If you need to travel between New York and the Canadian west coast, there are just a few choices. Your main options are Air Canada or WestJet, which both operate direct flights between New York and Vancouver. Another option is flying a US-based airline (like United or American) via one of their hub cities. But what if you have a nice chunk of points to burn and want to get the best bang for your buck? Sure, you could redeem for Air Canada business, but that would just be like flying any other US airline in the front cabin. What if you could get a truly unique experience for the same amount of points as any other redemption? Well you can, with an unexpected airline.
Cathay Pacific Airlines (CX), based in Hong Kong, operates four daily flights between New York’s JFK Airport and Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok Airport. However, one of those flights has a layover in Vancouver. The last flight of the day (CX889) makes a stop along the way and Cathay Pacific has “Fifth Freedom” rights between New York and Vancouver.
What is a Fifth Freedom flight? It’s where an airline is allowed to sell tickets on a flight between two foreign countries as part of a service connecting their own country. Confusing, right? In layman’s terms it means that if, for instance, the airline needs to make a fuel stop mid-route or something similar, then it can sell a ticket from that stopping point to the end destination.
Cathay Pacific’s flight from New York to Vancouver is unique in that those in premium cabins get all the standard international service items, despite the fact that it’s only a five-hour flight. So even though I was flying a transcontinental flight JFK-YVR, I still got the multiple-course meal, amenity kit, and even pajamas. All the standard items you would get as though you were flying Cathay Pacific for a 14-hour flight.
Cathay Pacific – CX889
New York John F Kennedy (JFK) to Vancouver (YVR)
Boeing 777-300ER (B-KPC)
First Class – Seat 1K
My experience in Cathay First started the moment I checked in at JFK. I was greeted by the Cathay staff in Terminal 7 at the premium check-in area that’s shared with British Airways (BA) and Qantas (QF), however, the signage is predominantly that of BA. There were a few art displays showing retro BA travel posters and Concorde memories, but otherwise it was sleek and clean.
The staff could not have been more helpful in getting me checked in, as I had just misplaced my camera in the back of an Uber vehicle and was flustered. With the help of a terminal map I found some options on purchasing a new one (though it was not needed, as in the end as I got my camera back). Security was quick and painless, as there is a security channel just for premium guests located off to the side.
At JFK, CX uses the British Airways Terraces lounge. While the lounge is primarily for British Airways Club World passengers, partner airlines’ first class fliers get access to a special section of the lounge, along with Oneworld Emerald guests, as BA has a separate facility just for their own First Class passengers (the Concorde Room). This is probably why the first class side of the lounge was smaller and had less to offer food-wise than the business class lounge. However, there’s plenty of space, plus two unique features; the Elemis Spa and the Pre Flight Dining Room.
The Elemis Spa offers day spa treatments such as a massage, but it’s in the lounge so you can do it before your flight (sorry, no freebies here). Shower rooms are also available; considering that the Cathay flight leaves at 10pm, you have either been in the office all day or touring New York City, so a shower can be a godsend. It was for me!
The Pre Flight Dining Room is offered to all First Class guests of Cathay Pacific, however it is primarily aimed towards BA fliers so they can dine before their late-night flight, and go straight to sleep once on board. For me it meant the ability to have lunch before my flight (I was working on PST to keep my body in check). In addition to a full buffet (hot and cold), it offers full dinner options to those who may want to dine before their 10pm flight. But for me, it was just something light and quick and back to the lounge.
Boarding was a bit of a madhouse with a BA flight boarding at the gate adjacent to ours, but the CX staff were great in getting people sorted to the right gates and lines. Boarding was called for First Class guests and I headed down the jetway where I was greeted by the Cabin Manager at the door. Cathay uses door 2L to board their guests on the 777-300ER, and with the First Class cabin between Doors 1 & 2, its “To the Left Mr. Muir, right this way”. Greeted by name, shown to my suite – the kind of service you would not get if flying on a US airline.
As I settled into my suite, for the first time I ever thought “I hope we get delayed”. Now that I was on-board I wanted to make sure this experience lasted as long as possible. My good luck – we ended up being delayed by about 30 minutes.
The first thing that shocked me when I looked around the cabin was that there were no overhead bins. The suites were large enough to have ample storage under the ottoman or in the private closet. The ottoman is fitted with a seat belt so that if you are traveling with someone you can dine together at meal time; why not enjoy that special first class experience together?
The closet is so that you can store your clothes while you get changed into your pajamas, which had been delivered along with an amenity kit.
Pre-departure beverages were offered; the champagne in CX First is Krug. Retailing at around $200 a bottle, they sure don’t skimp on the good stuff. Since I was keeping to Pacific Time, after takeoff I did a bit of work and ate a little later. The crew were more than happy to accommodate and even took my order early to make sure I wouldn’t miss out as the cabin was full tonight. A large tray table made eating or working a pleasure as I had plenty of space to spread out.
After an hour or so, it was time for my dinner. The crew were fantastic and as they set up the table for dinner, they delivered something that I had never experienced before: a lovely hand-written note. The crew are attentive when they need to be, but they know to stay away when not. If you need their attention, just press the call button and within seconds, they will be with you.
Dinner is a multiple-course affair and normally the First Class dinner service onboard CX would include a caviar course. However, due to the late departure and since this is technically a “supper” service, there was no caviar.
Even without caviar there was an appetizer, soup, salad, main, cheese, dessert & fruit courses. An amazing amount of food and what blew my mind was the salad course, which included lobster. The portion size of this was almost what you would expect for a main. I ended up not missing the caviar.
With an amazing main course of black cod and Chinese-preserved olives, I was really struggling to fit it all in. The crew were happy to chat about how the meals are catered. They agreed that local cuisine out of the home base is always the best option.
The great thing with flying first class is having the ability to stagger your courses. I was able to pace my cheese, fruit, and dessert with about 10-15 minutes between each course. When you pay (or redeem miles) for this kind of service, you want to be able to eat, or sleep, when you want.
After my long meal, I reclined the seat and the crew set it up for a partial bed setting. I didn’t want to sleep, just lie back and watch a movie in comfort. With a large 17” high resolution screen and noise-canceling headphones, relaxing and enjoying “Studio CX” is easy. Passengers can change into Shanghai Tang PJs for the utmost comfort if desired.
The seat lays flat and there is plenty of space to stretch out. With a mattress pad, duvet, and a number of pillows, I managed to spend the rest of my flight relaxing with a movie, some coffee, and pralines.
As we descended into Vancouver I really did not want this flight to end. Being able to cross from coast to coast in such comfort and with the most amazing service had been phenomenal. Even sitting in Business, the seats would have been better than anything else in the market.
We landed at a very quiet Vancouver International Airport at around 1am PST. This was a flight of many firsts for me. My first trip on Cathay Pacific, my first time on a 777-300ER in First Class, and my first trans-con “red eye”. All of this, combined with the fact that the flight was so easy to achieve on points, made it a truly unique experience.
How easy? The cost was only 32,500 American Airlines miles, less than what I earned from their credit card signup bonus. Taxes were $2 and unfortunately I had to pay a phone booking fee of $25, so my cash outlays for this flight was a total of $27.
Sadly though for any of the readers wanting to get the same experience, you will need to be quick. In mid-June, CX released a raft of changes to their first class product aboard their 777s. First thing to go unfortunately is the Shanghai Tang pajamas. They are being replaced by new offerings from Pye, a specialty shirt maker. Noise-cancelling headphones from Bose are also on the way.
The seat is getting a slight refresh as well, with a change in the fabric and bedding. Thankfully, the actual seat will remain the same (apart from a few upgrades). All the changes should help bring Cathay’s first class up to date until their brand-new seats are rolled out on their A350s, due for release in 2018.
Now to try and work out a way to get on a much longer flight to really try it out.
*** UPDATE ***
It has been pointed out to me that on the 25th of July Cathay Pacific actually revealed the first Aircraft in the refreshed first class. Take a look at the Press Release to see some of the photos of the refreshed seat. Not much has changed but it still has a very fresh look.
*** 2nd Update – 12th August ***
Pye, the company who will now be providing the Pyjamas for Cathay First Class have passed us some more detailed information on their upcoming offering for Cathay. Already rolled out on flights to London from the 27th of July they should be out network wide by October 2013. The styling looks very similar to the Shanghai Tang offering with the oriental collar, and even a nice carry bag to take it home in.
|Malcolm Muir, Lead Correspondent. Mal is an Australian AvGeek now living and working in Seattle. With a passion for aircraft photography, traveling and the fun that combining the two can bring. Insights into the aviation world with a bit of a perspective thanks to working in the travel industry. @BigMalX | BigMal’s World | Photos|