Cathy Pacific to Hong Kong

Yesterday’s flight from San Francisco to Hong Kong was my first ever on Cathay Pacific, and I thought that I might post a few thoughts about it. After all, “CX” (Cathay Pacific’s IATA code) just got voted airline of the year, and where they lead others are likely to follow.
I was sitting in 66A in one of CX’s RR-powered 747-400s. If you’re going to be in coach on a CX 747, row 66 is a good choice: it’s the first row where the tapering of the fuselage causes the seats to go from 3-4-3 to 2-4-2. So I had plenty of space next to my seat, where I was able to keep my carry-on. Given that I didn’t want to put anything in the seat-back pocket (of which more anon), this was very convenient. The downside, of course, is that you can’t actually lean against the cabin wall. And of course being so far back meant that disembarking was exceptionally slow, which might have cost me an hour at the other end.
So there I was, in 66A, with a large man who tended to sprawl while sleeping sitting in 66C, and I was due to be there for 13 hours. So what could CX offer to make it enjoyable?
First, the in-flight entertainment system. Nice monitor in the seat back, with multifunction remote, and tons of content. Video-on-demand, with at least 50 different current and classic movies, plus audio, videogames, and so forth. Unlike US airlines, movies are not censored for content; it’s nice to be treated like an adult.
With all this going for it, it’s a shame that things went so badly. First, you have to use CX’s own headphones, with a unique three-pin plug. The phones are crap, and don’t block the considerable airframe noise that one gets from sitting just behind the wing. Second, the “airshow” moving map wasn’t working. And finally, I managed to completely wedge the system! About 2 hours into the flight, I was distracted by the fact that they offered that most addictive game “Bejeweled 2”. I sometimes play it on my iPhone, and I was curious how the user interface would work on the IFE handset. I played a couple of levels, then chose “Main Menu” and “Exit”, and my screen froze. The flight attendant tried twice to reset my IFE system, without success. She offered to reseat me, but there were no decent seats open.
So much for IFE. How about service? We got two meals, each with multiple choices (listed on the menu – CX still has menus in Economy!). All of the dishes were western-style; there was nothing particularly for any Chinese passengers. ((And speaking of passengers, I was struck by the different demographics of the CX flight compared with my UA trips last month. On UA, the mix was roughly 50-50 Western and Chinese. On CX, at least half of the passengers were Indian, presumably connecting at HKG to Indian flights on CX. The practical difference was that the CX flight was full of babies, small children and extremely elderly passengers. (One more reason why the CX headphones were inadequate.) )) As for the food itself, it was excellent: balanced, well presented, and tasty. The coffee and wines were just right, and the cheesecake was better than most US restaurants serve. In between meals, the water and juice kept coming at 50-60 minute intervals, and the flight attendants seemed happy to take special drink requests.
And that just leaves the seats. CX are introducing the so-called “shell seats” in Economy. The seat structure does not recline; instead the “recline” button causes the seat bottom to slide forward. The obvious benefit is that the guy in front of you can’t encroach on your space, but how well do they work? For someone like me, the answer is “not well”. I prepared for the experience by buying myself an inflatable lumbar pillow. (Some people use inflatable neck pillows for that purpose, but in my experience they aren’t firm enough.) This helped, but couldn’t make up for the uncomfortably firm seat bottom. I removed the magazines from the seat-back pocket to try to give my knees some extra space, which made things a little less cramped.
When large people sit in adjacent seats, the biggest area of conflict is not at the waist, but at the shoulder. (That’s why some airlines are looking at slightly staggered seat rows.) The good thing about the classic seat recline mechanism is that adjacent passengers can tilt their seats at different angles, reducing shoulder contact. With the shell seats, this possibility is eliminated.
The bottom line for me is that the seats in CX are so uncomfortable that I probably won’t fly them again. This is a shame, because in other respects it’s a great airline.
What of the trip itself? Boarding was well organized and accomplished quickly. We left late, and there were spells of severe turbulence, but we arrived on time. Disembarking took so long that I just missed the 7:30 ferry to Shenzhen Shekou, so I took the 8:30 boat. As I was about to get off the ferry, I realized that no-one had given me an arrival/departure card to fill in. (Who goofed? CX? The ferry crew?) Anyway, I noticed a box of various forms on the counter of the ferry snack bar, and found a blank arrival/departure card; I had just enough time to fill it in before I got to the front of the Immigration line. From there it was easy: I lined up for a red taxi (fending off all of the cowboy cabbies), gave the driver the cheat-sheet I’d prepared, focussed on my cellphone and ignored the crazy driving, and sat back until I saw the distinctive “KFC” a block from the hotel.
And here I am.