Cathay Pacific Airlines premium economy class worth the extra cost (San Diego Daily Transcript)

For those in the high-tech world of product development, travel to China has become as routine as a trip to Chicago or New York.

New flights are constantly being added and more airlines are flying between the United States and Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo. In fact, if it weren’t for the grounding of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner, there would be flights now between San Diego and Tokyo.

With the increase in popularity of these routes have also come steeper prices. Business class fares that had been $2,500 to $4,000 a few years ago now range from $4,500 to $9,000. As a result, many corporations are tightening their travel policies and require their employees to fly economy, with its more affordable $900 to $1,200 rates.

As someone who’s made dozens of trips to Asia, I can tell you that nothing is more depressing than sitting in an economy seat for 15 hours. The seats on these international routes are similar to economy seats in domestic routes: narrow, little leg room and cramped, and seats that have minimal padding.

So it was with some trepidation that I recently planned a business trip to Hong Kong and China. I checked all of the airlines flying out of LAX and SFO, hoping to discover a bargain business class ticket.

The closest I found was a United Airlines flight out of SFO for $4,500, but non-cancellable and only available a month in advance. A week later the fare jumped to $5,500 and at flight time was $8,000. Yes, he who hesitates suffers.

One of my favorite airlines for travel to Asia is Cathay Pacific, but its business class was a whopping $8,000 from LAX to Hong Kong, double the price of two years ago. While it offers some of the best business accommodations with a lie-flat bed, its coach is not much different from the other airlines.

But since I traveled last, Cathay has introduced its premium economy class that’s positioned between its economy and business options. It costs about $1,600 round trip, $700 more than economy. The big question I had was whether it was good enough to actually allow me to sleep and to work comfortably for the 15-hour trip.

Premium economy is far superior to economy-plus seating found on United and other airlines that is often reserved for their frequent fliers. They offer extra legroom, but the seats are otherwise identical to economy.

Cathay’s offering isn’t the first time an airline has provided a premium economy product. EVA Air, a decent but drab airline headquartered in Taiwan, has offered its elite class for many years. I’ve used it and it does provide more room, but you have to put up with EVA’s mediocre service and limited schedules. And you usually must stop in Taipei. Compared to EVA, the Cathay seat is more comfortable, and the service much better.

The flight began on a positive note, with a separate check-in line at the LAX airline counter. The agent actually stepped forward from behind the counter to greet me at the front of the line and took my luggage. But I liked him a little less when he told me that my 21-inch International rollerboard needed to be checked. The airline has a luggage weight limit of 17 pounds. Considering the suitcase weighed 11 pounds that meant just 6 pounds of clothes.

The security line at LAX unfortunately continues to be one of the worst of all the airports I fly. It’s disorganized, has long lines and many of the employees are surly. I was, however, able to use the premium line for first class and frequent fliers. Still, it took about 25 minutes to get through.

At the gate, premium-economy fliers board with business-class passengers and before economy. On the plane, I passed by the giant first-class suites, then the business-class recliners and finally the small premium-economy area, about five rows, each with a 2-4-2 seat arrangement. The worst seat is one seat from an aisle.

The seats looked just like what you’d find on first class on many domestic airlines: large seats with plenty of width and distance between adjacent seats. Foot room was plentiful and the well-cushioned and comfortable seats reclined to almost 45 degrees. There was a small folding footrest that was adequate.

The seats have trays in their armrests and strong well-aimed overhead lighting. There is an entertainment system that uses a handheld-wired remote control to select from a range of movies, audio, a map and forward camera, and games. The display is not very sharp, but adequate. Noise cancellation headphones are provided or you can use your own. The choice of movies was current and included “Life of Pi” and “Argo.”

One item noticeably lacking was an AC outlet for a computer or other device. Some of Cathay’s promotional material says there is an AC outlet, so this may vary by plane.

Food service was similar to business class, with a choice of three entrees, wine and liquor. Drinks were provided before takeoff. Service was attentive throughout the flight, comparable to business class. There is one lavatory for 40 people, although you can venture off your secluded area into coach to find more.

The seat was comfortable enough that I was able to sleep for 7 hours and had no backache at the end of the flight. One of the benefits of this ticket was that it could be cancelled or changed for a $50 fee right up to flight time.

So was it worth the extra money? For me, it’s a definite yes. I arrived in much better shape than if I had flown economy. I was well-rested and ready to go.

Premium economy class is available on many of Cathay’s long routes, including flights to Australia, Asia, Europe and Canada.

Baker is the author of “From Concept to Consumer” published by Financial Times Press and available at Barnes and Noble, Amazon, and other booksellers. He has developed and marketed consumer and computer products for Polaroid, Apple, Seiko and others, holds 30 patents and is an Ernst & Young Entrepreneur of the Year. Phil can be heard on KOGO AM the first Sunday of each month. Send comments to Comments may be published as Letters to the Editor. Phil’s blog is and his Web site is

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