Thursday, December 1, 2016

Cathay Pacific Flight Review: London Gatwick to Hong Kong (A350)

Several months ago, I heard Cathay Pacific would fly its upcoming A350 between Hong Kong and LondonGatwick in September 2016.  This was perfect timing as I was about to go home to Manila in late 2016.  Moreover, I found a promotional fare of about £810 return for Cathay Pacific’s premium economy class.  For this time of the year, it was a good deal, considering Philippine Airlines offered a similar fare for its economy class product.  Flying on Cathay also allowed me to ‘break’ my trip between London and Manila with a stopover in Hong Kong.

More and more carriers offer a premium economy class product.  In fact, even Philippine Airlines does it on some selected aircraft.  But it remains one of the most broadly-defined service classes in the industry.  Its features vary greatly between carrier and can include simply more legroom or much wider seats with better meals.

Unlike four years ago, this trip featured a ‘proper’ premium economy class service.  Back then I was seated in what was otherwise the premium economy section but we only got a standard regular economy class service.  This is also the first time I would travel on either the A350 or B787, the most hyped aircrafts produced by either Airbus or Boeing, respectively.

As Gatwick was a long and expensive journey from Bristol, I stayed with my colleague in London for one night.  I woke up at 5.15 because I needed to travel to my other friend’s place to claim my bigger bag (it’s a long story why I didn’t bring the bag with me to my colleagues’ in the first place).  Although I preferred to do this at 7.15, my colleague advised me to get it as early as possible.  Ultimately, it was advice well-taken.  I left the place just after 5.30 and arrived at my other friend’s place just over a half-hour later.  I did not stay for long in order to avoid the crowded Tube trains. 

TIP: When using the London underground for morning journeys, consider travel time, crowding, and costs.  Although peak and off-peak standard fares between zones 1 and 2 in London are the same, your railcard discounts are not applicable during peak hours (6.30-9.30 and 16.00-19.00).  Trains coming into central London may get crowded after 7.00.  If your London-based friends advise you to start early in order to use public transport comfortably, they mean it! 

I returned to the flat at around 7.00.  My colleague served me with an excellent breakfast and hot chocolate.  But I received an advice to change my flight to Manila again for the fourth of December.  The flights were full but I managed to get waitlisted.  I had one final shower and transferred things between my two bags.  I left at about 8.30.  Bringing two bags was not easy and it slowed down what is otherwise a short walk from my colleagues’ place to the London Bridge station.  Trains in and out of London Bridge station were already delayed, but I was lucky I found a direct train that was scheduled to depart at around 8.00 delayed.  I rushed to get that train and boarded it with time to spare. 

The journey between London Bridge and Gatwick Airport took almost 40 minutes.  Whilst in the train, I contacted my carrier to discuss possible roaming offers.  Unfortunately, they did not offer anything affordable but they agreed to unlock one of my older phones I had with them.  It would take a few days but I would take it.

TIP: If you are visiting Hong Kong but live in the UK, consider getting at least a pay-as-you-go SIM with the provider Three.  Try getting your carrier-provided phone unlocked or buy one that is already unlocked (policies for unlocking vary with most requiring having a plan between six months and a year).  Three has plans that allow for roaming in Hong Kong at no extra cost.  Don’t even ask about the plans for the Philippines.   

I approached Cathay’s check-in desk at a quarter to ten.  The Premium Economy class lane was not a dedicated one.  Instead, it was shared with passengers who otherwise checked in online.  The queue moved quickly.  But I was surprised to find out my bags were overweight.  This was sorted out by transferring some items to my hand luggage but this would be a bigger problem if I do not get on my wait-listed flight.  I am flying to Manila in (regular) economy class for scheduling reasons.  Consequently, my baggage allowance is reduced to 20 kg for that.   Other than that, the staff gave me a paper boarding card even though I already had one on my phone. 

Cathay Pacific check-in desks at Gatwick
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TIP: Try to weigh your bags before you leave home.  Your seemingly generous baggage allowance is smaller than you think. 

I experienced a slight delay at security.  And this was because another passenger’s scarf got up in the machine. 

TIP: Most airports require you to present your boarding card when shopping at their stores.  Make sure this is ready.  One of theory for this is for them to claim tax benefits.

After security, I shopped for a few boxes of Walkers’ shortbread biscuits.  I waited at the main departure hall before my gate was revealed.  It was a bit far from where most of the stores and eateries were located at.  Once I found out my gate, I checked a few last-minute emails.  As I plugged my laptop, boarding announcements were made.  There was a separate lane for premium economy class.

Cathay Pacific A350 parked at Gatwick Airport
Image by hybridace101

Gate for Cathay Pacific flight at Gatwick
Image by hybridace101

Main departure area at Gatwick
Image by hybridace101


Flight number: CX344
Gate: 31
Scheduled Departure Time: 11:35
Actual Take-off Time: 11:55
Aircraft Registration: B-LRF

The queue to enter the aircraft was not so long yet.  I found my seat quickly.  The rest of the passengers flooded in shortly afterwards.

Business class section of Cathay's A350
Image by hybridace101

Business class section of Cathay's A350
Image by hybridace101

At first glance, Cathay's premium economy class almost felt like what long-haul business class was in the 1990s, albeit with slightly narrower seats and slightly restricted recline.  The A350’s premium economy had a 2-4-2 configuration.  It means every premium economy passenger is up to one seat away from the aisle.   The seat also had buttons to help the passenger recline the seat and deploy the footrests.  A tray table was built into the seat and was slightly larger that what I am used to at regular economy.  In addition, the seat had provisions for glasses and one’s phones.  Each passenger had an AC outlet and USB recharging port for themselves. 

Cathay Pacific's Premium Economy Class on its A350
Image by hybridace101

Premium economy was not completely full although I had someone sitting next to me.  The regular economy class section however, was a different story.

Regular Economy Class section of Cathay Pacific's A350
Image by hybridace101
Just like in business class, premium economy passengers were offered a pre-departure drink.  It was a choice between water, juice, and champagne.  I decided to stick to water. 

Cathay Pacific’s A350 in-flight entertainment (IFE) system is a crown jewel in the airline.  Unlike other aircraft, the A350’s IFE had live TV and featured one of my favourite channels, CNN.  And there were hundreds of hours of other programmes, music, and games, and two more live TV news channels.  However, it felt like Cathay offered fewer albums than when I used it in 2012.  It was nonetheless still plentiful.  Unlike Cathay’s other aircrafts, its A350’s airshow or moving map was more interactive.  The passenger can choose what information they want to see and zoom in or out as they please.  They do not need to wait for the information to come up.  Most of the features were available immediately upon boarding; there was no need to wait to be airborne to savour the IFE collection.   Premium economy class passengers were also treated to a better headset than those seated in regular economy.  This helped them get better sound quality over what they were watching.

Premium Economy Class headset and amenity kit
Image by hybridace101

Right after take-off, we were offered a beverage.  I chose Sprite after hearing the hot chocolate would take long.  I also enjoyed their peanuts that I requested for another pack and got two more.  The hot chocolate eventually came. 

Premium economy class has their separate menu.  Meals were served in the second hour.  I requested for the beef tenderloin option but they also offered a chicken and pasta option for this flight.  Most of them came on a not-so disposable meal.  For desert, we were given Haagen Dazs ice cream.  It was a very scrumptious meal that I even finished the broccoli.  I did not wait for the flight attendants to collect my meal try as I needed to use the desk. 

Premium Economy beef meal
Image by hybridace101

For the third hour, the sky was noticeably darker.  The sun may have already set as it was late November.  More passengers started pulling down their window shades but the cabin lights were still switched on until late into that hour.  The curtains that separated premium from regular economy were also unveiled.  I also switched the channel to watch the comedy series VEEP.  I also requested for more peanuts.  This was when I tried more of the IFE to discover that it did not offer as much as in the past.      

Cathay Pacific A350 regular economy cabin
Image by hybridace101

At about the fourth hour, I thought it was time to get some shut-eye, at least for a few hours.  To prepare for that, I went to the lavatory but there was a queue of several and only the lavatories in the middle rows were operational.  Unfortunately the downside of most premium economy cabins is that passengers ticketed need to share lavatories with the regular economy class passengers.  On the way back, I got a few treats from their mini-bar, mostly biscuits and chocolates. 

My seat, 31H
Image by hybridace101

After barely an hour or two of sleep, I went to the rear of the cabin to grab a few more snacks.  I ordered hot chicken noodles and it was sent to my seat.  Shortly afterwards I also had another round of hot chocolate.  I also watched more satellite TV and VEEP, but occasionally the satellite TV signal just blacked out.

Chicken noodle soup snack
Image by hybridace101

Less than three hours remained on the flight and I started to freshen up.  The flight attendants had no hot towels but they had disposable towelettes.  When I returned to my seat, the main lights started coming back on.  It was a signal that breakfast will be served shortly.  Whilst waiting, I played with the airshow and came across a feature that showed what the view is like from the flight deck.  It also showed how fast and high up in the air the plane is.    

Cathay Pacific A350 Airshow's 'cockpit' view
Image by hybridace101
Cathay Pacific A350 regular economy cabin
Image by hybridace101

Cathay Pacific A350 regular economy cabin
Image by hybridace101

Cathay Pacific A350 regular economy cabin
Image by hybridace101

Breakfast was ultimately served with less than two hours left.  I chose the omelette and bacon option.  I also ate some yogurt for dessert.  I enjoyed eating it.  Just like the first instance, I went to the rear of the aircraft to return the mealtray as I wanted to use the tray table.

Omlette breakfast offered for premium economy passengers
Image by hybridace101
The remainder of the time was spent watching episodes of VEEP.

We landed at 6.40 am.  In theory, the cabin crew closed the curtains as a courtesy to the business class passengers to disembark first.  But the passengers in front of me just pressed ahead anyway.

Final photographs of A350 premium economy
Image by hybridace101

Cathay Pacific A350 regular economy cabin
Image by hybridace101

The plane docked at gate 2, which was close to passport control.  For the first time I can recall, there were no queues at passport control.  I got cleared to enter rather quickly.  But the bottleneck occurred at baggage control.  The bags have not yet arrived at the belt after I got cleared.  It took another 15-20 minutes for me to retrieve my bag.  Customs was also a fast clearance.

After exiting to the public area, I tried again to check the status of my waitlisted flight.  So far there was no luck.  I waited for my folks to begin my three (or hopefully four) days in Hong Kong.

Ultimately this premium economy flight on Cathay's A350 lasted rather quickly.


These are rated from 1 to 10 with ten being the best score.  This covers aspects of the flight experience that Cathay Pacific and its ground agents are responsible for with a focus on Premium Economy Class.

·      Check-in (8/10): The lane moved rather quickly and the ground staff was helpful.  But I am not sure why Premium Economy class passengers have to share a check in desk with the ‘bag drop’ passengers. 
·      Boarding Process (8/10): The process was rather quick on our end.  But they could have considered having two jet bridges in operation to speed up the boarding since there was no exit that was within the premium economy cabin. 
·      Seat Comfort (9/10): With Cathay Pacific’s premium economy class, you can be forgiven for feeling like you are on a mini-business class.  The legroom was plentiful and had a lot of features for passengers to play with to feel comfortable.  There were multiple spots for the passenger to leave their things.  Having said that, the one area it may consider improving on is storage for laptops. Whilst the legroom was generally adequate, it was slightly annoying to some degree if you had to give way to another candidate whilst the tray table was down.  But otherwise Cathay Pacific’s A350 premium economy is in a league of its own.
·      Food (10/10): For long-haul flights, Cathay has a wide range of options for passengers.  They can choose a traditional western dish or an Asian one.  I chose the western dishes and both the beef and omelette options were tasty.
·      Cabin Crew (10/10): They were attentive to most passengers and do not forget about requests they have made.
·      Punctuality (10/10): Despite taking off slightly late, we arrived 25 minutes ahead of schedule. 
·      In-flight entertainment (9/10): The live satellite TV feature was great for those who want to catch up on news, but the selection of audio and video on demand seemed to be scaled back from what I chose from four years ago. 

As for my experience on the A350, one of the things I expected was that it would be less noisy on board.  However, I did not notice anything different about the noise between this kind of aircraft and others. 

We are not yet done.  I will be flying back to Manila in a few days.  But there are still big unknowns between now and then.  Will I fly back on Saturday or Sunday?  And what will happen to the difference of 10 kg of baggage between my current flight and desired flight?  I do not know the answers to these myself at this point. 


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