From Africa to Asia: Cathay Pacific A350 Business Class Cape Town to Hong Kong

This is the eighth in a series of posts documenting my January 2019 trip around the world, which took me to Victoria Falls, Cape Town, Chiang Mai, and Hong Kong.  This post starts the Asia leg of the trip; you can read my last post, which covered my weekend in Cape Town, here.

Cathay Pacific Flt. 794 Cape Town to Hong Kong (CPT-HKG)
Business Class, Airbus A350-900
Sch. Dep. 11:05am            Act. Dep. 11:04am
Sch. Arr. 6:55am+1            Act. Arr. 6:44am+1

One of the main impetuses of my around-the-world journey was the ability to use Alaska miles to fly from Africa to Asia on Cathay Pacific, stopover in Asia for as long as I wanted, and then onward to the US in Cathay.  Both legs of the trip came to a total of 70,000 miles, since I flew in first class on Cathay from Hong Kong to Chicago. My first leg was in business class, though, on Cathay’s new A350, serving its relatively new route from Cape Town to Hong Kong.

Cathay Pacific A350

When I first booked the trip, CPT-HKG award availability hadn’t been loaded yet, but Alaska Airlines allows you to make free changes to reward flights, so I booked the Johannesburg flight and figured worst case I would make my way up on a cheap domestic flight.  Unfortunately, the flight is only three days a week, so even though I ideally wanted to fly on a Tuesday, Monday it was.

Once I got to Hong Kong, I would have five nights in Asia. I had been to Hong Kong before back in 2013 and it wasn’t on my prime list of places to return, but I still figured I’d want to spend a few days there. But I thought this would be a good opportunity to explore somewhere else in Asia as well. It turns out, though, that the CPT-HKG flight is for some reason poorly timed for HKG connections, and many of the morning flights out of HKG to other places in Asia left before the CPT flight arrived. Initially, I used Iberia miles gained from their wacky June 2018 9000 miles per booking promo to book tickets on Cathay Dragon (nee Dragonair) to Siem Reap, which would have given me about 2.5 days in Siem Reap, which I was excited for. Unfortunately, Cathay Dragon changed its schedule, and canceled its Wednesday flight. I was rebooked on a Thursday flight, but that made no sense. Iberia wouldn’t rebook me on any connecting flight or allow me to switch to Phnom Penh on the outbound, so I ended up just canceling the ticket, and rebooking to the only other option that made sense, Chiang Mai. While I’d been to Bangkok and Phuket, I’d never been to Northern Thailand before so it still worked out.  The only concern was that I’d have a tightish connection at HKG – 70 minutes.  On the plus side, I’d have 56 hours in Chiang Mai, taking an evening flight back two days later.

My flight from Cape Town left at 11:05am, so I left my disappointing hotel, the Park Inn Cape Town Foreshore, a little after 8am. I took an Uber, and it was surging at rush hour, making it a lot more expensive than on my inbound trip – about $22.  The traffic wasn’t that bad though once we got out of the center city, though, since it was mostly going the other way, and I got to the airport by 8:25am.

There were no lines at any of the Cathay counters, and I was quickly helped at the business class check-in. I asked if they could check me in for both my flights and check my baggage straight through, even though I was on separate tickets for my CPT-HKG and HKG-CNX flights. I knew it *shouldn’t* be a problem, but particularly at an outstation, you never know. The agent was friendly, and though it took her awhile, she took care of it.

For some reason, I forgot I needed to do advance seat assignment for the HKG-CNX flight, since that leg was in economy.  After I checked in, I saw I was in a middle seat, yuck, and unfortunately neither the website nor the app nor the Cathay twitter team could change it, even though the flight was still about 18 hours away!  Note to all: select your Cathay Dragon seat assignments ASAP.

I headed to the gate about 15 minutes before boarding time, and it was a mess.  I did manage to get some nice shots of both the Cathay A350 and the Singapore A350 though.

Closed BA Lounge, CPT

For a fuller description of the Bidvest lounge, you can see my post from last time. There was a decent breakfast spread, with eggs, sausage, potato rosti, cheese, roast beef, yogurt, pastries, and cereals. The coffee machine wasn’t working, alas, and there was no hard alcohol until 11am. I didn’t need wine, so stuck with Diet Coke.

The lounge was pretty crowded, as there was also a Singapore A350 flight at the same time, though it emptied out when the Air Namibia flight boarded. There was a very loud American woman who made a loud entrance into the lounge who would become a central figure in my flight experience.  She was shouting in the lounge, telling some people the story of how she had gotten banned from the Camps Bay Hotel because she was apparently so drunk and boorish.  Seems bragworthy, hon. Stay tuned for more on her.

I headed to the gate about 15 minutes before boarding time, and it was a mess.  I did manage to get some nice shots of both the Cathay A350 and the Singapore A350 though.

Cathay Pacific A350
Cathy Pacific A350
Singapore Airlines A350

Boarding was announced ten minutes early, and there were long queues and a confusing set-up.  They would announce boarding but not actually open the barrier. Of course, our American friend cut the entire line, taking the people she had been bragging to in the lounge with her, and told the gate staff that she knew the Captain.

Cathay Pacific A350 Business Class cabin

I ended up getting on the plane right at the scheduled boarding time. I’d actually never flown Cathay long-haul business before, though I had been in their old coffin-style seating from HKG to PEN, and in First. The seats are reverse herringbone in a 1-2-1 layout, and similar to those on their other planes. The seats were certainly roomy enough, and had a pretty good amount of storage.  There was one larger cubby at my feet, and one above the armrest that had noise-cancelling headphones in it, along with both USB and regular plugs, a mirror, and a mesh storage pocket. Unfortunately, I couldn’t get the regular power to work, so was stuck with the low-power USB outlet.

Cathay Pacific A350 Business Class seat
Cathay Pacific A350 Business Class seat side storage

One thing I liked is that even with the seat upright, I was able to stretch out my legs, and put my feet on a little cushioned side piece that becomes part of the bed in lie-flat mode.  There were no individual vents, alas.  The tray table was smaller than I’d expect, but the flat space on the side of the seat meant it didn’t matter much.

One downside of the layout is that the television monitor can’t be used during taxi, take-off, and landing because it swings out of the seat in front of you, but it was otherwise a great IFE system.  The monitor was very large, with a super intuitive and reactive touch screen, as well as a touch-screen remote. It was an HDTV, with tons of TV and movies, with certain movies were available in HD. You could also tune in to both front- and rear-view cameras which is pretty cool.

Cathay Pacific A350 Business Class personal entertainment system

Although there is a decent amount of privacy in the seats themselves, the size of the cabin makes it a bit of a zoo, with 30 seats in the main business cabin. The cabin was completely full, and I gathered about 50% of the passengers were Chinese. As I was settling in, the American woman from the lounge appeared…. asking the Captain which seat was hers. Yes, she was a non-rev. And she proceeded to tell people her old story: her fiancé was the pilot, she splits her time between Scottsdale and Hong Kong, she went to Arizona State on a scholarship and then, shockingly to me, Chicago for law school. (Making lawyers look tacky.)  She downed two champagnes in one sip before I was even offered my first one. Thankfully, except for periodic visits from her (of course, older) British fiancé from the cockpit, she largely settled down for the rest of the over 13-hour flight.

Cathay Pacific A350 Business Class Cabin

The bathroom was nice, with a brightly lit vanity mirror and an exterior window, and had a variety of Jurlique creams available. While I was in the bathroom changing into PJ pants pre-takeoff, I missed a hot towel service. I was a little surprised that they didn’t circle back to me, but again, the “zoo” nature of the cabin likely had to do with it.  Overall, it was indicative of what I found to be not very attentive and impersonal service.

Just before the boarding door closed, amenity kits were distributed. The exterior of the kit was a faux burlap and brown leather case designed by Hong Kong-based bag company Seventy Eight Percent.  Inside, it was a fairly basic kit with a Jurlique face cream and lip balm, toothpaste, toothbrush, mouthwash, ear plugs, eye mask, and socks. (Oddly, the insert card said there was a hand cream as well, but there was none in the sealed case.)

Cathay Pacific Business Class Amenity Kit

We pushed back at 11:04am, one minute early, and were airborne at 11:15am. Once in the air, wi-fi was available at a very reasonable price. While it was $9.95 for one hour, it as only $19.95 for the more than 13-hour flight. I couldn’t get the purchase to work on my phone, but did on my laptop and was able to switch back and forth throughout the flight. It did drop a fair bit, but at the price I still got my money’s worth.

Toodles, Africa!

Once in the air, menus were distributed, followed by nuts and the beverage cart. I stuck with the Piper-Heidsieck champagne. 

Cathay Pacific CPT-HKG Business Class lunch menu
Cathay Pacific CPT-HKG business class menu, snack & breakfast
Cathay Pacific CPT-HKG Business Class drinks menu

About an hour into flight, a tray with starters was brought out.  I was really underwhelmed, as the “salad” was just a tiny bit of lettuce and walnuts, and the appetizer was just a bunch of smoked salmon, which I don’t like. At least there was garlic bread in the bread basket.

Starters, Cathay Pacific Business Class CPT-HKG

All three meat main courses sounded good to me- a Chinese chili beef, roasted lamb leg, and a chicken curry.  For some reason I picked the chicken curry and I was really surprised at its taste and size for a 14-hour flight.  The chicken was in desperate need of salt (which wasn’t on the tray), the cauliflower and peas provided the only real (super-spicy) flavor on the plate, and the rice was inedible mush.

Disappointing chicken curry main dish, Cathay Pacific Business Class CPT-HKG

I often skip the cheese course, but I was actually still hungry. Unlike some flights, it was a completely separate course, not a choice for dessert.  I asked for some cheddar, apples, and grapes, but there were also stinkier cheeses and melons.

Cheese course

The menu suggested there would be a choice of pralines after dessert course, but that came next, and I selected one from the box. For dessert, the choices were a strawberry mousse or a mango bavarois (custardy cake), and I went with the former which was honestly the best thing I ate on the flight.

Cathay Pacific Business Class CPT-HKG dessert, strawberry mousse and praline

After dessert, water bottles were cleared. The cabin lights were dimmed about 3 hours into the flight, and I eventually got around two and a half hours sleep before waking when the American woman was making a snack order.  The flight time is particularly poor for sleeping, as you are traveling for most of the day Africa time, and arriving early in the morning Asia time. There was also a fair bit of turbulence, and I didn’t find the seat that well-padded.

There was a small snack area set up in the galley between the two business cabins, with some packaged chips, chocolates, and such, along with water bottles.  I was hungry so I figured I’d order something more substantial from the “snack” menu, which had a choice of a cheeseburger, a pork dumpling in noodle soup, and ice cream.  I went with the cheeseburger, and, dear god, was it terrible. The bun was overtoasted and/or stale, and completely disintegrated as I tried to eat it.  The burger itself tasted like one of those institutional ones you get in a foil pouch at a museum cafeteria. I did also have a decaf latte which was okay. (The dark pic does it just as much justice as it deserves.)

Cathay Pacific CPT-HKG business class galley snack setup
Mid-flight cheeseburger and latte

I slept for another three hours, and woke up as breakfast was served.  Unlike on South African, no one had asked if I wanted to be woken for breakfast so I lucked out that I woke up just in time, despite the super loud snorer behind me. The first cart was coffee/tea/juice/water, and it was followed with a tray with bircher muesli, fruit, and a selection from a bread basket.  You were then given a choice of frittata, congee, or noodles for the main.  I went with the frittata, which was good, but the accompanying potatoes, spinach, and beef sausage were in desperate need of salt, similar to the main. There was no salt or ketchup or anything on the tray.

Cathay Pacific CPT-HKG Business Class breakfast
Cathay Pacific CPT-HKG Business Class breakfast frittata

The trays were all cleared more than an hour before landing, which was unnecessary and suggests they serve breakfast too early-around 5am Hong Kong time. For me, that meant 4am at the time of my final destination so it was going to be a rough day.  At 6:39am local time, we were on the ground, just as the sun was beginning to rise.

Final approach at sunrise
On the ground at HKG

A lot of people fawn about Asian carriers, including Cathay, but I honestly was not impressed with the business class experience on the A350.  It was fine, but didn’t stand out compared to say Delta or many European carriers. My flight on South African was more polished, though the hard product wasn’t as good. Perhaps the catering was so disappointing because it was catered out of Cape Town?

Next up: an unpleasant connection experience in HKG and Cathay Dragon economy to Chiang Mai.

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