Is Cathay Pacific First Class Losing Its Touch?

I just flew the outbound segment of the cheap Cathay Pacific First Class fares I booked on New Year’s Eve from Hong Kong to Vancouver. I don’t plan on writing a proper review of this flight, since it hasn’t been that long since my last review of Cathay First, but I did want to share some quick thoughts in a mini-review and talk about and how the experience compared to last time.

In particular, soon after the “New Year’s fire sale” happened and the deal was honoured, many speculated that we might see a slight drop in quality onboard Cathay Pacific First Class from their usual impeccably high standards, especially as this happened at a time when Cathay was engaging in cost-cutting measures across the board. So, did any of that turn out to be true? 


The Pier First Class Lounge

Our journey began with a two-hour flight in Cathay Dragon business class from Hanoi, which was uneventful except for the fact that we actually landed twenty minutes ahead of schedule – something I was quite pleased about, since those would be precious extra minutes spent in the comforts of one of Cathay Pacific’s excellent First Class lounges.

One of the best ways to maximize your Cathay First experience is to make time for both of their flagship First Class lounges in Hong Kong – the Wing, which features oversized swanky shower rooms known as the Cabanas, as well as the Pier, one of the most visually stunning airport lounges in the world that’s often likened to a multi-million-dollar home in the hills of Victoria Peak. 

On this occasion, our relatively short 90-minute layover was only enough to visit one of the two lounges, and since we were feeling quite clean and refreshed already, we skipped over the Wing’s Cabanas (which are pretty much the only reason to pick the Wing over the Pier) and made the long walk through the airport concourse towards the Pier instead.

The lounge was as beautiful as I had remembered it, and at this relatively late hour in the evening, it was much quieter than last time. Jessica and I sat down briefly in the main seating area before going for a pre-flight snack in the Dining Room. 

Cathay Pacific recently switched to a cheaper caterer in their First Class lounges, so I was curious to see how the Dining Room experience would compare to last time; after all, it’s seen as one of the highlights of The Pier and a large part of the reason why people specifically seek to spend extra time here before their flight. 

The menu seemed a little more limited than last time (compare the before vs. after below), although ultimately that wasn’t too much of a concern for me since I wanted only a snack, saving my stomach room for the flight itself.

I ordered the shrimp wonton noodles and the mango juice, which is also what I had ordered last time.

Was there a noticeable difference? Well, they were definitely less generous with the shrimp wontons this time around (compare the before vs. after below), but I still really enjoyed the dish itself. Then again, I love noodles of every kind, so perhaps I’m not the most impartial commenter here. 

Shrimp wonton noodles at The Pier First Class Lounge, February 2018

Shrimp wonton noodles at The Pier First Class Lounge, February 2018

Shrimp wonton noodles at The Pier First Class Lounge, July 2019

Shrimp wonton noodles at The Pier First Class Lounge, July 2019

Overall, the Cathay Pacific First Class ground experience is holding up really well, although my experience at the Dining Room this time wasn’t really broad enough to assess whether the changes to the catering service has affected the quality. 

I would’ve loved to spend a few more hours in the Pier, maybe booking one of the day suites in the Retreat with incredible tarmac views or enjoying a drink at the Bar – but alas, the clock soon struck midnight, and it was time to head to Gate 36 to board our flight! 


Boarding

Needless to say, I was grinning ear-to-ear as I stepped onboard and made my way to Seat 2K, the same seat I had taken on my first flight on Cathay Pacific First Class. Meanwhile, Jessica would be seated in Seat 2D across the aisle from me.

Cathay Pacific First Class – Seat 2K

Cathay Pacific First Class – Seat 2K

(As any Cathay First connoisseur will know, the ideal seats for couples on this product are Seats 1A and 2A, because you essentially get the left-side aisle as a private space all to yourselves, with the remaining four seats sharing the right-side aisle. Unfortunately, by the time I went to select seats for my flight, all six seats had already been assigned – presumably because everyone else on this flight had also booked the same cheap First Class fares that I did!)

The Cathay Pacific First Class seat is a real classic. While it’s not industry-leading in terms of privacy or functionality (nothing can beat the Emirates 777 in that regard), and some parts of the seat are starting to show their age a bit (the mechanism to swing the entertainment monitor into place tends to be creaky and irregular these days), it’s still one of the most spacious and comfortable First Class products in the sky. 

Cathay Pacific First Class – Seat 2K

Cathay Pacific First Class – Seat 2K

There were a total of two flight attendants, along with the purser, working the First Class cabin. The lead flight attendant was the first to welcome us to the flight, and she briefly asked me if she had served me on a previous flight as well. I answered that that was unlikely, since I had only flown Cathay First on one occasion before…

…and a little while later, she returned to say that she had actually recognized me from the YouTube video I had made onboard Cathay First last time! 

It turns out that she likes to watch flight reviews on YouTube from time to time, and had remembered watching mine at some point. What a nice coincidence, and a fantastic note on which to start our flight together! 

Next, the junior flight attendant came by to introduce herself. She mentioned that she was based in Thailand, while the lead flight attendant was based in Hong Kong. She offered to pour me a welcome drink, so I said let’s bring on the champagne, of course. She was happy to oblige, although I noticed there were no accompaniments offered alongside the bubbly.

Cathay Pacific First Class – Champagne

Cathay Pacific First Class – Champagne

Cathay Pacific First Class – Champagne

Cathay Pacific First Class – Champagne

I remembered that I got to snack on some delicious warmed nuts with my champagne last time, so more out of curiosity than anything, I asked if they still had the nuts as part of the champagne service. She confirmed that they do, and went to fetch some nuts for me, which made me wonder why they weren’t proactively offered in the first place.

Finally, the purser came around to say hi and shake every passenger’s hand. He was a very friendly and professional guy, based in Hong Kong as well. 

The flight attendants also distributed the in-flight amenities, such as the headphones, amenity kits, and a striking set of pajamas in Cathay Pacific’s signature dark green. On my last flight, the pajamas had been a light redcurrant colour, so this was a welcome change of pace. 

Cathay Pacific First Class – Pajamas

Cathay Pacific First Class – Pajamas

Jessica and I received the female and male Aesop travel kits, respectively. Shortly after my last flight on Cathay First, I had actually lost the Aesop amenity kit in the bathroom of an airport hotel, so I was delighted to have another one in my possession again. 

Cathay Pacific First Class – Aesop amenity kits

Cathay Pacific First Class – Aesop amenity kits


Supper

Shortly after takeoff, the lead flight attendant came by our seats to ask if we’d be “joining [them] for supper after takeoff tonight, or if we’d prefer to rest instead”. I thought that was a lovely way of phrasing the question, and I confirmed that we wanted to eat first, and that we’d like to dine face-to-face in my seat. 

Breaking bread with your travel companion is one of the best parts of travelling in Cathay Pacific First Class, and I was looking forward to enjoying a meal with Jessica at 37,000 feet, particularly as I had been travelling solo the last time around.

Cathay Pacific First Class – Buddy seat

Cathay Pacific First Class – Buddy seat

(Speaking of which, I hadn’t actually realized that Cathay Pacific brings out a table extension to attach to the tray table when you want to dine face-to-face. This way they’re able to fit both passengers’ meals on the table, unlike in Asiana First Class where the meals simply wouldn’t fit.)

Supper began with an amuse bouche: salmon pâté with yuzu dashi jello. I also ordered some Johnnie Walker Blue Label to sip on – I don’t know much about whiskeys, but I figured I may as well make the most of my exposure to them onboard these fancy flights and learn a thing or two about developing my whiskey palate.

Cathay Pacific First Class – Amuse bouche and whiskey

Cathay Pacific First Class – Amuse bouche and whiskey

That was followed by the caviar and champagne course, which is always a real treat, and it’s one of those feelings that never get old. I had a huge smile on my face as I shovelled every last pearl into my mouth using those delightfully soft blinis. 

Cathay Pacific First Class – Caviar and champagne

Cathay Pacific First Class – Caviar and champagne

Cathay Pacific First Class – Caviar and champagne

Cathay Pacific First Class – Caviar and champagne

After the caviar, Jessica wasn’t feeling hungry enough to eat much more, so it was just me working my way through the courses one by one.

I tried the cream of cauliflower soup, which was quite appetizing…

Cathay Pacific First Class – Cream of cauliflower soup

Cathay Pacific First Class – Cream of cauliflower soup

…followed by a watermelon and lobster salad, where I found the flavours to be clashing with each other somewhat.

Cathay Pacific First Class – Watermelon and lobster salad

Cathay Pacific First Class – Watermelon and lobster salad

Next up, the delicious Western main course of grilled lamb loin in a red wine sauce…

Cathay Pacific First Class – Grilled lamb loin

Cathay Pacific First Class – Grilled lamb loin

…followed by the Chinese main course of stir-fried lobster with rice and gai lan. Unfortunately, I found both the seafood and the vegetables to be slightly on the dry side, and between the two main courses, I actually thought the Western dish was tastier, which is rather surprising for my palate.

Cathay Pacific First Class – Stir-fried lobster with rice and gai lan

Cathay Pacific First Class – Stir-fried lobster with rice and gai lan

Cathay Pacific First Class – Stir-fried lobster with rice and gai lan

Cathay Pacific First Class – Stir-fried lobster with rice and gai lan

(It was also at this point that Jessica dozed off to sleep while sitting upright in the seat opposite me, so I gently ushered her back to Seat 2D – where the flight attendants had already made her bed – so she could sleep properly.)

The meal concluded with an apple tart with vanilla ice cream, as well as some oolong tea. As with every First Class experience that came before this one, I was well and truly stuffed by this point. 

Cathay Pacific First Class – Apple tart with vanilla ice cream

Cathay Pacific First Class – Apple tart with vanilla ice cream

You know, I always approach First Class flights with the mentality that I simply must maximize every part of the experience, and that tends to lead to some pretty severe cases of overeating and over-drinking. Given how thick and fast these First Class indulgences have been coming my way as of recently, I think I might need to tweak my approach soon, for the sake of my waistline if anything! 

So how was the meal service on this flight? Here’s the thing: on my first flight in Cathay Pacific First Class, I remember being blown away by the supper service, and I remember thinking that it had exceeded even the gold standard of Japan Airlines First Class, which was my most memorable onboard dining experience at the time. 

On this flight, however, I didn’t feel the same way. The food was still delicious, to be sure, and I continued to be giddy with excitement as I indulged in a multi-course gourmet meal from the comforts of my luxurious First Class suite. But in terms of the quality itself, I definitely felt that the taste and texture of the dishes served on this flight fell short of what I had experienced last time around. 


In-Flight

It was well into the wee hours of the morning by the time the supper service concluded, and I actually dozed off in my seat for about an hour before waking up to change into my pajamas. At this point, I asked the crew to make my bed for the evening, and also asked them to wake me up in four hours’ time.

Cathay Pacific First Class – In-flight

Cathay Pacific First Class – In-flight

Cathay Pacific likes to keep the cabin temperature hot, so I slept with no blankets on, and even then I got pretty sweaty. The lead flight attendant gave me a wake-up call four hours later, but since I had been pretty sleep-deprived by this point, I continued to snooze for another hour or so, waking up with only about two hours of the flight left.

This left me feeling slightly annoyed at myself, since I had wanted to sample as many items on the snack menu as possible. When the purser came by to check on me, I placed my order with him: some shrimp wonton noodles, some Hong Kong-style egg tarts, and the breakfast service with muesli, yogurt, fresh fruits, and Chinese dim sum. I also ordered some Hong Kong-style milk tea, followed by some Earl Grey tea, to drink.

Now, up until this point, the service on this flight had been very good. But it took a turn for the worse when the junior flight attendant brought out the fruit plate first, instead of the shrimp wonton noodles I had asked for. She later apologized for this oversight after I had finished the fruit plate, and it was really no big deal, but still something that’s uncharacteristic for Cathay Pacific First Class.

Cathay Pacific First Class – Fruit plate

Cathay Pacific First Class – Fruit plate

Similarly, when Jessica woke up from her sleep, she ordered a jasmine green tea to perk her up. A few minutes later, the purser came out to serve the tea from a tray, but the junior flight attendant also hurried out behind him, letting him know that the tea she had prepared wasn’t actually jasmine tea. She then hurried back to the galley to fix her mistake and brew another pot.

Between those two slip-ups, as well as the fact that the junior flight attendant was clearly a little nervous when setting our tables and laying down the flatware, I could tell that this was probably one of her first flights working the First Class cabin. That’s totally fine, of course, but it was definitely a departure from my maiden experience onboard Cathay First, where the service had been flawless.

Cathay Pacific First Class – Shrimp wonton noodles

Cathay Pacific First Class – Shrimp wonton noodles

Cathay Pacific First Class – Hong Kong-style egg tarts

Cathay Pacific First Class – Hong Kong-style egg tarts

I noticed a few more of these tiny differences throughout the flight. For example, I visited the restroom several times to see that it hadn’t been refreshed since the last guest’s use; also, on my last flight, the crew would proactively re-make my bed every time I visited the restroom, although this time it didn’t happen at all.

Then there’s the matter of the pace of the pre-landing meal service, which was strained at best. This wasn’t much of a problem during the supper service, when many of the other passengers were sleeping, but now that most of us were ordering and eating simultaneously, the crew was definitely struggling to keep up and provide attentive service to everyone.

On quite a few occasions, I had to press the call button to ask for the next course, because otherwise I’d run out of time to eat all the courses of my meal before we began our descent. 

Cathay Pacific First Class – Muesli and yogurt

Cathay Pacific First Class – Muesli and yogurt

To be perfectly clear, these are obviously trivial first-world problems at the end of the day – if you redeemed miles for Cathay Pacific First Class (or booked a super-cheap surprise fare!), you’re still flying international First Class for pennies on the dollar. But since we’re comparing notes here, I think they’re useful to bring up.

I’m glad I pressed the call button on the occasions that I did, because I had barely finished my last bite of the rather meagre portion of dim sum when the captain announced our descent into YVR. 

Cathay Pacific First Class – Dim sum selection

Cathay Pacific First Class – Dim sum selection


Conclusion

At the end of the day, I paid US$980 for round-trip tickets in Cathay Pacific First Class. Did I receive one heck of a deal, even if my vegetables were dry and my bedsheets were not perfectly primped every time I came back from the restroom? You bet I did, and it would be silly to pretend otherwise. 

At the same time, it’s fair to say that this flight didn’t rack up the spectacular 10/10 rating that I gave to my maiden experience on this product. I’m happy to chalk that up to the relative inexperience of the junior flight attendant, as well as the entirely full First Class cabin (whereas I had been one of only two passengers last time), and I’ll be curious to see how everything compares on my return journey on this ticket, which will be my third flight in Cathay First overall. 

I think it’s only natural that the overall quality has slipped a little with the waves of people flying Cathay First on those cheap fares this year. When the cabins are routinely filled with deal-hunters who paid a fraction of the regular price (myself included!), it’s inevitable that the crew members will be overworked and under-motivated from time to time.

But ultimately, form is temporary, while class is permanent. I’d still rank Cathay Pacific First Class as one of the best ways to fly, and I hope the product does return to its finest standard once the impact of its inadvertent New Year’s fire sale fades away.