Geoff is back, following up his Emirates shower experience with another long trip report about the best flight he’s ever had. I thought it would be good to give you a little (or, actually, a lot) quality reading material for a Wednesday when the blog is usually dark. Enjoy.
As you may remember from my report here about taking a shower onboard the Emirates A380, I’m really into premium cabin flying. Mostly thanks to frequent flier miles I’ve managed to sample international First Class on a wide array of carriers and aircraft types. That’s a lot of caviar and champagne and flat bed suites — and a lot of great memories and stories. I often get asked which was my favorite airline or airplane, or my best flight, and in the past I have found it hard to pick one.
My favorite airport experience? Hands down it’s Lufthansa’s First Class Terminal in Frankfurt, an entirely separate building that is a giant luxury lounge, and from which you are driven onto the tarmac and directly to your plane like a rockstar.
My favorite whimsical cabin feature? The Emirates A380 shower, which turned out to be as cool to do as it is to say you’ve done.
But earlier this year I had a flight experience that was exceptional from beginning to end. Everything from the seat to the service to the food and drink to the entertainment system was fantastic. Despite all seats being occupied, I spent most of the flight entirely oblivious to anyone else being on board. And after spending over *15 hours* on this airplane, I was still in such a state of sybarite bliss when we got to the gate that I wished I didn’t have to get off — which had never happened even after the best of my best flights before.
So now I have a clear-cut answer to the question: First Class on Cathay Pacific’s 777.
I’d flown Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific on short flights within Asia in the past, and was very impressed. Singapore Airlines and Cathay are often considered top Asian carriers, and after having finally flown Singapore in First Class last year I decided I had to try Cathay’s longhaul First Class to compare.
Cathay is a partner of Alaska Airlines, and so for a lot of Alaska miles and $90 in taxes I was set, a fantastic value compared to the five-figure retail cost. My outbound flight was S.F. to Hong Kong on a 777-300ER, which has a small six-seat First Class cabin in a two row 1-1-1 configuration. The center seats open onto the right side aisle; since I was traveling alone I was pleased to be able to reserve Seat 1A, which maximized privacy and minimized noise from other passengers. Unlike Singapore’s “Book the Cook”, there is no fancy pre-ordering system for meals on Cathay, so once I was ticketed there was nothing more to do than look forward to the trip.
Waking up on the morning of an international First Class flight I always feel giddy like a kid on Christmas.
There were great views of SFO as usual on the quick train ride over from the rental car facility, and as we arrived our aircraft was just pulling up to the gate.
I snapped a quick pic of it, and then decided to venture outside and get a shot of my favorite terminal building in the U.S., the decade-old SFO International, which still looks as great inside and out as when it first opened in December 2000.
Then it was inside and over to Cathay check-in. There was no wait at the First Class check-in counter, where a friendly agent checked my bag and handed me my boarding pass. After some shopping at the cool SF MoMA store I used the priority security lane for premium cabin passengers and was through in an uneventful ten minutes. From there it’s just a short walk to the British Airways lounge that Cathay uses.
The lounge has a main area for Business Class passengers with self-service bars and a buffet, and a separate small First Class room with its own food and drink. Both have great views out to widebody aircraft being fueled and loaded just a few feet away, and on this day both were teeming with passengers. I staked out the one unclaimed couch in the First Class room and helped myself to some sparkling water and dumplings. I picked up an SF Chronicle to read on the plane, and killed some time using one of the Internet terminals. A lounge attendant circulated picking up trash and keeping the food area stocked and tidy.
The lounge isn’t particularly fancy, but it was clean and decently comfortable. In addition to the views, the other great feature is that you board directly from the lounge without having to go back out to the gate. When boarding began about 40 minutes before departure there was a PA announcement, and a long line formed. No one came to whisk me to the front, so I waited in the line, and in five minutes was headed down the jetway…
Cathay #879 Lv San Francisco 1208p Arr Hong Kong 730p (next day)
SFO: Gate A6, Runway 28R, Depart 13m Late
HKG: Gate 66, Runway 25R, Arrive 25m Late
Boeing 777-300ER, B-KPG (delivered Feb 2008)
Seat 1A, 6/6 F Suites Occupied
Flight Time 14h44m
The Christmas morning feeling was back as I arrived at my seat and got my bearings. The cabin was gleaming on the three year-old aircraft. There are no overhead bins in First Class, which gives an airy feel. Instead, there’s room to stow bags under the ottoman end of the seat as well as a personal closet built into the side of the suite in which you can hang your jacket and clothes and store other items.
Photo taken by Flyertalk’s SFO777 and shows seat 1F. You can read his detailed trip report here.
As I was getting settled, a flight attendant came by and greeted me by name. She brought a pillow, removed its protective wrapping and handed it to me, and took my pre-departure drink order. She was soon back with a bottle of Krug Grande Cuvee and an elegant and large glass champagne flute, and executed a flawless restaurant-style pour holding the bottle from the bottom. Off to a good start, indeed.
While I was familiarizing myself with the seat controls her colleagues were by with the amenity kit, Shanghai Tang pajamas and slippers, newspapers and magazines, a water bottle, and an elegant washcloth-style hot towel. My glass was topped up and then I was presented with the menu and wine list, with the flight attendant going out of her way to let me know that I could dine “at my pleasure” and was not forced into any set meal order or timing.
As we pushed back and taxied out I took stock of the seat, which was very comfortable in seat mode (you’d be surprised – some flat bed seats are great as beds but lousy as seats). My legs fully extended were just resting on the ottoman, which is an impressive amount of room since I am 6’4″. The seat is 36″ wide, but unlike Singapore’s similarly ultra-wide seat, the space doesn’t feel wasted. This is partly because the Cathay seat has a great fold-down armrest console and also because the Cathay seat is 10″ longer than Singapore’s and its proportions just work better. There’s a storage compartment built into the window ledge as well as storage on the ledge itself, and another handy compartment for magazines and water bottles just below the massive 17″ entertainment screen.
SFO777’s wife in seat 2F. You can see just how wide the seat is, and the strap for lowering the armrest console is just visible below the pillow to the right of her shoulder.
With a long take off roll and a few shimmies we took off to the west, and as soon as the wheels were up the cabin was impressively quiet. The FAs were up quickly to set up the galley, and soon the Inflight Service Manager (Purser) came by to welcome me on board. I had mentioned to her colleague earlier that it was my first longhaul flight on Cathay, which the ISM acknowledged saying that her staff would make sure it was a memorable experience. It was the kind of pleasantry I’d heard dozens of times, but the rare case in which the promise was truly delivered.
My lunch order was soon taken and not long after another glass of champagne had been brought, the FA was back to set my table. On top of the massive and sturdy tray table went a linen tablecloth, and then she individually laid out each service item elegantly and with precise attention to detail and placement. Along with the basics (silverware, salt and pepper shakers, water glass, butter dish, etc.) was a “Bon Appetit” card with a handwritten and personalized note from the crew inside. I thought the set-up was impressive… and then the first course arrived.
Only a few airlines still serve caviar in First Class, and yet Cathay apparently decided that caviar alone isn’t enough, as along with the caviar and its garnishes were two large sashimi-style pieces of smoked salmon. Toast points were brought to supplement my personal bread basket, as was a lemon served on its own dish. It all tasted as great as it looked, and while the caviar part was similar to what is served on Singapore, the delicious smoked salmon really put Cathay’s presentation over the top.
After that was cleared came the salad course. The combination of king crab, teardrop tomatoes and dried cranberries may sound a bit odd, but it was excellent.
Everything was fresh and it was so much more interesting and tasty than the typical airplane salad with some shaved parmesan on top of a pile of wilted greens.
After each course the flight attendant checked on my drink and brought out the appropriate silverware for the following course. The pacing was just right; I never felt rushed nor sat long waiting. Every request I made was graciously and quickly fulfilled. Next came the fennel and apple soup, which like the previous courses was truly restaurant quality.
Further credit for smart seat design comes from how easy it is to get up even while the tray is out. The tray slides forward and back, and there is plenty of room on the aisle side of the seat. I made a quick visit to the lavatory which was spotless; what it didn’t have that Singapore does have are a hands-free sink and a floor pedal to open the trash bin. (A minor quibble – but hopefully we’ll see both standard on all airplanes soon.)
When I returned it was time for my entree, and the FA insisted on offering me a tasting pour of both white wines, the Estancia Reserve 2007 Chardonnay and the Meursault 2006. I chose the French to go with my lobster and crab ravioli. The wine was excellent; the entree was the only part of the meal that was “just okay” by restaurant standards, which meant that for airplane food it was well above average.
Before dessert I had my arm twisted into sampling some of the four cheeses on offer, with fancy crackers and grapes on the side. Then came bread pudding with chocolate sauce and vanilla ice cream, accompanied by a small glass of special vintage Sauternes. And after that bacchanal, there were pralines accompanying the fancy coffee service, in which the sugar cubes had their own plate. It took every ounce of restraint not to sample the Johnny Walker Blue Label or Glenfiddich Reserve Single Malt, but this was a marathon not a sprint, and I stuck with coffee and water.
At this point there was still 12 hours of flying time remaining – which I knew because the countdown and local time at destination are thoughtfully displayed on the entertainment system’s remote, a smart touch. Once my tray was cleared and I was duly refreshed by another hot towel, I reclined about two-thirds back and pulled the entertainment screen out on its telescoping arm to position it for prime viewing. Cathay claims there are 100+ movies and 500+ TV shows in its on-demand system, and I had little trouble finding things to watch, starting with “The Social Network”, then the old Leo DiCaprio movie “The Beach” and then episodes of recent TV shows. The navigation and controls were fairly intuitive and the noise cancelling headset was comfortable and effective.
As great as it was having a sated belly, a comfortable seat and good entertainment, what made this experience unique compared to my most memorable flights on other airlines (and even my later experiences on Cathay’s 747) was the remarkably private and quiet cabin environment. All six seats were occupied, but because the center seats open onto the right aisle and have a privacy wall on the left side, the only times I saw another passenger while seated were the few times that the one guy behind me got up to go to the bathroom. There was a bit of foot traffic from flight attendants going back and forth, but more than any other flight I’ve been on, I felt like I was on my own private plane.
After about 3 hours of lounging I decided I was ready for some sleep, and summoned a flight attendant to make up my bed. The sheet and duvet and pillow are all great, but what truly stands out is the length of the bed. I didn’t have to curl up or contort – I could lie truly flat and fully extended, and still had room to toss and turn. It was hands-down the most spacious and comfortable bed I’ve ever flown in.
(Photo courtesy SFO777)
I got 4 hours of solid sleep, and could have napped longer but decided to get up both to enjoy the flight and as an anti-jetlag measure. Somehow I was actually hungry, and I ordered wonton noodle soup off the mid-flight snack menu. It took about 15 minutes to heat up and prepare, but when it arrived it hit the spot – no comparison to the off-brand cup o’ noodles that United serves as a snack in First on the same route.
After some more time spent reading, doing the NYT crossword and watching episodes of “Treme”, I decided I had to sample the one part of the wine list I hadn’t yet tried, and so I had a glass of their nicest red, Lynch Bages 2004 Grand Cru. It retails for over $125 and rivaled the best wine I’ve had on an airplane. Soon after, with several hours still to go before “dinner” I ordered a second snack, this time opting for crab cakes. They were great – and impressed me that even when it came to snacks, Cathay delivered a true First Class experience.
After more reading and dozing eventually it was time for dinner, and out came the tray table for the fourth time. It’s a lighter and less elaborate affair than the lunch service, which is fitting given that it was 2am San Francisco time. The first course was a fruit plate, which was fresh and good despite how long it had undoubtedly been sitting. The main course was a choice of chicken, beef, or crab cannelloni. I had the stir-fried beef with vegetables and rice. It wasn’t fancy by any means, but comfort food was what my body wanted at that point, and it did the trick. And there was still some fancy yet to come as they brought out the cheese board – with four different cheeses than at lunch. Of course there was also one last dessert, raspberry mousse cake, and a final tea and coffee service with pralines.
Once cleared, reality began to set in that we would soon be landing in Hong Kong and there would be no more drink refills or snacks or meals (and that I desperately needed to get to a gym the next day). It was the first time I’d ever been so comfortable after such a long flight that I wished I could stay on the airplane. I made one last trip to the lav to change back into my clothes and brush my teeth. We landed on a foggy afternoon at HKG, and I very reluctantly gathered my things as the Flight Attendants bade us goodbye by name and ensured that First Class deplaned first. I made a point of thanking them for their great service and telling the ISM what a nice flight I’d had.
I realize how relentlessly I’ve used glowing adjectives throughout this report, and I promise that I am no shy critic. Nor am I a shill for Cathay – I bought the ticket using miles and they had no idea I was going to write about them (neither did I, or else I would have taken more and better pictures). But it was downright hard to find things to complain about. I suppose the amenity kit, which carried a Zegna label but looked like a binocular case could have been nicer… And there could have been a more exclusive First Class lounge and boarding process at SFO.
On the other hand, each key element of the experience rivaled or beat the best I’ve flown before. From service to seat, bed, food and drink, entertainment system, and overall cabin privacy, it was really a sublime and memorable combination. I’ve had fantastic international First Class flights but I’ve never flown in a seat and bed that comfortable, and never experienced such a private jet atmosphere.
I connected to other Cathay flights on this trip, and they varied from good to great. But none reached the perfect ten of CX869 SFO-HKG in Seat 1A on the 777, which I now tell people was hands-down the best in my 1.2 million miles of flying.
Geoff Fischer is an aviation and travel enthusiast currently living in Seattle
[IFE Remote and Wonton Soup photos also courtesy SFO777]