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Vancouver (YVR) - New York Kennedy (JFK)
Scheduled Departure: 22:55
Scheduled Arrival: 07:00 (next day)
Duration: 5:50hrs (actual: 4:27hrs)
Aircraft: Boeing 777-300ER (B-KPH)
Seat: 1A (First Class)
Cathay Pacific First Class is a product familiar to many, and I am no stranger to it either. Having flown in 1A with CX at least 10 times over the last 12 months, I was well aware of what to expect on this short hop across the continent. Even then, things have changed in Cathay Pacific First Class over the past year and it’s been noticeable on my more recent flights with the airline. I’ll explain more about this later in the post.
It was recently announced that Cathay Pacific will no longer be offering this 5th Freedom Route as of Spring 2020, so this is a unique opportunity that won’t be around much longer.
I last visited New York City over Christmas a few years ago, and knew I had to visit again when the weather was a little better. There’s only two daily direct flights to the New York area from Vancouver; Air Canada’s 787 service to Newark, and the Cathay Pacific 777 service to JFK. I’ve never flown Air Canada business class on a wide body aircraft, but space is very limited on the EWR route as it’s a business heavy premium route.
That left me with the Cathay Pacific red-eye. I had a quick look on the British Airways Avion Redemption page, and found availability in First Class on the exact dates I wanted. I went ahead and booked the outbound flight with 50,000 Avios, plus about $100. For the return journey, I called up Alaska Airlines and used 35,000 Mileage Plan Miles and $5.60USD for the one way flight - exceptional value. I recently called in to change this, making Vancouver a stop instead of the destination. I will be continuing on to Hong Kong in the new year in Cathay Pacific First Class as well; this change cost only 35,000 more miles, and about $160 USD in additional airport taxes and change fees.
British Airways Avios are pretty easy to come by here in Canada. American Express Membership Rewards transfer at a 1:1 rate, and there are often transfer bonuses in place which can add up to 50% to your balance. Avios can also be earned through RBC VISAs; most commonly the Avion Infinite & British Airways VISA, as well as a few others. Alaska Mileage Plan miles are a little harder to come by, as the MBNA Alaska Card is the only Canadian card to earn Alaska Miles directly. Miles can also be transferred from Marriott Bonvoy at a rate of 3:1 and a bonus of 5000 airline miles for every 60,000 Marriott points transferred. This means that 60,000 Marriott points would get you 25,000 Alaska Miles.
I also considered driving down to Seattle and booking an Alaska or Delta flight, since I have elite status with Alaska Airlines and access to the wonderful Delta SkyClub courtesy of my American Express Platinum Card. I also came across a direct flight on JetBlue Mint, but the pricing didn’t make sense when I could just redeem miles for Cathay.
Online check-in for Cathay Pacific opens 48 hours prior to departure, so I went ahead and entered all my details in the app two days before my flight. I originally got a message saying I couldn’t get a boarding pass online, and would have to collect it at the airport instead. This usually means you’ve been selected for additional screening; but when I checked the app the following day, I was able to get a mobile boarding pass.
I still needed to use the check in counter at the airport, since I had a checked bag. The counter at YVR opened three hours before departure, but was rather disorganized. One thing I really dislike about Cathay Pacific is most airports only have one agent for First Class, but OneWorld Emerald members can use the same line meaning long waits at times. I waited about ten minutes to check in, while economy class passengers were moving along faster due to having more agents available. Eventually another agent showed up and opened another business class counter, and called me over. The process from there was fairly smooth, although I did have to remind him to place a priority tag on my checked bag - he was pretty quick to tag it and try to send it down to the bag hall. He handed me my boarding pass and lounge invitation, and sent me on my way.
Thankfully Cathay Pacific has their own lounge at YVR, and it’s just as good as any of their outstation lounges. I wanted to give the British Airways lounge a try, but was rudely turned away with the agent stating “it’s only available for Club and First passengers travelling on BA”. I knew this wasn’t true, as the website states all OneWorld Sapphire/Emerald members and OneWorld airline premium passengers have access, but I really wasn’t in the mood to argue and it looked crowded anyways.
I made my way back to the Cathay lounge, which is located on Level 4 between gates 66 and 67. All business and First Class passengers have access, as well as anyone with Sapphire or Emerald status in the OneWorld Alliance. As I’m sure you could imagine, the place filled up very fast. It was still early, so I requested a shower. While I was waiting, I sat down with a glass of Piper Heidsek Champagne, and a bowl of Dan Dan Noodles and Har Gow.
The shower room was ready shortly after. It was nice and spacious, but doesn’t compare to the Cabanas at the Wing First Class Lounge in Hong Kong. It’s stocked with Aesop amenities, a standard for Cathay.
There’s plenty of seating in the lounge, even when it gets busy. The lounge is a nice enough place to relax before your flight, but a separate area for First Class would be nice since the current layout doesn’t offer much privacy.
Boarding was scheduled for 22:15, 40 minutes prior to departure. Around that time, I grabbed my belongings and headed for the elevator. The lady at the front desk said they weren’t ready to board yet, since the flight arrived late (only by 15 minutes). It seems several others had the same experience; I watched several groups head to the exit with their bags only to return to their seats a few minutes later. Everyone started to head to the gate around 22:30, but no boarding announcement had been made. I wanted to be one of the first on board, so I left around then as well. By the time I got to gate 67, it was already crowded, and there was just one line for First and business class passengers, shared with OneWorld Sapphire and Emerald members as well.
What a mess.
Agents came around checking boarding passes and passports, which seems to be a waste since they check passports again when scanning your boarding pass to board. By the time they finally started boarding, it was 22:52, just 3 minutes prior to scheduled departure.
I made my way down the jet bridge, and boarded though door 2L. I was pointed left towards the business class mini-cabin and First Class. Cathay Pacific flight attendants usually escort First Class passengers to their seats, but that wasn’t the case here. I’m not sure if this was a one-off, or another service cutback. I was offered a choice of water, orange juice, or champagne as I arrived at my seat. I ordered a glass of bubbly, which ended up being Taittinger Comtes de Champagne, instead of the usual Krug 2004. This was served with warm nuts, and a hot towel.
The crew typically offers pyjamas right after the welcome drink, but it took over 10 minutes and I didn’t receive pyjamas or an amenity kit until requested. I usually like to change into them before pushback, but with them being delivered so late things were pretty tight. I still made my way to the lav to change and was interrupted by a knock on the door from the crew asking me to return to the seat.
Pyjamas are provided by PYE, a Hong Kong based luxury clothing brand. Cathay offers several colours, and I’ve amassed quite the collection so far. They offered a beautiful navy blue this time, which I haven’t received before. The set also contains a coupon for 500 HKD off a purchase in PYE stores, worth about $80 CAD. It can also be exchanged for a handkerchief set if their clothing doesn’t interest you, or you’re not looking to spend anything. I’ve used these vouchers in the past for shirts, and they end up costing about $6 CAD each after the 500 HKD discount.
The amenity kits are provided in partnership with Aesop in First Class, and Seventy Eight Percent in business class. The Aesop kit contains the basics; a dental kit, ear plugs, some lotions, and a comb, while the eye mask comes with the pyjama set in a matching colour.
Cathay Pacific First Class offers some of the widest seats I’ve seen on any airline. I’m a pretty big guy, but there was still enough space for another person beside me.
The seat converts to a fully flat bed, which is quite comfortable with the mattress pad provided and hotel-like duvet and pillows. Unfortunately due to the short flight time between Vancouver and New York, I only managed to get an hour nap in and did not arrive well rested in the big apple.
THE FOOD & BEVERAGE:
This is where I noticed the biggest difference over the last year. The flight between Vancouver and New York always had a full meal service. In Cathay Pacific First Class, this means caviar and Krug 2004 to start, followed by a soup course, an entree (either western or Chinese options), a cheese course, and dessert with a glass of port.
I didn’t manage to get a shot of the menu this time, but the signature caviar service was no longer offered, and the Krug 2004 had been replaced with a much cheaper alternative - Taittinger Comtes de Champagne. Caviar service is a staple for any First Class flight, and I feel that this is obvious cost cutting - totally unacceptable for a flight which retails at over $6000 for a round-trip.
The service on this flight in one word - mediocre. As mentioned earlier, they pyjamas weren’t proactively offered right away with the welcome drink. This slow and reactive-rather-than-proactive service was mirrored throughout the flight. Sure, the cabin was full, but that’s no excuse. There were two First Class flight attendants for the 6 seat cabin, where other airlines often have 3 crew members dedicated to First Class (I had a flight earlier this year on Japan Airlines where I was the only First Class passenger, and had 3 flight attendants and the purser all to myself; this is a night and day difference in comparison to Cathay.) The crew was very to the point, and lacked the friendly service you come to expect on an international First Class flight. I wasn’t completely surprised by this however; I had a very similar flight between YVR and HKG in Cathay Pacific First Class in February where the service was pretty much non existent.
Cathay Pacific has cut back big time on service and food & beverage in First Class and the difference is definitely noticeable. This flight used to be exceptional, and I have taken the YVR-JFK flight many times with the airline; sometimes even taking an inefficient route just to fly it (NRT-JFK on JL, then connect to CX JFK-YVR rather than flying JL to LAX or SFO). It still remains the best option trans continental, but I have a hard time recommending it to someone hoping to experience the Cathay service. It simply isn’t what it once was.
Stay tuned for an upcoming post about my 5 night stay at the St. Regis New York.
Ijaaz has been fascinated by air travel since he was a child, and his goal is to become an airline pilot. Ijaaz’s family enjoys travel and takes a trip at least every couple years. His first trip to Asia was for a family wedding in 2015, when they visited Thailand and Hong Kong. Ijaaz was hooked at this point, and has since returned to Hong Kong at least a dozen times. He applied for his first credit card right after his 19th birthday, and has been in the points game ever since. His travels have taken him to over 30 countries all over the globe, and he is known to book flights last minute to new and interesting destinations.