My last international airline flight was exactly one year ago. I have not written a post about that flight although I covered other flights on this trip on the blog. The flight was in premium economy on a Cathay Pacific 777-300EER from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Compared to when I left the United States on March 2, 2020, returning to the U.S. on only about two weeks later was like being transported to another world and another time.
Cathay Pacific Airways
Cathay Pacific is one of my favorite airlines, but until I began flying with American Airlines six years ago, I knew little about it. Cathay Pacific is based in Hong Kong. That means all of its flights are international. Cathay Pacific earns a Skytrax 5-star rating annually. That rating has been well deserved.
Cathay is a oneworld alliance partner of my primary airline, American Airlines. Being an Executive Platinum member of American’s AAdvantage frequent flyer program equates to top tier Emerald status on oneworld airlines. That status has led to several complimentary upgrades on Cathay Pacific to premium economy or business class when Cathay oversold the cabin I was booked in.
I purchased a premium economy ticket for this trip to Bangkok, Thailand that connected in Hong Kong. The trip assisted in meeting the requirements for keeping Executive Platinum status with American Airlines. Buying a ticket in premium economy on Cathay Pacific and crediting it to my AAdvantage account earned bonus qualifying miles and helped meet the minimum spend requirements with fewer dollars out of pocket. As it turned out, because of the virus, American renewed elite status for an additional year for all elite members without having to meet any qualification requirements in 2020.
Cathay Pacific Flight CX880 Hong Kong (HKG) to Los Angles, CA (LAX)
Class of service: Premium Economy
Scheduled flight time: 13 hours and 10 minutes
Great circle flight distance: 7,260 miles (11,684 km)
Cathay 777-300s have five different seating configurations. This version of the 777-300ER serves as the flagship of the fleet. It is Cathay Pacific’s only long-haul aircraft type with international first-class seats and service. Below are the seating plan arrangement and premium economy seating chart.
Boarding And Pre-Departure Service
The flight was scheduled to depart form HKG Gate 3 at 00:15 on March 14. A gate change to Gate 27 was announced while I was in Cathay’s The Wing first class lounge. I had access to this excellent lounge as one of the perks of being a oneworld Emerald. It was a 10-minute walk to Gate 27.
Hong Kong Airport was unusually quiet and uncrowded even for a late-night departure. Because of uncertainties about the virus, a general feeling of anxiety permeated the atmosphere as it had on the flight from Bangkok, Thailand to Hong Kong. All airport employees and Asian travelers wore masks. I didn’t have one and felt rather conspicuous and vulnerable.
Because of the virus Hong Kong Airport had instituted new practices. On arrival, all passengers were required to fill out a health screening form and each passenger was individually scanned with a thermal device as well as group scanners.
At least the boarding process with Cathay hadn’t changed. It was smooth and efficient as always. Once onboard, the captain announced that a technical issue with the airplane would delay departure. What was announced as a 30-minute delay turned out to be an hour and 20 minutes. The delay was not of concern and just provided more time to relax, settle in and enjoy the pre-departure service.
Flight attendants in premium economy distributed bottled water and menus and offered juice or water. Champagne was not offered unlike the outbound flight from LAX to Hong Kong. The attendants took diner orders and distributed antiseptic towelettes.
The head flight attendant and the attendant in charge of the premium economy cabin came by separately to issue a personal welcome and asked that I not hesitate to call on them if there was anything I needed during the flight. The personal greeting is a very nice touch and is standard procedure on Cathay Pacific for every oneworld Emerald regardless of class of service.
Premium Economy Seating
There are 34 seats in the premium economy section. Seats are arranged 2-4-2.
These seats are 19.5 inches wide and have 38 inches of pitch (the distance between a point on a seat and the same point on the seat in front). Compared to seats in first class on US domestic aircraft, these seats are narrower by about one inch but have two more inches of pitch.
There weren’t many passengers on the flight. Premium economy was less than half full. Seat 33A was empty; so I had both seats to myself. Sitting next to an empty seat in economy improves comfort on a long flight immensely. It also makes the flight nicer in premium economy. I moved to the window seat to be farther from traffic in the aisle. That added privacy and also reduced potential exposure to other passengers who might be infected with SARS-CoV-2.
There is plenty of room under the seats in front for backpacks and hand bags. Each seat has a padded foot rest and an extendable leg rest for the lower legs.
Controls for reclining the seat and extending the leg rest are located on the arm rest.
The console between the seats contains the tray table and a stationary surface for drinks and snacks. Additional surfaces fold out on each side of the console. The video remote control and headphone connection are mounted there as well in a spot that is easy to see and access.
Not only is the seat larger and more comfortable than in economy, premium economy comes with a amenities to make the journey more enjoyable and pleasant. Amenities included a warm blanket and large pillow, bottled water, and an amenity kit with a dental kit, eye shades, ear plugs and socks .
Cathay Pacific also supplies noise-cancelling headsets to enhance the experience of viewing movies on the 11-inch video screen or listening to the wide range of audio entertainment.
Cathay sells WiFi by the hour or for the flight duration. Passengers can switch on their devices and connect to the internet after the flight passes through 10,000 feet.
One of the amenities I appreciated most was the antiseptic towelette that came with pre-departure beverages and each meal service. I used them to wipe off surfaces like the video screen, remote control and tray table.
Departure And Cruise
The captain did not leave the gate until 01:35. We taxied to the active runway and departed at 01:53. I moved over to the window seat but also followed our progress with the external belly cam.
At departure, our estimated flight time to Los Angeles was 12 hours and 20 minutes. On flights from west to east, prevailing winds aloft usually deliver a ground-speed enhancing tailwind. This flight would take about three hours less than the flight form LAX to Hong Kong.
Twelve and a half hours might seem like a long time to spend on a plane. However between eating, sleeping and watching movies, the time passed surprisingly fast.
Because many passengers were ready to sleep, flight attendants began supper and beverage service only 25 minutes after takeoff just as the pilots leveled off at the initial cruise altitude. Here are the menus that the flight attendants handed out at the gate:
Having three entrées to chose from was nice. I selected roasted chicken breast in mushroom cream sauce with broccoli, ratatouille and gratin potato.
Movenpick ice cream capped off the first meal service.
After diner I watched a movie and then slept for a few hours. About six hours into the flight, I asked for a snack. I requested beef sliders rather than a cup of noodles. Sliders are much easier to eat for me although I’m starting to get the hang of eating noodles with chopsticks without making a huge mess.
To go with the snack I tried Betsy Beer. It lived up to the billing on the menu.
The galley at the rear of the plane was arranged with an array of snacks. I visited a couple times during the flight to grab a crunchy salty bite.
The arrival meal was served about 90 minutes before landing in Los Angeles. Dim sum sounded tempting because the flight was catered in Hong Kong, but I opted for breakfast. To supplement a selection of fruit, yogurt, warm bread with preserves and butter, I went with the Western choice of a cheese and spinach egg soufflé with smoked middle bacon, streaky bacon, parsley fried potatoes, and cherry tomato. Apple juice and black coffee were the beverages.
After the arrival meal, there was plenty of time to return items to my backpack, prepare for landing, and visit the bathroom.
Premium economy has only one lavatory. Since the cabin was less than half full, there was never a long line to use it. Each time I visited, the bathroom was clean and stocked with liquid soap and hand moisturizer.
The flight landed at LAX and parked at Gate 157 in the Tom Bradley International Terminal at 23:22 on March 13. As sometimes happens, flights from west to east that cross the International Date Line arrive before they depart.
When I left the United States on March 2, 2020, things were still very relaxed here. At that time people were taking the coronavirus much more seriously in Hong Kong and Thailand. Returning to the States on March 13, things had changed dramatically. The WHO officially bestowed pandemic status on the coronavirus a few days before the flight. While the federal government was still downplaying the seriousness of the situation, people were starting to be very concerned.
I stayed in the airport after arriving on the 13th to catch the flight home at 06:00 on the 14th. People in the airport seemed tense and anxious as they tried to maintain social distance. Unlike Asia, few wore face masks back then. The tense feeling was even greater on the flight to Charlotte. It was not a fun experience even though I was upgraded to first class.
Even at home, attitudes had changed dramatically. One manifestation of the change was the fact that suddenly stores could no longer keep in stock things like toilet paper, disinfectants and other items.
One year and counting is the longest period of time I have gone without being on a commercial flight in decades. I’ve received both shots of the Pfizer vaccine but have no plans to travel yet. I think I’ll wait for a while for things to improve as far as available services on planes, in airports, and the general travel experience. Besides, at this point there aren’t many options for international travel without dealing with testing, quarantines and other restrictions even for those who have been vaccinated.
Have you been on a flight in the last year? What was your experience?