Hong Kong’s flag carrier started in 1946 and has grown to become one of the world’s largest and most awarded airlines. It is controlled by British based multinational transport conglomerate, the Swire Group and their miniature logo adorns all Cathay Pacific aircraft. From its beginnings the airline linked Hong Kong to neighbouring Asian cities and Australia. From the 1960’s the airline experienced rapid growth, adding North American and European routes to its network. In the 1990’s Cathay Pacific modernised and bought slices of several of their main competitors. The airline also upgraded its cargo division and today Cathay Pacific Cargo is the world’s largest air freight forwarder. In 2001 the airline suffered union trouble at a time when growth stalled. The airline has been downsizing its Dragonair subsidiary since 2006. Cathay Pacific was involved in illegal price fixing and fined heavily in 2008. In 2009 the airline posted its worst financial results and is currently struggling to recover. Cathay Pacific is losing market share to rapidly improving Chinese and Taiwanese carriers, luxury Middle Eastern carriers and no-frills rivals.
Cathay Pacific’s on-board service is very understated. While other airlines employ interesting theatrical types for their crews, Cathay Pacific seems to employ efficient robots. They do their job very well without any interaction with passengers or any display of personality either. When you press your call button someone comes quickly and your needs are met. In First Class they are met with a smile, in Economy they are just met. Cathay Pacific’s staff are nicely dressed in a simple unsexy uniform. Crew seem to be almost entirely multi-lingual Hong Kong Chinese.
Cathay Pacific has a genuinely global network covering most of the world’s major airports. The airline is as much about transporting Canadians to Bali, or Americans to India as it is about serving the needs of Hong Kong’s population. Hong Kong’s shiny new airport is world class and its quiet interiors come as a refreshing change from the busy city itself. Cathay Pacific’s international network to Australia and New Zealand is better than Qantas’ or Air New Zealand’s. For example Adelaide to Amsterdam requires a single stop in Hong Kong but three stops on Qantas, or Auckland to Paris would be a single Cathay Pacific stop while Air New Zealand would have two.
Cathay Pacific offer mid range fares which are often not the best value around. If you are going direct to Hong Kong then Cathay Pacific often present good value, but to nearby destinations the same fare will get you on a better carrier like Taiwan’s China Airlines or Korean Air. Budget travellers will find real bargains on China’s many rapidly improving carriers whose network match or beat Cathay Pacific’s. Backpackers are spoilt for choice with dodgy discounters like AirAsia and Jetstar so tend to avoid Cathay Pacific.
Cathay Pacific has a big reputation to live up to in the catering department and it does not disappoint its First and Business Class passengers. Premium travellers are treated to a beautifully presented selection of gourmet delights soon after taking their seats. Meal presentation is excellent, serving portions generous and beverages perfectly match meal selections. Cutlery, chinaware, and linen are elegant and service compares with fine dining restaurants. However Economy passengers may be disappointed as meals resemble a combination of TV dinners and shopping centre food court cuisine. Cathay Pacific’s on-board catering in Economy is merely standard airline food that lacks any real distinguishing characteristics. But, unlike discount competitors, all catering is free.
Cathay Pacific’s entertainment system has been updated and is comparable to other quality airlines. In First and Business Class cabins video screens are very large and their StudioCX channel provides a wide range of current Hollywood and Asian blockbuster films, TV shows, sitcoms and the news. There are also games and audio channels in Asian and European languages. Economy passengers have the same system from a quite small screen, which cannot be seen properly when the front seat is reclined and window glare also prevents visibility for window passengers. The system is better than many competitors, but is not comparable with Emirates or Etihad.
Cathay Pacific provides very efficient service. In Hong Kong ground service is fast rather than friendly and premium passengers are treated like CEO’s rather than celebrities. Ticketing issues are treated quickly by staff who know the value of their customers. Baggage is handled efficiently and transiting through Hong Kong is a breeze with missing baggage a practically unheard of occurrence.
The distinction between First and Business Class is quite considerable. Both are very nice. First Class is very spacious as is Business Class, but some passengers may find the Business Class configuration not to their liking. All Business Class travellers face inwards and conversing with co-passengers is difficult if not impossible. This clearly has its advantages if you want to avoid colleagues you don’t like. First Class pyjamas are extremely stylish and make great gifts. Cathay Pacific’s Marco Polo Lounges are very functional but can be crowded. Interiors are sophisticated and modern. They’re clean, well stocked with nibbles and drinks but cannot be described as luxurious.
Cathay Pacific has a very good reputation so first time Economy travellers may be disappointed when they discover there is nothing really special about their flight experience. Check-in is ordinary, baggage allowance standard, on-board service discrete, meals alright and entertainment systems are also fine, but nothing to rave about. Aircraft can even appear to be old and interiors well worn. The overall experience is fine, but if you’re expecting to be wowed, you won’t be. Similar priced fares on different airlines travelling the same routes are simply better.
Cathay Pacific’s Asia Miles loyalty scheme is basically the same as most global airlines. Considerable travel is required before benefits materialise and individual Miles are basically worth nothing. However the scheme is well run and Miles can be earned on partner airlines the world over, hotels and numerous other service providers. It’s one of the best One World frequent flyer schemes, if not the best.
In the face of difficult economic times Cathay Pacific’s management have shown their true moral colours. When the going gets tough; ditch your morals. In 2001 the company confronted its pilots and behaved particularly nastily. Its balance sheet and reputation were irreparably damaged and court cases over pilot sackings continue. Cathay Pacific was an enthusiastic participant in illegal price fixing scams during the decade and has paid heavily in fines when the cartel was uncovered. It is difficult to believe the entire upper echelon of the company was not involved. Cathay’s skilled use of fuel hedging went sour when the prices stabilised in 2008. The praise did not turn to criticism as management like to view themselves as infallible. The reality is that Cathay Pacific has a poor corporate culture where corruption and law breaking are tolerated and instigated in the interests of protecting the bottom line.
Cathay Pacific has a good safety record. Its mixed fleet of modern aircraft are well maintained and they have their own Engineering facilities overseas in airports where they are hired to maintain the aircraft of other airlines too. The airline has operated without serious incident for a long time and passengers can relax knowing they are in one of the safest airlines in the sky today. Cathay’s pilots perhaps have been hardened up, flying into the old airport at Kai Tak, one of the world’s scarier runways which was replaced in 1998.
A very good airline that provides reliable service at an average price.
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