There are precious few business travellers who can regularly afford first class travel, even for the longest of business trips. But fly often enough, get a gold card or just strike it lucky, and you may get upgraded. What can you expect? A significantly different experience to one in business, it turns out.
Flying back from Hong Kong in business with Cathay is already a premium proposition. I arrived at Hong Kong’s Chek Lap Kok airport at 2130 for my CX255 0035 flight to London, having once again already checked in online and chosen a window seat upstairs on the Boeing 747-400. I checked in a piece of luggage at the online check-in counter, and moved quickly through immigration and security. Cathay has four flights daily between London and Hong Kong, with weekday departures from HK at 0035, 0940 (0945 Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday), 1450 and 2355. Flight time is around 13 hours.
Cathay has two business and to first class lounges at Chek Lap Kok. One of each are in the Wing, close to Gate 4, and the others by Gates 64/66. My flight was departing from Gate 4, which is on the left once you pass through security. First class passengers can walk straight into the lounge, while those in business have to descend to the ground floor, pass by some shops, present themselves at a desk and then get a lift back up to the first floor they have just left (though this is described as levels 6 and 7, since the airport is numbered from parking levels upwards). It’s a bit cumbersome, but the only other way of accessing the business class lounge would be to walk through the first lounge, and I suppose the temptation to flop down in a first class lounge would be too much for most of us.
The Cathay business lounge is very large, as you would expect at the carrier’s home airport. There is a short bar for snacks, a longer one and a noodle bar for more involved food, including freshly made hot noodle dishes. You order the food, and take away an electrical device which flashes when your food is ready. I thought this was a superb idea, and in five minutes when my food was ready, it was delicious. There was a large range of snacks and drinks, but I went for green tea. Level 6 has a room full of Playstation video games, a further lounge and a smoking bar behind a glass door which was much less crowded (perhaps a reflection of the popularity of smoking with high-end passengers?).
As with the BA lounge, the Cathay lounge is directly under the roof of the airport, with a glass balcony allowing passengers to view the gates. The lounge itself has a wonderfully simple and spare design, courtesy of British architect John Pawson. It is equipped with free wifi, which I used for two hours, getting lots of work done. However, during this time there had been lots of announcements paging passengers and giving details of a delayed departure to Paris, so I had wrongly assumed my flight would be called. It was only by chance that I saw a sign telling me this was not the case “to preserve the peace of the lounge”. In a rush, I went down to Gate 4 rather quickly at 0015, worrying I might be refused admittance onto the flight, but instead was upgraded to seat 2K, first class.
The 12 seats in first have two dedicated toilets (which felt larger than those in business class), and three members of staff. There are also more generous baggage allowances both for carry-on and check-in, though of course in the case of a last-minute upgrade, there’s no opportunity to take advantage of this. The Cathay seat in first class is fully flat. It measures 189cm in length with a width of 63.5cm (56cm between arms) and a seat pitch of 201cm.
Experienced travellers know better than to accept the offer of alcohol on a long flight such as this overnight one, and I twice refused before realising that in first class you are served Krug champagne, worth delaying sleep for half an hour or so. Unfortunately, this same argument also extended to the Puligny Montrachet Les Grandes Marches 2002 and the Chateau Lynch Bages 1998, as well as caviar and Balik salmon “Tsar Nocolaj” served with warm new potatoes and crème fraiche as well as dishes served from the menus of Hong Kong’s finest restaurants (listed, so I could receive a 20 per cent discount if I presented my boarding pass any time in 2006).
We were informed that because of favourable winds it would be a shorter than usual flying time to London, but because we could not land at Heathrow before 0600, we would have to delay take-off by 25 minutes. In the meantime, first class passengers were offered a cotton bag containing a matching set of Shanghai Tang slippers, sleep mask and pyjamas. When take-off came, it was a noticeably different sensation from elsewhere in the plane, being bumpier and noisier – especially with the front landing gear beneath us. Entertainment in business and first comes from Studio CX which has some 50 films and 100 TV shows, this having been introduced earlier this year. The system is AVOD (in other words you can stop, pause and rewind) and is excellent. This time I resisted the entertainment, and made the best use of the flat bed seat by spending much of the flight asleep.
We arrived at around 0610 and were quickly off the plane. The bridge met the door most conveniently for business class passengers, most of whom disembarked before the first class passengers. It was only when we got to immigration and I could use the new iris-recognition gates that I could steal a march on everyone else.
Excellent. First class comes at a significant price premium over business class, so paying for it will be out of the reach of most, but as a taste of what the wealthy – or upgraded – few, are enjoying, it was highly tempting.
A return fare in first class from Heathrow to Hong Kong with Cathay Pacific costs from £6,433.