Cathay Pacific (CX) began receiving its A350-900s in spring of 2016, and the London Gatwick route started in September with a four-times-weekly schedule. Though similar to its other products, this plane’s premium economy seats are slightly narrower than in other CX plane types (18.5 inches versus 19.5 inches) but with greater seat pitch (40 inches versus 38 inches).
This flight leaves from the South Terminal of Gatwick Airport. As I had to return a hire car I arrived at the airport at 0800 – fairly early for my 1135 scheduled flight, CX344. (The car rental area is conveniently located within a minute’s walk of the South Terminal entrance.) Check-in counters for CX are in aisle F; premium economy ticket holders must queue at the economy counters, which were quite busy with around 30 people lined up, but as I’m a Marco Polo Club member I could use the business class counters, which were empty. I was processed immediately and through customs within five minutes (I find Gatwick a much more relaxed airport than Heathrow).
You walk through a dedicated World Duty Free retail section – with over-enthusiastic salespeople – into the main departures area, which also contains shops. Food outlets are on the upper level, along with the lounges. You don’t get lounge access with a ticket for this seat class, but Marco Polo upper-tier members can make use of the No 1 Lounge – turn left at the top of the escalators and a door to the left of the Dixons shop leads to the lounges. Outside the lounges the main public area was bustling but there are plenty of places to sit or have a snack or drink. Charging points for devices can be found downstairs, and wifi is available but is only free for 90 minutes.
I made my way to gate 31 – a ten-minute walk – for boarding at 1055. The gate opened for premium economy and Marco Polo members at the same time as for business class passengers; I was quickly on board, where my jacket was taken to be hung in the closet, and I was offered a glass of sparkling wine, juice or water. We pulled back from the gate at 1140 and were airborne at 1155 – the captain had announced our flying time as 10 hours 55 minutes.
I was in seat 30A, a bulkhead window seat at the front of the premium economy cabin. Legroom was very good, and the central armrest wide enough to cater to both myself and my neighbour (just). The seat was firm and comfortable, detailed in shades of dark blue with brown leather on the arm and headrests, and a good cushion was provided for extra back support. Aisle seat armrests slide down at the press of a button to allow passengers to slide their feet to the side rather than get up when another passenger wishes to get out of their row – a useful feature.
Other benefits of this seat class include a small drink shelf that slides out from under the central armrest, a seat-back cubby hole that fits a phone and other sundries, and a small drop-down shelf for a personal tablet (not present in bulkhead seats) if you want to watch your own content. I liked the articulated, dimmable reading light next to the headrest, which provided enough light without being annoying for other passengers.
The 12.1-inch touchscreen monitor was excellent, with intuitive navigation through reams of video, music and games options. The shin-level pocket for magazines accommodated my laptop plus two newspapers with ease.
The seat’s recline is substantially better than in economy, the leg rest supports your calves well, and the footrest is extendable – though personally my long legs are awkwardly bent when using it. Sleeping is very much easier than in normal coach class – a basic amenity kit containing eye mask, socks, ear plugs and toothbrush also helps.
Wifi is available on CX’s A350s – it’s easy to connect to and costs US$9.95 for one hour, US$12.95 for six hours and US$19.95 for the whole flight.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE
Premium economy has its own cabin section, with 28 seats in a 2-4-2 configuration across four window rows and three central rows. As the cabin is not near either toilets or a galley, noise is not an issue. Bulkhead seats’ monitors are slightly too far to reach for touchscreen control without leaning forwards so it’s better to use the handset, but other than this there is no substantial benefit to one seat over another, and there’s plenty of overhead bin space for all.
Twenty-five minutes after takeoff the drinks trolley and menu were brought round. One white and one red wine were offered, as well as a selection of spirits, beer and soft drinks. I tried the young Boschendal Jean Garde chardonnay, which was palatable if a little acidic – the smoked almonds that came with it were a tasty accompaniment. (I also tried the Luis Felipe Edwards Central Valley 2014 cabernet sauvignon later in the flight, which was smooth with a nice finish.)
Lunch was served soon after: on the Hong Kong–Gatwick leg the excellent dinner menu had been prepared in partnership with renowned Hong Kong restaurant Mott 32, but there was no similar offering on this leg. However, my seared chicken fillet with sautéed baby spinach, herb polenta gallenti and pesto rosso was just as good as my earlier, highly satisfactory dining experience. (Other mains choices on this flight were beef tenderloin in black pepper sauce, or a vegetarian cheese agnolotti with rocket cream sauce.)
I worked for a short time after my meal – interestingly I found the folding pull-out table in premium economy to be sturdier and better than the one in business class (which I have also experienced).
I then watched a film and a couple of TV shows on the IFE – the excellent over-ear headphones are the same as in business class – before reclining my seat to sleep, as destination time was now midnight (the cabin lights were switched off 3.5 hours into the flight). I managed five hours of fairly restful sleep with the leg rest extended, seat reclined fully and eye mask on.
(I should note here, though, that while everything worked perfectly on my seat on this flight, on the first leg from Hong Kong my leg rest had not worked and my seat pocket’s bottom stitching had unravelled to render it useless, so I was moved to another seat four hours into that flight – the crew dealt with the problem very well. Given that we have highlighted problems with the FA Porsche-designed business class seats in previous reviews, it seems that this is an ongoing issue. While the design of both business class and premium economy seats is excellent from a user perspective, perhaps the manufacturing/production quality control needs to be looked at.)
At 0415 (destination time) the soft mood lighting in the cabin came on, increasing slowly as people woke up – a nice touch. Breakfast was fruit and yoghurt, plus a choice of prawn, chicken and egg noodles, or omelette, bacon, sautéd mushrooms, tomatoes and Lyonnaise potatoes. I chose the latter, and had no complaints – the coffee was also surprisingly good.
The plane landed at 0640 and was at the gate within five minutes – 20 minutes early. Immigration was clear, my bag arrived on the carousel by 0700 and I was on the Airport Express into the city by 0710 – a gratifyingly seamless process.
This is an excellent, award-winning premium economy product, as it combines the elements of a great seat, comprehensive software and fine service into an appealing overall experience. The caveat here, however, is that your seat functions properly – once Cathay irons out any minor seat issues it can be justifiably proud of its A350 service.
Journey time: 11 hours 30 minutes
Aircraft type: A350-900
Seat pitch: 40in/102cm
Seat width: 18.5in/47in
Seat recline: 9 inches
Price: Internet rates for a return premium economy class flight from Hong Kong to London Gatwick in mid-January 2017 start from HK$15,917 (US$2,052) including taxes and surcharges.