Flight Report: HKG-ICN on Cathay Pacific Flight CX 438 (23 January 2020)

In today’s Flight Report, we’ll board one of Cathay Pacific’s new Airbus A350s for a look at their latest-generation Business Class product. The journey is short at less than three hours, but with Seoul – one of my favourite holiday destinations – at the other end and a premium cabin experience in between, this promises to be a trip to remember.

Welcome aboard Cathay Pacific flight CX 438.

Note: The details presented here are only for the specific flight reviewed. This information might not hold true for previous or future flights, even if operated by the same airline on the same route and/or under the same flight number.

For the sake of brevity, IATA airline and airport codes have been used throughout this report in place of full names (e.g., “CX” instead of “Cathay Pacific”; “HKG” instead of “Hong Kong International Airport”).

This review covers the second segment (HKG-ICN) of the outbound leg of a round-trip MNL-ICN-MNL journey, where HKG was the transit point on both legs. Please click on the embedded links to read my reviews of the first (MNL-HKG) and third (ICN-HKG) flights. A separate review of the final segment (HKG-MNL) will be published in due course.

IMPORTANT! This report does NOT reflect operational changes that may have been introduced after my January 2020 flight because of the ongoing global health emergency. Additional pre-boarding procedures – such as temperature checks – and modifications to in-flight service and amenities should be expected.

ROUTE MAP

OVERVIEW

Note: All times are local. Seoul (GMT+9) is one hour ahead of Hong Kong (GMT+8).

Flight details

Airline and flight number : Cathay Pacific (CX) 438
Route : Hong Kong, China (IATA code: HKG) to Seoul-Incheon, South Korea (IATA code: ICN)
Ultimate origin : Manila, Philippines (IATA code: MNL) via CX 934
Route type : International
Date : Thursday, 23 January 2020
Scheduled departure time : 08:10
Actual departure time : 09:17
Scheduled arrival time : 12:40
Actual arrival time : 12:58

Equipment and cabin

Aircraft : Airbus A350-900
Manufacturer : Airbus
Registration number : B-LRU
Passenger capacity : 38 Business, 28 Premium Economy, 214 Economy (280 total)
Cabin configuration (seat maps) : Official Site
Travel class flown : Business Class

Here’s B-LRU on the tarmac at HKG, surrounded by a fleet of support vehicles as she’s prepped for our imminent departure…

…which turned out to be not quite as imminent as expected.

Fortunately, I was on holiday and in a quite jovial mood, so the mild delay was of little concern to me. At any rate, it gave me the chance to shoot more pictures of the aircraft.

B-LRU was delivered in October 2017, making it just a few months past 2 years old when I walked aboard for flight CX 438. As we’ll see later in this report, the aeroplane was fitted with CX’s latest-generation long-haul Business Class product.

Even though the HKG-ICN route is quite short – about 3.5 hours on paper, less than 3 in the air – CX occasionally rotates its long-haul aircraft into this corridor (as it also does on other Asian regional routes). In fact, my original booking had me in long-haul cabins for 2 flights out of 4, and a change for the return leg bumped the tally up to 3 of 4. Needless to say, CX’s long-haul Business Class seats are far superior to its equivalent regional product, so experiencing them on these relatively brief flights really added a bit of kick and spice to my holiday (nearly rivalling the fun I had on the ground in Korea).

BAGGAGE

CX’s baggage allowances depend chiefly on your travel class, but there are also different rules for specific routes. Limits on dimensions and piece weight must also be adhered to; for example, no single bag can weigh over 32 kg (70 lb) no matter what allowance you’re entitled to. For detailed terms, refer to the fine print on your ticket and to the details published on CX’s official website.

My Business Class ticket came with a complimentary checked baggage allowance of two pieces totalling 40 kg (88 lb). I was also permitted to bring one piece of cabin baggage and the usual small item on board, weighing no more than 10 kg (22 lb) all together.

At MNL, the check-in agent tagged my luggage all the way through to my final destination (ICN). She also attached a Business Class priority label before sending the bag on its way. In the end, the priority label wasn’t of much use as ICN’s infamously long immigration queues kept me airside for a considerable period. By the time I arrived at the baggage carousel, it seemed that most of the aeroplane’s load – regardless of travel class – was already on the belt and awaiting reclaim.

AT THE AIRPORT

Origin

My ultimate point of origin was Terminal 3 (T3) of Ninoy Aquino International Airport (IATA code: MNL)…

…but my immediate point of origin for this particular segment was Hong Kong International Airport (IATA code: HKG).

Click here to read a travel report documenting my overnight layover at HKG.

Check-in and transit

All of the check-in formalities were completed at MNL, prior to my first flight segment (MNL-HKG on CX 934). Read my separate travel report about CX 934 to learn more.

I was issued two boarding passes at MNL: one for my initial MNL-HKG leg on CX 934, and another for my succeeding HKG-ICN leg on CX 438. I was also given two lounge invitations, the first for MNL (at the Cathay Pacific Lounge on Level 4) and the second for my transit in HKG (valid at all four CX Business Class lounges there).

The transit formalities at HKG were smooth and painless, especially since I was already holding an onward boarding pass to my final destination (ICN). This meant undergoing the abbreviated procedure described on HKG’s official website.

From the gate where CX 934 docked, I simply followed the “Transfer” signs until I reached one of HKG’s dedicated transit zones.

A staff member checked my onward boarding pass before allowing me through to the security screening lanes.

After making my way through the gauntlet of body and luggage scans, I mounted an escalator that brought me up to the departures hall of HKG’s main terminal. At that point, I simply became another departing passenger waiting for his flight.

Now if I didn’t have an onward boarding pass, I would have had to seek out my airline’s assigned transfer desk and secure a boarding pass for the next flight before undergoing security screening. Read more about it on the airport’s official website.

Needless to say, the ongoing global health emergency has led to the introduction of additional screening procedures and documentary requirements at many airports, HKG included. Since this flight took place just before pandemic-related restrictions were introduced, and because of the very fluid situation around travel bans and border checks related to the emergency, I shall make no attempt to describe the changes here. Refer to the official website of HKG, your origin airport, your airline, the relevant government agencies, and other reliable sources to collect up-to-date information on your own specific journey.

Lounge

CX operates six lounges at HKG. Two of these are exclusive to First Class; the rest are open to both First and Business Class.

It’s worth bearing in mind that CX’s lounges don’t operate round the clock. They close either at a specified time (usually just after midnight) or will stay open until the day’s last departure (which tends to be not long after midnight, anyway). Refer to the individual lounge pages on the CX website for details.

I should also point out that as of this writing, all but two of CX’s HKG lounges are closed until further notice due to the pandemic. Keep an eye on the CX website for updates.

Due to the extremely late hour, I only managed a very short visit to The Wing (open until last departure). This lounge is one of the two that have been kept open even through the pandemic – the other is The Wing’s separate First Class Lounge.

After spending the night camped out on an airport chair, I finally enjoyed a proper lounge visit in the morning when I entered The Bridge. Read more about this facility in my separate Lounge Report.

Unfortunately, The Bridge is one of the four CX lounges that are now temporarily shuttered in the midst of the global emergency. As it happens to be my personal favourite, I hope I’ll soon get the chance to visit it again (once it’s safe for non-essential travel to resume, of course).

Boarding

Relaxed and refreshed from my lounge visit, I hoisted my carry-on baggage and proceeded to the gate.

Four belt-segregated lanes were set up at the gate. First and Business in front of the left-hand side door, Premium Economy and Economy on the right. This aeroplane’s highest fare type was Business, so I presume the First Class lane was employed for upper-tier loyalty programme members (and perhaps First Class passengers who were transiting from an earlier flight that did have that cabin).

I don’t always fly in a premium cabin – and when I do, I’m not always first at the gate – so I relished my pole position at the head of the Business Class queue.

The boarding gate was fitted with two aerobridges, one for the Business Class cabin and another further aft for Economy.

ONBOARD EXPERIENCE

Cabin interior and seating

The spacious Business Class cabin in CX’s A350-900 occupies the entire section between the forward and second doors, with two additional rows just aft of the second door. 9 rows in a 1-2-1 configuration (numbered as rows 12-21 sans 13), plus 1 row of 2 middle seats at the front (numbered as row 11), for a total of 38 seats.

CX’s previous generation of long-haul Business Class seat left a very good impression on me a few years ago. It was with more than a little excitement that I tried its successor for the first time on my previous flight – and I was very happy indeed to continue the experience on this second leg.

Both old and new generations of CX’s long-haul Business Class cabin employ a reverse herringbone layout, where the seats along the edges of the cabin are angled towards the windows. This arrangement – working in tandem with the shell that wraps around the back – offers a remarkable degree of privacy from the aisle and nearby seats.

For someone like myself, a very unsociable chap who doesn’t want to see (or be seen by) other people, it’s the next best thing to a completely private room.

There’s plenty of legroom, as one might expect…

…and all that space coalesces into a comfortable bed when the seat is switched over to its lie-flat position. I don’t have pictures of my seat all stretched out, but I can tell you that it felt very roomy from head to toe.

Under the side table is a cushioned ledge…

…that flips open to reveal a storage bin. I kept my shoulder bag in there for almost the entire flight, within easy reach and securely tucked away. (Of course, with the lid down and the seat stretched flat, the padded surface becomes part of your spacious in-flight bed.)

You’ll find another small compartment next to the side table, over by the windows (or along the middle of the cabin for inside seats).

This provides even more storage space, along with a small mirror (behind a sliding cover) and a hook for the supplied headphones. The compartment is also fitted with a full-sized power point and a USB port.

Mine was a short flight so that’s all I found, but I believe CX will also stash an amenity kit and bottled mineral water in there ahead of a long-haul service.

The tray table is berthed in a slot under the side table. Swung out, it then needs to be unfolded to reveal its full size.

Down on the aisle-facing edge of the seat are two extra conveniences, although their purpose isn’t evident when locked into their default take-off or landing position.

The outer one, covered in leather or leather-like material, is the right armrest (or left armrest depending on the seat position). When raised, it offers not just arm support but also a touch of extra privacy whilst one is lying down and stretched out for sleeping. There’s also what appears to be a bottle holder under there, accessible only when the armrest is deployed.

The inner one, covered in the same upholstery fabric as the seat, is a surface extension that folds up and out when the switch is triggered. This is on the same level as the seat at lie-flat position, thereby providing a little extra space along the side and making the “bed” feel even more spacious.

We’ll have more to say about the IFE screen and controller later on. The tethered controller is berthed in the same instrument panel as the reading light and seat recline switches.

The hard-walled seat pocket is located near the floor, by the aisle. Though less convenient for storage purposes, the pocket isn’t really needed in this type of seat, given all the extra places where one might keep small articles (such as the side and foot-well cabinets).

You’ll also find a coat hook higher up, on the aisle-side wall of the seat.

Right, so much for the hardware. Time to have a look at the soft product.

In-flight service and amenities

Thanks to priority boarding, those of us in Business Class had time to settle in whilst the rest of the plane was being loaded. This also gave the cabin crew a chance to start service.

Choice of welcome drink, presented on a tray. I didn’t want to start the day off with alcohol so I settled for some apple juice.

There was a pillow propped up on the seat ahead of boarding. No blankets were offered (perhaps because this was a daytime flight), but I saw other passengers using them so they were probably available on request.

Pushback from the gate was at 08:55 (three-quarters of an hour after our original scheduled departure). About five minutes later, whilst we were taxiing towards the runway – a rather prolonged procedure as one might expect at giant airports like HKG – the cabin crew distributed Korean arrival cards and customs forms.

My memory’s a little hazy at this point, but I believe hot towels were also distributed shortly afterwards.

Catering

Right, the moment we’ve all been waiting for: the in-flight meal. 🙂

Let’s flip through the menu and see what’s on offer.

I neglected to take a picture of the wine list pages, but here are the equivalent sections from the menu of my flight the evening before (CX 934, MNL-HKG). Of course, I should stress that the beverage selection on CX 438 might’ve been quite different, but this should at least help give some idea of what’s available on a typical CX regional flight.

Meal service began at 09:33 with a cabin attendant spreading a starched linen sheet over my dining table.

Next, a choice of beverage.

Where I’m concerned, breakfast always calls for a cup of good, strong coffee.

Then came a Kaiser roll, a pat of butter, a small jar of Bonne Maman strawberry preserves, and an assortment of fresh fruit.

This was followed by a choice between yoghurt and cereal. Having selected the latter, I was then offered muesli or cornflakes. When I requested cornflakes, I was subsequently asked to choose between…

…no, I jest. The choosing game ended there. 🙂

Now for the main course. As shown in the menu (scroll back up to see exactly what was offered), I was asked to choose one from three options: a Western breakfast, a Chinese dim sum set, and a Korean meal. Since I was heading for Seoul, I decided to start the day off with a destination-appropriate selection.

And here we are. CX’s menu described this as follows:

Korean bulgogi barbecued beef rib finger, served with spinach and steamed rice

Not bad, not bad at all. Still, I regretted the choice just a wee bit – not for any flaw in the dish itself but because the Western option, described in the menu as…

Cheese and herb frittata with streaky bacon, pork sausage, cannellini beans and button mushrooms

…had bacon in it. Bacon. I say again: BACON.

Aaargh, I can’t believe I turned down something with bacon.

Right – er, let’s move on, shall we?

The tray laden with empty dishes was taken away at 10:46, not too long after I’d finished the main course. (Extra points for promptness there; tables left uncleared for an extended period are one of my pet peeves on any flight.) I was offered a hot towel shortly afterwards, and at 10:54 the last dining linens were collected.

Let’s close off with a final observation regarding the in-flight meal. On CX 438 (HKG-ICN), the service format involved distinct courses, where each element was brought out in sequence and the previous course’s empty dish would be cleared away to make room for the one to follow. In contrast, on the shorter flight CX 934 (MNL-HKG), all courses were served at about the same time and accumulated together on the tray, with brief gaps for bringing out the main course and offering a selection of bread to choose from.

In-flight entertainment

I’m not one to demand a full IFE suite on a regional flight … but I’m not one to refuse it either.

And CX’s wide selection of movies, television shows and other media was certainly a nice-to-have perk even on the short HKG-ICN route.

You can choose to take control indirectly via the touchscreen handset next to your seat, or directly by tapping options on the responsive – and quite generously sized – flat-screen monitor in front of you.

The headphones provided were of robust quality – not sure if these were noise-cancelling but I don’t recall having any reason to complain about the sound output.

The view from my seat

I don’t always throw this section into my Flight Reports, especially if they involve evening journeys (when there’s little to see outside) or where the view is unremarkable. But in this case, a daytime flight in a forward-cabin seat, I’d be remiss if I didn’t take at least one picture of what I saw outside.

This was the view through my window as we were flying over the Korean peninsula just east of Gunsan. That’s the city of Gunsan itself down there, visible as a concentration of buildings on the left bank of the wide river towards the right.

OVERALL IMPRESSION

At less than 3 hours in length, this Hong-Kong-to-Seoul flight didn’t provide much room for Cathay Pacific to demonstrate the quality of its equipment or its service. Still, I think they’ve done very well indeed on both counts, with a fantastic hard product complemented by excellent service in the air. It also helped that their splendid lounge started things off on the right note by creating a premium experience even before I’d left the ground.

It’s hard to predict with any certainty what leisure travel will look like in the post-pandemic era, nor can one state with confidence what long-term impact this global emergency will have on CX’s in-flight service. (One might even question whether this airline, along with many others the world over, will survive the crisis at all if it persists for much longer.) To me, this much is clear: after it’s safe for non-essential travel to resume, if CX maintains a level of service that’s anywhere near as good as what I experienced on CX 438, then they’ll continue to have a part in my future journeys.

Stay safe, everyone. 🙂

Cheerio.

5 responses to “Flight Report: HKG-ICN on Cathay Pacific Flight CX 438 (23 January 2020)

  1. Pingback: Lounge Report: Cathay Pacific’s “The Bridge”, Hong Kong International Airport | Within striking distance·

  2. Pingback: Terminal Report: Overnight Transit at Hong Kong International Airport (22-23 January 2020) | Within striking distance·

  3. Pingback: Flight Report: MNL-HKG on Cathay Pacific Flight CX 934 (22 January 2020) | Within striking distance·

  4. Pingback: Flight Report: ICN-HKG on Cathay Pacific Flight CX 417 (28 January 2020) | Within striking distance·

  5. Pingback: Flight Report: HKG-MNL on Cathay Pacific Flight CX 919 (28 January 2020) | Within striking distance·

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