Tried & Tested

Flight review: Cathay Pacific A350-900 economy class Taipei-Hong Kong

15 Jan 2019 by Michael Allen

Background

Cathay Pacific took delivery of its first Airbus A350-900 in 2016. 

On the way to Taipei, I reviewed Cathay’s economy class service on its A330-300 flying CX400. On the return leg, I was on the airline’s A350-900 flying the CX499 service, so I thought it worthwhile to conduct this review as well to see if the service is better on the new-generation A350.

Hong Kong-Taipei was the busiest commercial international flight route in the world in 2017, flown a total of 29,494 times by airlines. It also remains the single busiest route for Cathay Pacific, with some 1.82 million passengers booked on the route in 2017.

The aircraft has a 3-3-3 economy class configuration with 214 seats in economy class, 28 in premium economy and 38 lie-flat seats in business.

Check-in

There was only a short queue for economy check in at Terminal 1 of Taipei Taoyuan International Airport and Cathay had five check-in staff on duty serving economy passengers. Security was slightly busy, but the queue moved quickly and steadily. The wood panelling behind the check-in desk is a nice feature, warmer than the usual metallic backdrop, and something you don’t often see.

At immigration, non-citizens are directed to use an e-gate where you scan your passport and fingerprints. A staff member assists with this.

Shaped in a narrow, long rectangular shape, Taoyuan International Airport Terminal 1’s departure concourse feels considerably smaller than Terminal 1 at Hong Kong International Airport. Passenger flow on Monday morning was not too heavy though, meaning it did not feel overcrowded.

When I arrived, Gate B6 was still accommodating a different flight, so — not having lounge access — I went to a nearby bookshop to stand and browse a decent selection of English-language magazines (including Business Traveller Asia-Pacific).

Gate B6 has nearly enough seats for a full A350’s worth of passengers, though some did have to stand.

There are also four comfortable recliner seats up for grabs by early birds which, predictably, were already occupied when I arrived.

Gate facilities are good, with a water fountain (including eco-friendly thin paper cups) and a dedicated washroom for this gate. There is also an area with power sockets to charge your devices.

A nice touch is that the terminal is decorated with a colourful psychedelic mural of various Taiwanese fruits and animals, lending a bit of liveliness to what would otherwise be a fairly drab space.

Boarding

Boarding was orderly and done by rows. I was right at the back of the plane, so was among the first to board. We started boarding just after 0935, meaning we’d certainly miss our 0945 scheduled departure.

The seat

Seat 73K, at the very back right of the cabin, was the only window seat left. I was also offered an aisle seat, but it was only four rows further forward. Unlike on the A330, which has a 2-4-2 configuration, I had two people sitting to my left with the A350’s 3-3-3 set up, making my space feel less private. The seat initially felt spacious, until a very tall gentleman plonked down next to me, restricting the free space to my left. For such a short flight though it shouldn’t be too much of an annoyance, and whom you get as your seatmate as a solo flyer is usually potluck.

The cabin feels clean and new, however, and is immediately fresher looking than the A330 I took on the way here. There were no crumbs in the seat back as on that flight.

The in-flight entertainment is significantly more user friendly than on the A330. It has a larger screen that can be operated by touch, not quite as responsively as the latest smartphones and tablets, but not far off. It’s easy to search through the entertainment by category. One excellent feature that was unavailable on the A330 is a selection of digital magazines. These kind of magazine e-readers can often be clunky and unappealing to use, but this one lets you flick through the pages smoothly. However, as with the flight out here, I personally don’t need IFE for such a short flight, contenting myself with the free newspapers (The New York Times and South China Morning Post; no Financial Times, as on the flight out here) and writing this review.

The flight

At 1023, having taxied to the runway, the pilot announced we would have to return to the gate due to a technical issue with one of the onboard computers that engineers would need to address. We arrived back at the gate at 1033. One passenger with a 1250 connecting flight at Hong Kong raised her concerns with a cabin attendant about missing the connection. The attendant said she would contact Hong Kong about the matter and if we arrived by 1200 the passenger would not miss her connecting flight. Fortunately, I wasn’t connecting, but it was an inconvenience as I needed to be in the office in Hong Kong as soon as possible.

Around 1100, we were told the issue was resolved. However, the captain came back on the PA at 1113 to say we had a medical emergency on board and the cabin crew called out for any doctor on board. I was too far back in the plane to see what was ailing the affiliated passenger. At 1128, the pilot announced that they were speaking to doctors on the phone and he would update us again shortly. At 1132, the sick passenger was offloaded for medical assistance and we finally took off with a more than two-hour delay at 1153.

“Please write in your review that Cathay should improve its food on the Taipei-Hong Kong route,” Ting-Chun Wang, a Taiwanese frequent flyer and aviation enthusiast, implored me when I told him on Sunday, the day before my flight, that I would be reviewing this service. Indeed, the food on the way over had been lacklustre, but I thought perhaps Cathay would offer spruced up food on its newer aircraft.

Wrong. The scrambled egg and smoked ham lattice pastry tasted mostly of pastry, having too little filling. Alarmingly, it had more than 50 ingredients, not all of them natural-sounding. I ate it only because I was hungry and there was nothing else. The accompanying Anzac cookie had a more innocent seven ingredients, but combined with the Nestea, which is essentially tea-flavoured sugar water with over four teaspoons of sugar in the 250ml carton, it made for a rather unhealthy lunch.

I gobbled it all down nonetheless as I needed to rush straight to the office from the flight and wouldn’t have time to grab lunch upon landing. We were not offered any alternative drinks, even water, despite the over two-hour delay. Some passengers were given hot drinks, but no one offered me one and I felt a bit forgotten about at the rear corner of the plane.

Alice Woodhouse, a journalist at FastFT who used to live in Taipei and travels there at least twice a year, Tweeted me some tips for this flight.

We started our descent at 1245 and the captain apologised for the delay. We landed — a little hard — just before 1330 into a smoggy Hong Kong with very low visibility.

Verdict

A marginally better flight (the severe delay aside) than on the A330-300, mainly because of the newer seating and improved IFE, but Cathay really needs to step up its food and beverage offering on this route. It’s just a short hop, but customers would be right to expect a little more from this world-class airline. With several other full services carriers – Eva Air, China Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines – servicing this route and Cathay not always offering the cheapest fare, the airline should step up its F&B game if it wants to stand out.

Fact file

  • Price A return economy class fare in mid-February starts at 7,122 TWD ($231.04), including taxes and fees
  • Configuration 3-3-3
  • Seat width 18 inches
  • Seat pitch 32 inches
  • Seat recline 6 inches
  • Departure 0945
  • Flight duration 1 hour 50 minutes
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