I’ve run out of superlatives thinking about how to describe my recent experience flying in Cathay Pacific’s Premium Economy cabin to Hong Kong and back.  I had to dust off my copy of Rodale’s 1361-page The Synonym Finder to look under words like “best” and “premier” in hopes of creating a more exhaustive list of ways to praise Cathay Pacific for making 16 hour journeys in the stratosphere not just tolerable, but comfortable, even memorable.  I never thought I could say such a thing about an experience flying 16 hours in coach, but there it is.  Frankly, I was stunned at how good the seats and service were.

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How did Julie Andrews describe herself as Mary Poppins?  “Practically perfect in every way!” That sums up how I feel about Premium Economy on Cathay Pacific.  Here’s a closer look at the moving parts that make Premium Economy such a superior product compared to what other airlines are offering:

Check-in

  • A dedicated Premium Economy check-in counter, supplemented by the Business Class check-in counter if a line develops for PE; check-in took less than 3 minutes in each direction.
  • Two pieces of luggage checked free and weighing an extra 5 KG (to 25 KG).

At the airport past security

  • The one bit that could be improved: no lounge access (Lufthansa, for example, allows lounge access to PE passengers for a reduced fee)

Boarding

  • A separate roped-off line for PE customers, who board about the same time as Business and ahead of standard economy.
  • I found boarding to be stress-free, simultaneous with Business, allowing time to get settled in before the hordes in sardine class board.

The Premium Economy cabin

  • Right behind Business and therefore easy to get on and get off.
  • A separately enclosed cabin from economy with 34 PE seats, 8-across instead of the 9-across in standard economy on 777-300 planes (7-across on the A330 pictured below versus 8 in standard economy)

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The seats

  • 38” pitch and 19.5” width versus 32” pitch and 18.5” in standard economy; that extra inch of width doesn’t sound like much, but it is!
  • The numbers alone don’t tell the tale; the PE seats are much more padded and cushioned and “sitable” than standard economy. Sitting comfort is very important for such a long flight.
  • The seats also provide a far greater sense of privacy than standard economy. I didn’t get the usual feeling of claustrophobia in my Cathay PE seat.
  • Partly, that is because each seat has separate (not shared) arm rests.
  • One seat across has been removed, too, making the PE cabin on the standard Cathay 777-300 aircraft 8-across rather than 9-across in standard economy.
  • The seats have amazing recline as well. Cathay says it is 8” but it feels like more.
  • The PE seat size and comfort are the key to making Cathay’s Premium Economy uniquely superb. The seats are as comfortable as a domestic first class seat, maybe better, certainly at least comparable.
  • All PE seats have foot rests.
  • The back of each seat has a small tray for holding smartphones or tablets and a USB port for recharging electronics.
  • Unique around-the-ear noise-canceling headphones are provided. They are not Bose but function at least as well.  I found them to be easy to wear for long periods while providing clarity of speech and sound.
  • A blanket and comfortable, cushy pillow are provided. The pillow is the ideal size and cushiness for the seat’s headrest, as if it was custom-made for it.
  • Cathay provides a big, tilting media screen and lots of entertainment options at every seat.

The service

  • Welcome drink (I chose Champagne over juice and even got a top-off).
  • The meals are much better meal than standard economy, reminiscent of Business Class meal service.
  • A small amenity kit with essentials like eyeshades and ear plugs.
  • During the 16 hour flight, Cathay FAs come around often offering water, snacks, and asking if PR passengers need anything.  For instance, on our flight to Hong Kong, my kids gradually ate up all the instant noodles on hand in the galley, thanks to the flight attendants repeatedly coming by to ask if they were still hungry.

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What it’s not

  • No lie-flat seats as in Business Class.
  • The meal service in PE is certainly better than the back of the plane, but it is served all at once, not the course-by-course service you get in Business Class.
  • The Champagne doesn’t flow endlessly, as in Business, but alcohol is available throughout the flight for those who want it.

What it is

  • Extremely comfortable seats spaced sufficiently far apart front to back and side to side to induce serenity and composure.
  • Calm and serene are not descriptors I have ever before associated with long-haul economy. There’s a reason the back of the plane is called cattle class.
  • Premium Economy should not include the word “economy.” It is in a class by itself, and it’s priced that way.  Fares are pegged above standard economy, but thousands less than Business Class, even when Business is discounted.

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It would be inaccurate to compare Cathay’s Premium Economy to, say, Delta’s Comfort+ (formerly Economy Comfort).  Cathay’s PE is so far superior to Delta’s offering as to be in an entirely different class (as I said above).  It would therefore be unfair to Cathay and its customers to contrast the two services as if they were equivalent.  They are not.

The same can be said for American’s Main Cabin Extra.  MCE is in no way comparable.  Though AA has announced an improved International Premium Economy product, full rollout is indeterminate and will surely take months, if not years.  Well, at least American has a plan, whereas Delta has nothing.

While our homegrown airlines dither, Cathay’s PE service is available on all their aircraft in its full glory right now and has been since early 2012. Flying Cathay Pacific in Premium Economy to Hong Kong was the best travel decision I’ve made in years.  I’ll be choosing Cathay now whenever they are going my way: serenity over agony.

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