Category: Asia Flying

10,288 miles nonstop on Singapore Airlines in Premium Economy

FEBRUARY 7. 2019 — For a three-day trip to Singapore this past week (just arrived home yesterday, February 6), I booked the Singapore Airlines nonstop flight from Newark. It is, at the moment, the longest flight on earth at between 17 and 19 hours, depending. Singapore Airlines in Premium Econmy makes flying nonstop 10,288 miles better than merely bearable.

Although it saves substantial time over alternate ways to get to Singapore from the U.S. East Coast, and even with 30 years of experience flying ultra-long legs, I wondered if I could endure it, especially since I opted for Premium Economy, not Business Class. The A350-900ULR aircraft used on the nonstop is fitted out with only Business Class and Premium Economy seats—no economy class at all.  PE fares were far cheaper than Business, so…

Bottom line: No sweat.  I flew over, arriving Sunday night, and flew home late Tuesday night.  Kudos to Singapore Airlines for making Premium Economy service as painless as possible.  It was better than just okay; I would do it again. Read my full report here.

Cathay Pacific super-sale booked and bought on my mobile

December 7, 2017 — Though I routinely employ the Amazon app on my Samsung smartphone to order and purchase an array of useless junk, I’ve shied away from large buys like airline tickets except on my laptop. That is, until now.

Last week I attended a two-day transit conference in Richmond and didn’t think I’d need my computer.  I’d already seen the Cathay Pacific super-sale offer that dropped like a gift from the heavens on Black Friday. Cathay’s eye-popping roundtrip deals to Hong Kong and beyond in Premium Economy were as low as $1,184, and in Business starting at $3,187, all priced the same from any U.S. gateway city.

The enticement to spend a few lovely days in Hong Kong again and to ride there and back in Cathay Pacific’s superb Premium Economy cabin for so little money excited my wife and me, but with a kid in 9th grade, we remain tethered to the school calendar and just couldn’t find dates that would work. Though the fare sale extended through the following Wednesday, my wife and I failed to hit pay dirt after spending the weekend feverishly comparing calendars. So I drove up to Richmond Monday afternoon with my cell phone and no laptop, certain that we weren’t going to Hong Kong on this sale.

Meantime, I spread the word hither and yon among my friends about Cathay’s extraordinary sale and the world-class service we had experienced with the airline over the 2016-17 Christmas-New Year’s holiday in Cathay’s PE cabin.  The wide date range for outbound travel allowed on this fare sale (January 1 to May 23) and liberal return policy (up to six months from date of departure) persuaded a number of folks I alerted to buy tickets on Cathay for no reason except to experience Hong Kong and to see what Premium Economy was like on the way there and back.

Most of those friends who bought passage during the sale were already aware of Cathay Pacific’s great business class comfort, privacy and top-notch service. They were also impressed with the ultra-low three grand fare in business.  However, none had before flown Premium Economy aboard any carrier, let alone in CX’s superior compartment.  They took my word that it was grand and bought tickets to satisfy their curiosity about PE while enjoying all the charm and food delights that Hong Kong has to offer at a very reasonable fare.  One told me he couldn’t NOT go at those prices!

By the time I reached the Marriott in Richmond on Monday afternoon, my phone was constantly buzzing with questions from friends and colleagues interested in leaping on the great Cathay deal before the clock ran out on Wednesday. Sharing their thrill was not quite the same as the exciting prospect of booking my own trip, but I was resigned that we couldn’t go this time.

Then Tuesday afternoon my wife emailed with a tiny travel window that would work for us.  Her plan, however, required leaving on the very last day of the outbound travel range, May 23.  My calendar showed May 23 to be the date of the regional transit authority’s Board of Trustees meeting.  As a Board officer, I’m honor-bound to attend meetings, which begin at noon.  Allowing for time to get to RDU airport, fly to JFK, and then get to our gate after the Board meeting meant that we could only book a late evening Cathay flight JFK/HKG.  Was there one?  Even if so, it seemed unlikely that Premium Economy seats would be available on the last flight on the last outbound legal date of the fare sale. Our temporary joy was dashed.

Crestfallen, I opened the Cathay sale site on my Samsung S7 browser and scrolled through all the departures available on May 23.  And there it was: CX889 JFK/HKG, departing at 21:55 (9:55 PM) on May 23.

But were there Premium Economy seats remaining at the dirt-cheap sale price on the last flight on the last allowable outbound travel date?  Scrolling around with my fat fingers on the tiny screen I determined that, yes indeed, PE seats at $1,1,84 round trip were available.  I hit the “book” button for two seats with trepidation, my digit swaying nervously over the itty-bitty screen.

Boom! Cathay accepted the booking and asked for payment.  Did I dare give it my credit card over the loosey-goosey Marriott guest wifi?  Well, hell, I thought, I had no choice because I wasn’t going to get home to my computer until the time had expired on the Cathay fare sale. I could either do it or let the sale pass.

But I wouldn’t do it on an open wifi network.  Careful to keep my browser window active, I turned off the wifi radio on my smartphone in order to conduct the credit card processing via the cell phone network rather than the Marriott guest wifi, which I suspected was as holey as Swiss cheese. Steadying each finger, I punched in my account number and other data, and Cathay issued the ticket, my first-ever via a smartphone. Pretty soon an e-ticket email arrived for both of us.

Our flights stop in Vancouver in both directions, which will mean being trapped in a brightly-lit, glass-walled box in the middle of the night for 90 minutes inside security while the plane is serviced and boarded there.  That’s not going to be fun, but since this was the sole schedule that worked for us, and since we are paying next to nothing to fly 16,142 miles in comfort, who’s complaining?

And, happily, there have been no reported dishonest charges on the credit card I used to purchase the Cathay tickets via my smartphone.

Cathay Pacific or Qatar: Which has the better long-haul business class?

MARCH 22, 2016 — Fortune has smiled on me twice in recent months, allowing me to sample a couple of the best long-haul business class cabins in the sky: Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways.  Both are superb alternatives to the premium classes offered by the Big Three U.S. carriers (United, Delta, and American, in case you need reminding).

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Why not compare Qatar or Cathay business class to the sharp end services of DL, UA, or AA? The better question is, Why bother?  I won’t trash our homegrown carriers for their premium offerings, but a number of foreign carriers, including Qatar and Cathay Pacific, offer international business and first class services far superior to what’s available on made-in-America airlines.

The word to describe Qatar and Cathay business class is “sublime.”  I will say up front (no pun intended) that it isn’t a matter of which is better because each has its merits.  But the services are not identical in every respect, making the differences worth noting.

Airlines and hub airports

Cathay serves 190 destinations from its mega-hub in Hong Kong, while Qatar serves over 150 places around the globe from its mega-hub in Doha.  The global reach of both, combined with a good connecting network to, and within, the USA, makes them competitive from the States to just about anywhere.

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One of the tastefully furnished and beautiful Cathay Pacific business class lounges

Both hub airports are eye-popping gorgeous, not to mention modern, sleek, and bright-shiny clean, the opposite of, say, dingy, shopworn JFK or ORD.  Added to which, Hong Kong and Doha airports boast big and spectacular home airline business class lounges with all the services, food, and drink one could ask for.

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One half of the stupendous Qatar Airways business class lounge at Doha Airport, so large that I could not get it all in one shot.  The upstairs restaurant in the distance is also part of the lounge.

I would be hard-pressed to say that either Cathay’s classy and luxurious business class lounges at HKG (four, or five if you count the Arrival Lounge) or Qatar’s single but mind-blowingly big business class lounge at DOH is better than the other. Both air carriers’ business class lounges offer five-star comestibles and libation, along with a full array of creature comforts and business accoutrements for ease of work.  Experiencing the home airport lounges of both airlines is unforgettable.

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Looking back from the photo above to see the other half of the Qatar business lounge in Doha.

Aircraft and time

I flew from Hong Kong to Chicago in Cathay’s business cabin on one of their standard 777-300 aircraft, about 15 hours.

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Cathay Pacific 777-300 being prepped at Hong Kong for the flight to Chicago.

On Qatar Airways I flew on a brand new A350 from Philly to Doha and back, about 12 hours going and 14 hours returning.

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Qatar Airways brand new A350 ready for boarding in Philadelphia

I also flew in business via Qatar A330s to and from Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, but I will stick with the long-haul flights in this post.

All flights on both carriers were on time or early.  Okay, that has nothing to do with business class since one class doesn’t arrive sooner than another.  But what good is comfort and luxe if the basic operation stinks?  Qatar and Cathay pay close attention to schedule-keeping and therefore achieve consistently reliable operations, which makes a discussion of class merits relevant.

Cabin look and feel

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Cathay Pacific 777 business class privacy pods. The flight attendant reprimanded me for taking this photo. I appreciated the airline’s commitment to individual seclusion.

Cathay Pacific’s business class cabin is configured 1-2-1 in the Dilbert office cubicle style, which is to say, each business class unit is walled off from every other by tall partitions that emphasize privacy and solitude.  Looking down the cabin at the lines of tall panels, one cannot easily tell which seats are occupied.

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Cathay business class privacy pods

To me, the effect shouts: “Do not disturb!”—which isn’t a bad thing.  About midway to Chicago, though, I wondered if anyone would even notice should a passenger cocooned in a business class pod die.  I also felt occasionally claustrophobic amid the high walls and was glad to have access to a window seat.

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Cathay business class seats are ultra-comfortable and have a plethora of storage compartments, the one open here for shoes.

I guess you can tell that I am no fan of the complete isolation generated by the cube farm design, but as many of my trusted frequent flyers have impressed upon me, this type of private cabin configuration is exactly what the majority of business travelers want these days.  Thus Cathay is, as usual, ahead of the curve. I respect and applaud the airline emphatically responding to statistically valid data:  My nits are negated by market research.

Cathay’s 777s are equipped with the newest mood lighting of different color variations for encouraging sleep and easy transitions through multiple time zones.  The effect was not limited to business class, of course, but I perceived that the effect was somehow heightened within the walls of my cubicle and aided in sleeping.

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Qatar A350 business class cabin radiates full mood light when boarding in Philly

Qatar’s spit-polished brand new A350 on the Philadelphia-Doha is, with the Boeing 787, the newest airplane technology flying.  The interior looks and feels ultra-modern.  PHL/DOH is a morning departure that flies east into darkness to the Middle East half a day later.  The pink-orange mood lighting gave the cabin a sci-fi glow designed to begin the body’s transition to the abrupt time change.  The weird hues took a few minutes to adjust to, after which they seemed strangely normal.

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Qatar A350 business class seats have a lower profile than Cathay’s, making the cabin feel more open, but at a sacrifice to individual privacy.

The Qatar 1-2-1 business class cabin on its newest aircraft contrasts sharply with Cathay in the absence of the cube farm dividers around seats.  The medium high partitions give the fuselage cross-section a welcoming open sensation that appealed to me as I settled in, though research shows that I am in the minority.  Most business class patrons want the higher wall seats that Cathay uses.

Business class on the Qatar A350 is divided into two sections by a boarding door.  Between the sections is a kind of foyer with attractive low curving cabinets made to look like mahogany on which flowers and Champagne normally are placed.  The curves and low cabinet design combine with the low seat dividers to effect a mood of spaciousness to the overall business cabin.

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Qatar A350 mid-cabin cabinet in business class. Champagne and flutes are kept on the shelf throughout the flight. Note blue mood lighting for westbound flight from Doha to PHL.

The A350 (and the 787) are designed to feel more natural in flight, maintaining, for instance, higher levels of humidity than older planes.  I couldn’t discern the difference; I found both the Cathay 777 and the Qatar A350 to be equally comfortable.  I suspect being in the lap of luxury of business class on both flights had something to do with my sense of ease and well-being.

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One of the many small storage compartments in Qatar’s business class seats.

Both Cathay and Qatar business class seats are marvelously comfortable, with infinite seat and recline positions, including lie-flat, and with all kinds of storage compartments and lights and privacy panels.  Both have huge LCD screens fueled by muscular entertainment systems with more than 500 movies, TV, and other video choices.  Qatar and Cathay Pacific both provide their own brand of noise-canceling headphones to use as well.  I found the sets acceptable and comfortable enough not to dig out my own Bose headphones.  I admit to watching a bunch of movies that I’d missed as theatrical releases, such as Mr. Holmes and Bridge of Spies.  I have come to realize that on-demand entertainment airplane systems loaded with great content tied to a large hi-res screen and used with good noise-canceling headphones make the long hours fly by (pun intended).  That and sleep, of course, which the business class lie-flat seats are designed to ensure.

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The A350 has new-fangled window shades with two layers, one transluscent and the other the usual black-out, that operate electrically, like this one on Qatar.

Service on board

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The never-empty Champagne flutes on Cathay Pacific in business class. Thank you, Cathay!

Cathay Pacific and Qatar excel equally in top-notch in-flight service as soon as one steps off the jetway all the way to opening the doors at destination: a bottomless glass of welcome Champagne (real French bubbly, not the cheap swill served by some carriers) followed by endless gifts of pillows, blankets, menus, amenity kits, hot towels, cold towels, chocolate, food, more food, even more food, more drink, pajamas, and on and on—and all offered with a genuine smile and eagerness I have not seen among U.S. cabin crews in a very long time.

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Qatar offers two Champagne choices, even for boarding.

Taken together with the splendid integrated entertainment systems provided by both Qatar and Cathay, the on-board service was, well, as I said, sublime!  Overall, compared against forty-five years of experience on most global airlines’ very long routes in first, business, premium economy, and economy classes, I reconfirmed that I am better rested and much more alert leaving a long-haul business class experience than when flying in the back of the plane on ultra-long-haul flights, regardless of carrier.

Yes, again, please!

Flying business class on either Qatar or Cathay Pacific is an experience several pegs above the rest of the world’s pack of airlines, not just better than the U.S. carriers.  Whenever I can afford it, I’ll be doing it again on very long-haul flights.

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Business class on a Qatar A350 in Doha

 

Low cost carrier Jetstar Airways proves tolerable, even preferable

JANUARY 21, 2016 — In a recent post I described with ebullience the delightful experience of flying Cathay Pacific’s marvelous Premium Economy JFK to Hong Kong.  This was originally an itinerary planned on Delta, but changed at the last minute to Cathay due to Delta rez system’s maddening, multiple, involuntary seat reassignments (described here). My onward flight Hong Kong to Singapore might have therefore been on Cathay had I not first booked DL, but, as it was, Delta doesn’t fly between HKG and SIN, and I thus had booked on Jetstar several months in advance.

Jetstar Dreamliner

It’s just a 2.5 hour flight to Singapore, so I chose the least expensive (nonrefundable, of course) fare I could find using Jetstar’s online engine: a mere $135 one way, priced and paid for on my Amex card in Hong Kong dollars.  This low price included the extra cost of 20 kgs of checked luggage per person and a hot meal, both selected from a menu of additional services presented when I made the booking.

Though usually I carry on all my bags, I couldn’t find Jetstar’s carryon policies online and purchased the checked luggage option as an insurance policy. My decision to buy meals was driven by the time of day (late afternoon flight) and traveling with my wife and two kids.  It’s never a good idea to risk one’s children going hungry flying into dinnertime.

Jetstar, I knew, was the low cost carrier owned by QANTAS, and my expectations of its service were accordingly low.  Like Air Asia and other Asian LCCs, Jetstar charges a la carte, and I had visions of hellish service like that attributed to bare bones, mean-spirited RyanAir.  Perhaps not expecting much contributed in part to the reasonably happy experience my family of four enjoyed with Jetstar.

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Arriving at Hong Kong Airport’s Terminal 2 to check in, I noticed that Jetstar had several flights posted, including ours to Singapore and an earlier departure to Hanoi, but the actual check-in counters were not shown.  I asked the friendly airport information staff which counters would be used for Singapore, and they could not tell me.  Their uncertainty was more surprising to them than to me, and it took the better part of an hour for them to verify where to check in.

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Later I found out the source of their confusion:  Jetstar is actually four separate operations, each one an independent company:  (1) intra-Japan/international Japan, (2) intra-Vietnam/international Vietnam, (3) intra-Australia/New Zealand/international Australia/NZ (to HNL), and (4) international Asia (based in SIN).  We were flying the latter Jetstar manifestation.  Looking at it from the passenger point of view, it seems overly complex, but Qantas has their reasons for walling off each carrier, each one legally separate for tax, joint venture, and contract reasons.

Since all four airline operations share the same name and logo, Hong Kong airport staff was understandably baffled trying to identify one Jetstar from another. They finally grasped, as I did, that each carrier was unique, but we still had trouble confirming what counters would be open to check us in to Singapore.  Meanwhile, the Vietnam version of Jetstar began checking in for the Hanoi flight.

When the counters began checking in for our Singapore version of Jetstar, it was a fast, efficient, and friendly process.  I was impressed.  I had a printed version of my receipt in hand, but counter agents found our four reservations simply by my passport and handed me four boarding passes.  I asked about carryon allowances, and they gave the green light to take on all we wanted and were astonished that I chose not to check the 80 kgs of luggage that I had paid for.

After clearing immigration, we found the downstairs boarding gate with a bus that would take us to the plane parked out on the ramp.  Jetstar is too cheap to pay for a Jetway.  We waited in a very long line to board the bus, but again Jetstar gate staff did a great job of walking the queue to check every person’s boarding pass and to match it to their passport.  A mark was made on the boarding passes that would verify our identity as staff at the door let us through to get on the bus.

I guess Jetstar didn’t fancy the added expense of a second bus, somehow shoehorning close to 180 passengers onto a single vehicle, a sardine-like feeling that was the low point of the entire Jetstar experience. Qantas is reputed to go out of its way to remind its Jetstar passengers that there are no perks if you didn’t pay for any.  Sadly, there were no perks for sale to exempt passengers from the jammed-in crowding of the tarmac bus ride, or else I might have sprung for the option.

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Once on the ramp, embarking upon the all-coach Airbus A320 was surprisingly orderly in the old-fashioned manner of walking up a boarding stair. We found our seats in row 6 quickly, and there was plenty of overhead space for all our bags.  Most people had checked their luggage, which meant little competition in the compartments.

The plane departed slightly behind schedule and was 10 minutes late at the gate in Singapore (a real gate—no ramp parking cum bus ride this time).  Again, I was pleased with Jetstar.  En route hot meals were handed out based on who had ordered in advance, and we were surprised to find them very tasty.  I was able to pay for a beer on board for five Singapore dollars (about US$3.50), a Dester (actually a malt liquor) brewed on Sarawak. On board service was friendly, fast, and efficient, much like the ground staff had been, and the cockpit crew kept us informed of our progress.

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Overall, Jetstar service was fine and good value for the cheap fare we paid.  Yes, it was a cattle car, not by any means the Cathay Pacific experience which I raved about.  However, no complaints except for the hard seat which would have been painful to endure on a longer flight.

Welcome to the new world of flying? Before trying Jetstar, I thought that I’d prefer the American full service airline model that doesn’t price everything a la carte. That said, more and more U.S. airlines seem to be drifting in that direction, parsing economy compartments into separate fare buckets that push those who pay the least to back of the plane and condemning them to little, if any, service unless they pay for individual perks.  In the sense that Jetstar’s one class service treats every passenger the same, I now think it’s a model I prefer to the one that Delta, for instance, is moving to.

Cathay Pacific produces the premier, peerless, preeminent, paramount, perfect Premium Economy

JANUARY 5, 2016 — 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.  Click here to read  how good the seats and service were.