To celebrate the inaugural flight of Hong Kong Airlines‘s route from LAX to Hong Kong, I was invited aboard to experience the carrier’s brand-new Airbus A350-900 aircraft and its lie-flat business class. Here’s what the airport’s newest airline has to offer as it goes head to head with Cathay Pacific for traffic between these major destinations:
Check-in and lounge
Hong Kong Airlines offers online check-in, but I was unable to get the system to recognize my ticket. I showed up at the airport three hours before check-in because I knew there might be a special ceremony at the gate to celebrate the new flight. It took just minutes to check in, but the security line at LAX was outrageous and it took more than an hour to pass through TSA. As travelers, we pay taxes with each ticket to cover these services, and it’s a shame to see that money not being properly spent (at this peak midday departure time, there was only one lane open).
Qantas passengers transiting from Sydney to JFK must deplane in LAX to clear immigration, and nearly 400 of them were back in line, further adding to the delay. Once through security, I was given a pass for the third-party lounge that Hong Kong Airlines uses and shares with a few other carriers (like Air Tahiti Nui and Philippine Airlines). It had some sandwiches, sushi, packaged snacks (like cookies, chips and ramen noodles), and a fridge stocked with drinks including wine, juices, soft drinks, and beer. A second bar set up with liquor sat besides the fancy coffee machine dispensing cappuccinos and espressos. I checked some emails while sitting on the lounge’s terrace that overlooks the terminal before heading to the gate.
Many of the airline’s executives had flown in on the plane from Hong Kong and were on hand to cut the flight ribbon and make some welcoming remarks to the group of gathered press, local dignitaries and passengers (many of whom had no idea they were on the airline’s inaugural flight from LAX). Even more exciting was the fact that Hong Kong Airlines is now officially the first airline to operate the Airbus A350 aircraft at LAX, and this was evident in the numerous ground staff taking pictures of our plane as we taxied away from the gate.
Before boarding, everyone was treated to refreshments including the famous Hong Kong waffles, dim sum, cake, and cute cookies shaped like airplanes. The ceremony included watching some of the cabin crew practice kung fu moves with some of the local dignitaries, whom they wrangled into the spectacle. Apparently, all Hong Kong Airlines cabin crew are trained in a form of martial arts as part of their onboard security and defense program. Very interesting!
On display nearby was a table showcasing the in-flight meal service options provided for business class and economy class passengers. The current offering is both impressive and substantial, which is important for the long flights the airline operates to North America. Flights already run from Hong Kong to Vancouver, and the airline is expected to start service to San Francisco this year.
Boarding and seats
Gate agents politely passed through the crowds with signs to indicate which group was to board next. This is a common way for airlines in Asia to board planes. There were no loud or abrasive announcements, which helped begin the flight in a less-rushed manner, compared to the way U.S. carriers build anxiety among passengers with endless announcements that simply encourage travelers to crowd around the boarding lanes.
The staff onboard was clearly proud of this brand-new airplane, and I was immediately struck by the 1-2-1 seating in business class. Every other row has window seats that alternate between having the table adjacent to the window and beside the aisle. Be sure to request seats with the table beside the aisle (as mine was), as this configuration provides far more privacy (especially when the seat is reclined). The center seats alternate in similar fashion, and again choosing a seat with the table closer to the aisle is advised in the interest of increased privacy. There’s a shoulder strap for the seat belt, which for some people can be a tad restraining, but this is becoming more common for business and first class seats on newer aircraft these days. Seats are 42″ wide and have a pitch of 44″ between each seat and the back of the seat in front of it.
Overhead bins are quite sizeable, and they accommodate carry-on bags lengthwise. Seats recline at the touch of a button into 180-degree beds and have power and USB outlets in easily accessible spots. Tray tables do not come out of complicated armrest compartments; instead, they unfold seamlessly from the wall in front. Boarding on the inaugural flight was fast, and business class was only about half full. Flight attendants came around with pre-departure drinks, but the choices were only juices or water.
I was impressed by the plentiful storage areas, large windows and ample space in the footwell beneath the seat in front of me. I’ve flown dozens of airlines long-haul and never seen a seat with this much cushioning and foot space. I have trouble sleeping on planes, and I slept a full nine hours on this flight despite it leaving midday. Perhaps it was my coming from Dubai a few days before that had me thoroughly jetlagged!
Before takeoff, a rather cute cartoon safety video was screened along with a special announcement telling passengers that on their next flight, they have the option to order special gifts—like birthday or anniversary cakes and bottles of champagne—for other passengers.
If you wake up mid-flight when the lights are dimmed and windows closed, there are small reading lights located over the shoulder (turning on the overhead light illuminates a larger area that can disturb neighbors). Despite this being a daytime flight, most passengers slept for a good portion of the flight.
It’s important to mention that the airline has a premium economy section with more legroom and greater recline at the front section of economy. While the in-flight service is the same, these extra-space seats (about 20″ wide and 34″ pitch) are popular and available for an upcharge fee based on flight distance at booking or even at check-in if space is available.
The in-flight experience
Once we reached cruising altitude, the flight attendants sprung into action distributing colorful menus and amenity kits (they’re part of a collectible set highlighting various symbols of Hong Kong). Very quickly, carts appeared in the aisles offering a variety of drinks. I went with a nice southeastern Australian chardonnay. Hong Kong Airlines recently revamped its in-flight china, and the aperitif came with a cute tray of room-temperature peanuts.
The next pass of the cart came again quickly with an appetizer and salad. By this time, I’d already started watching a movie while alternating between the in-flight map and tail-mounted camera. I loved how the audiovisual system has a nice selection of international movies, though there were relatively few American sitcoms and short-subject programs. You can also switch between the map and the movie and pick up right where you left off, which I found really convenient. My touchscreen was quite responsive with zero lag time, and my noise-reducing headphones were comfortable enough for long periods of time (even while napping).
Soon after the app/salad, a basket of warm bread was served, and after that the main course was delivered. Meals are reheated but not plated onboard, but the presentation is still quite nice. I loved how piping-hot my meal was served, and that the water and wine refills were plentiful. Once the tray was removed, a cheese course followed before dessert with coffee and tea. I declined the last course in favor of reclining my bed and falling fast asleep.
If you’re hungry mid-flight, there are sandwiches and light munchies available to order at any time, but I was full until breakfast began two hours before landing. It was all delivered on one tray and followed by refills of coffee and tea before we began our smooth descent into Hong Kong.
I was really impressed with the English fluency of the crew and their ability to handle special requests from passengers. This is something that Cathay Pacific has mastered, and it’s clear that Hong Kong Airlines places a strong emphasis on these traits, as well. The Airbus A350 provided a smooth ride with excellent entertainment, and I was able to watch this new plane glide into the landing from the tail-mounted camera. The flat bed is exactly what one needs on these long sectors. My only niggle would be the warm temperature of the cabin, but this is common among non-American airlines. The pillow was quite soft, and there was a duvet, but I did not find a need to use it very much.
Hong Kong Airlines uses the mid-field concourse at Hong Kong, which means one must take the train to reach immigration or connecting flights both on departure and arrival. For my return flight, I learned that there was a second, newer Hong Kong Airlines lounge near the gate, but the check-in agent insisted that my business class ticket did not permit access to the lounge. The confusion must have been since I was on an invited ticket from the airline versus a paid ticket, but still, it was a shame to not see the new facility.
I would not hesitate to travel Hong Kong Airlines again. Its growing network across Asia and to destinations like Auckland and Vancouver is impressive. It would be nice to see the airline partner with a North American loyalty program, as many travelers may opt for another airline instead of earning miles with (only) Hong Kong’s own program. But if the price is right, this is a truly impressive offering aboard one of the world’s newest and most eco-friendly aircraft.