I woke up. I’m not sure I would have really known whether we were in the sky or taxiing on the runway if I didn’t know we were in the sky. I figured that perhaps the light would be coming off momentarily. Nope. It was on for the next hour despite not even a semblance of a bump for hours.

I know that I don’t know what the pilots know. I understand that sometimes the seatbelt sign likely stays on when there have been reports of turbulence by other flights ahead of us on the path. It’s certainly possible that the sign was on out of an abundance of caution. On the other hand, I found it interesting that the seatbelt light came off about 3.5 seconds before the cabin lights came on to start the breakfast service. I will say, within about 1.5 seconds of the seatbelt sign coming off, my milk tea was served. She beat the cabin lights by a full 2 seconds I think – so the flight attendant was right on it. However, the precision with which that was orchestrated led me to believe that the seatbelt light stayed on to avoid serving hot drinks while most people (perhaps even some crewmembers?) were sleeping. Like the entrée that ran out, this obviously isn’t the end of the world, just something of which to be aware – get your hot drink order in before you hit a bumpy patch or the lull in the middle of the night. I think this restriction might not be unique to Cathay Pacific, it’s just something I haven’t run into recently.

Quirk #3: There are snacks, but you’ll have to ask for them

When I ordered my first milk tea, the attendant came out with the tea and a tray of snacks from which to choose (or take all of them) – things like the chocolate bar and shortbread cookies shown here:

They weren’t so blurry in real life.

There were also bruschetta chips, nuts, etc. Snacks like that were neither in the menu nor proactively offered apart from when I ordered my tea, so I wouldn’t have known they had them otherwise. My wife also skipped the meal on the second flight and was feeling nibbly when she woke up. I told her about the snacks (in addition to being able to order a burger or fish ball noodle soup). She went to the galley and got a handful of snacks, so I’m glad I knew they were available.

Would I use the miles again?

With the negatives noted, you might think me unhappy with my decision to fly Cathay Pacific on this trip. On the contrary, I still feel like I got excellent value out of 70K AA miles. Seriously – a full night’s sleep and plenty of breakfast food (a fruit plate, croissant, smoothie, muesli/cereals, and a hot dish (omelet/stir fir vermicelli / prawns and long cod congee) meant that I arrived rested, full, and ready to hit the ground running. Indeed, I had hoped to arrive in Hong Kong and take a shower and catch up on work – which is exactly what I was prepared to do when I got there.

It was great being able to shower and greet the day upon arrival in the lounge. This was in The Bridge, near gate 35.

No doubt, I was somewhat disappointed with Cathay in comparison to some of the first class products I’ve flown. However, I think it stacks up nicely compared to most business class options in the sky. As a member of our Frequent Miler Insiders showed in response to my post just before takeoff, the food in first class is a whole different ballgame (see that thread for his pictures). That said, I didn’t want to stay awake on the second flight and part of me is glad not to have been tempted to stay awake just to eat and drink food I didn’t really need. Decent sleep was a lot more important to me.

I think I definitely would use 70K miles to fly to Asia on Cathay Pacific again. With both the Barclaycard Aviator Business and Barclaycard Aviator personal cards coming with 50K miles after first purchase and the Citi AAdvantage Platinum Select and Citibusiness AAdvantage cards offering 60K after $3K spend in 3 months, it’s pretty easy to accumulate the miles necessary for this kind of redemption. I defintiely feel like the juice is worth the squeeze there in terms of a comfortable seat, genuinely good service from the flight attendants, and a great lounge on arrival. With cash round trips starting around $3K from New York (and one-ways north of $2K), I definitely feel like I got my mileage worth on a 70K redemption.

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