I thought I try a slightly different trip report, all from the same Sydney to Hong Kong route, but split across 26 years.
Trip 1: Cathay Pacific 747-400 1993/4
Trip 2: Cathay Pacific A330-300 2018
Trip 3: Virgin Australia A330-200 2019
Cathay are of course the legacy carrier, with Virgin Australia a new challenger. Do you think things have changed for the better? Read on to find out.....
Trip 1: 1993/4
Sydney to Hong Kong
As I’ve mentioned in the past, recently I found a treasure trove of notes from flights I took as a kid. One such journey was from Sydney to London in 1993/4. The Youtube links are an integral part of the report, so please click on them to make this a more interesting read.
We travelled with Cathay Pacific, taking advantage of an inclusive stopover deal. At that time heavily subsidised stopover deals were an integral part of the South East Asian Airlines competitive offer against Qantas and BA.
Cathay Pacific had invested heavily in TV advertising promoting their route to Europe from Australia. At the time it seemed very modern.
Cathay Pacific advertising to Britain & Europe
That left me feeling very excited for our trip. I really remember this Cathay TV add from the time, which stuck in my mind then and now - it seemed so modern and worldly at the time. I chuckled when I saw the very deliberate "Rolls Royce" shot of the engines and convertible. Back in those days Hong Kongers would proudly tell visitors they had more Rolls Royce motorcars per head of population than anywhere else in the world, ain't it weird the stuff one remembers?!?!
One of our neighbours gave us a lift to Sydney’s International Terminal. Cathay Pacific check-in was located in the new extension. Some friends of my mum were at the airport and we stopped for coffee with them.
Somehow we had an invitation to the BA Executive Lounge, which oddly I don’t remember anything very much about. I do however have a copy of the invitation.
We boarded from the new pier, Gate 50. Waiting for us was a shiny new 747-400.
Each seat had a printed menu and draw bag amenity kit, despite being a day time flight. The amenity kit contained toothpaste, a toothbrush, comb, socks, eye mask, some moisturiser and a pen. Not bad for economy class.
Traditional Chinese music played over the PA until it was time to push back. The following Safety Video then played over the main screen and small repeater monitors in the aisle. Unfortunately, a member of cabin crew fell down the upper deck stairs on push back. Therefore our captain returned to the gate so they could be taken to hospital. The Safety Video was very British, Hong Kong was still a colony.
Take off was on the main westbound runway. We flew just south of the CBD which gave this great picture (for a throw-away camera) of Sydney Harbour, the bridge and Opera House.
Sydney Harbour Bridge & Opera House
Shortly afterwards a welcome aboard video was played. It explained the amenities and basic aircraft features. These videos were not uncommon, as in those time many people were unfamiliar with air travel. I strongly recommend you take the time to watch - it describes the service very well
As you’ll note from the video, PTVs were not available in economy class. Each seat had a copy of Discovery Magazine, which contained lots of information about Cathay Pacific.
The Purser came and introduced herself to my mum and a member of BA staff sat in our block of three seats. She arranged for them to have a glass of champagne and bucks fizz for me. It was a nice touch.
Whilst not my picture, this gives a good idea of the cabin. I didn't really like the very mismatched array of seat covers.
A welcome aboard round of drinks was served about an hour after takeoff. Lunch was served around an hour later.
I opted for Sweet and Sour Chicken with fried rice, which I remember was very tasty. Afterwards, I had Chinese Tea, which I’d never had before. The cabin crew were almost constantly patrolling the cabin, with a basket of fruit and snacks or drinks. They worked very hard. A small second meal was served, which was a cold salmon plate with cookies. Oddly, it was smaller than your get on Cathay today.
As darkness fell another information video played, this time outlining passenger facilities at Kai Tak.
Kai Tak Arrivals Video
I sadly don’t have any pictures of landing in Hong Kong. However from memory, you really could see inside people’s flats and scrapped the roof of buildings.
During the very final approach, I remember the neighbouring buildings seemed higher than we were flying. It really was quite something.
Our fare included complimentary three nights hotel accommodation in Kowloon, transfers and a sightseeing tour.
Here are some photos from our visit.
Our visit coincided with a China Airlines 747-400 landing in the harbour, which was an incredible sight. Again, I don’t have any of my own photos, but this is the sight. By the time I saw it, the tail has been cut off.
I won’t write individual reports for each of the other sectors. However, the highlights were:
- Welcome aboard champagne for every passenger in economy to/from London
The purser from our Sydney - Hong Kong flight jumping up whilst travelling pass on a Melbourne to Sydney sector calling out to my mum like an old friend
Flying back into Sydney during the 1994 bush fires and not seeing the ground until finals
Here is the catering offered on those sectors:
Cathay Pacific offered excellent service, the crews were exceptional with constant service available. The complimentary stopover in Hong Kong was also a very nice perk. How does it compare to 25 years later? You can find out below in my more recent trip reports.
Trip 2: 2018
Route: Sydney to Hong Kong
First flight: April 2011
CX110 leaves at 0730, so it was a very early and quiet train to Sydney International.
For whatever reason my flight had been booked using a ‘BA’ codeshare, which meant I was unable to manage my booking or check in online. I’d phoned Cathay’s telephone helpline to confirm my meal request and try to secure a seat. I specifically wanted a window seat because Sydney to Hong Kong flights go over the outback which I enjoy watching. The staff could not have been more empathetic but explained that unfortunately they couldn’t help.
There was a small queue at Cathay Pacific’s check in desk and it seems the help staff had done more than they let on. Not only was my meal all confirmed, but they’d requested me seat 59A, an emergency exit window seat. Thank you!
Being 6am there was no security queue to speak of and exit formalities took no more than ten minutes.
Airside was uncharacteristically quiet.
Slightly to my dismay there was an announcement that the 0730 departure had become an 0830 one. I passed the time with a bit of photography
My name was called at the gate, unfortunately no upgrade, they just wanted confirmation I was happy to carry out emergency exit duties.
As you can see below my seat had ample leg room and thankfully today there were no bassinets in use. Although the toilets were nearby, the queue didn’t cause a disturbance, unlike my recent SQ A380 flight.
Take off was towards the west and we headed more or less straight out over the Blue Mountains before turning towards the north west.
The crew leader came to confirm my special meal and stopped to ensure I was aware of all the other vegetarian options. I’m not vegetarian but have to be careful of some meats, so I just think it’s safer to order vegetarian when on long haul flights. The crew leader then explained every vegetarian option Cathay Pacific offer so I can have more variety on future flights. It was a nice gesture.
About an hour later the first meal service arrived, which would have been breakfast were we on time. My tray had an orange juice, bottle of water for the flight, bread roll, a pretty bad curry, fruit salad and a yoghurt. Overall the meal was disappointing, it is hard to make a flavourless Indian meal but somehow Cathay managed to.
To see out of the window in 59A I needed to recline my seat, so I waited until the first meal service was over. By that time we were flying over North West Queensland and later Arnhem Land.
By this time most of other passengers had shut their blinds and gone to sleep. Personally I think that’s a dumb thing to do on a day flight because it will make jet lag much worse, especially as the time difference between Sydney and Hong Kong is minimal. Anyway, someone complained about the open blind, so the cabin crew came over to me. They explained someone had complained, but if I wanted to keep watching the view they would go back and tell my fellow passenger to wear an eye mask. Congratulations to the crew, she handled it very well.
Her reverse psychology worked so I decided to shut the blind and explore CX Studio, unfortunately this intro was about the best thing on offer
I really couldn’t find anything to entice me and opted to listen to some music.
About two hours outside of Hong Kong a second meal was served. It was very similar to the first, except this time we were offered a hot drink. I opted for green tea, which I figured would be good on Cathay, I was right. My seat mate decided she wasn’t hungry and offered me her desert, which I politely accepted.
Unfortunately as with the first meal, it was completely flavourless, which is unusual for Indian style food on a plane.
I was unable to take any photographs of our landing because of the window position, but it was smooth.
As I had seven hours before my connecting flight, I decided to see if I could visit Hong Kong city. The passport lady didn’t seem to care and off I went into town.
Trip 3: 2019
Transit security in Hong Kong was a breeze, I walked straight up. As there was only one other person behind me, it doesn’t look like too many people are using the Virgin hook up just yet. The terminal was busy, so much so finding anywhere to sit was a chore.
Virgin Australia use Satellite 2, so I made my way over by the very efficient transit railway. Satellite Two doesn’t have much by way of facilities, half a dozen shops and two food joints. It does however have a small outside viewing deck, where I enjoyed the hot and humid air.
HNA are one of Virgin Australia’s major shareholders. Their Hong Kong Airlines subsidiary is barred from flying to Australia because Cathay Pacific use all of the agreed capacity. Qantas on the other hand only really has a token presence, so Australia has un-used capacity under the air services treaty. Couple to that Virgin having too many A330s for domestic demand and a deal was done. Virgin’s Melbourne and Sydney flights are essentially flag of convenience services for Hong Kong Airlines.
Great news for in bound tourism as the passengers, who were mostly Hong Kong Chinese heading to Sydney. On a fairly full flight, no more than two dozen passenger’s appeared not to be of Chinese origin. In fact I only saw two other groups with an Australian passport as they were checked in the boarding queue.
I’d not been able to select a seat online. When I called Virgin Atlantic they gave me a Virgin Australia reference code for their website, but the website wouldn’t let me select a seat either. So I called Virgin Australia’s UK number and they allocated me 12K, a [second or third] row window seat. Perfect!
An attempt to board by rows was made, but it didn’t go well. Hong Kong Airlines staff were carrying out the ground handling and passports were checked in the queue. Virgin Atlantic hadn’t forwarded my details, so off to the desk I went. This meant I got to jump the queue as they sent me to the front of business class boarding. Secondary hand search checks were being carried out on the jetbridge which caused a long queue, again coming from the business class queue I walked on past to a separate each area.
Two flight attendants were greeting passengers, one from Virgin Australia and one from Hong Kong Airlines. My boarding pass erroneously stated I was travelling Premium, which caused confusion.
Maybe it was the comparison to Virgin Atlantic’s 787, but VA’s A330 created a spartan first impression. The A330 overhead bins are tiny! No easy on the eye lighting here, plain white (not even cream or patterned) plastic everywhere, clumsy metal screws projecting from the bulkheads and grey seats. Very dull, very Lufthansa A320.
Places Virgin Australia don’t fly showed on the monitors (oh yes, that virtual network), alongside naughties music, a decade or two more current than Virgin Atlantic at least.
A welcome amenity pack awaited containing eye masks, ear plugs and a pen for landing cards. It was unfortunate they’d forgotten to load these, but it was a nice thought. A 390ml bottle of water awaited too.
Then…… the seat belts sign went off. Bad news. The cockpit announced in stroppy tones and I quote exactly, “we have no idea when we’ll take off and will update you if we find out”. Well fu too. Someone get captain toddler a dummy, he’s getting soukie.
A high value customer was onboard with his family and boy did the crew fawn. None less than three separate times crew members came past to welcome him aboard and take dinner orders on the ground. Once in the air they weren’t delivered, but again, it was a nice thought.
The inflight entertainment was on, so I watched a movie, “Love Simon”.
The Supercars themed safety video was a miss with the Hong Kongers, I think it's a reference you need to know for it to make any sense https://youtu.be/hG0x0BLA3uM
About 1h 30min later the seat belts sign was switched back on and without comment the plane started going backwards with engines spooling up. No comment was made.
A sporty takeoff into the stormy night sky followed, with lots of twists and turns as we overflew the harbour.
Service dived straight into the meal, skipping the traditional pre dinner drink. As a sleeper on planes, this approach was quite appealing. However I know many people like to kick back with a drink. My vegetarian pasta, with green beans, mushrooms and “yellow substance” appeared. It tasted blander than it looks. However I must say the fruit was surprisingly fresh and tasty.
I didn’t deal with a single Virgin Australia flight attendant. My meal was delivered by the Hong Kong Airlines “cultural representative”. Always calling me by name, she made a direct line for me when the main service started to make sure I got a drink ahead of everyone else. This time the red wine was wonderful.
I dozed a little on this flight, but couldn’t really get comfortable. Water service was offered occasionally throughout the flight.
About two hours before landing, “Good morning Mr x, I hope you managed to get some rest” and so appeared my breakfast.
I think it was some kind of scrambled egg or omelette thing, but I can’t be sure. It was fine. “Mr x, coffee or tea”.
The outback at sunrise is always stunning to fly over.
We flew into Sydney over the Southern Highlands, landing on the main runway before taxing to Gate 51, right next to the customs hall.
“Good bye Mr X, thank you for flying with us” smiled the Hong Kong Airlines representative.
It took about 10 minutes to pass through before heading for the train.
Sydney’s international terminal was bustling as my taxi struggled to find a place to drop me off. By chance it did so right by the Virgin Australia check in desks at 0745. I walked straight up to a check in agent, this is Australia after all, so nothing so advanced as automatic check in machines for international travellers….. We enjoyed a joke about Virgin Atlantic requiring they ask for a named contact in case of emergency, but the supervisor seemed annoyed I’d slipped past her. Her demeanour was superior and frankly annoying.
My exit was quite speedy, Security was working hard despite the crowds and e-passport gates helped. Departures was like the monkey enclosure at a zoo, utter chaos. Queues at each food outlet were at least 6 or 7 deep and there wasn’t a seat in sight.
Buying lounge access at Sydney International was not straight forward. The Plaza Premium Lounge is now the Skyteam lounge. Passengers can buy entry but this is not encouraged. Finding it quite by chance, my simple question, “morning, is this the Plaza Premium Lounge”, invoked a two minute lecture from the second superior and frankly annoying member of service staff of the day. After I eventually thanked them, gathered my case and said I’d leave it, they did stop talking and let me in.
Inside it is nicely appointed, was quiet, with a descent buffet breakfast and probably one of the best morning views in the airport
Busing to the gate was chaotic, various corridors were shut off and no signposting put in. In fairness I did manage to cut through the rather bizarre attempts to board by row. This was not viable as no place to wait inside the terminal existed.
I do enjoy boarding a wide body via air stairs. Boarding was a breeze, as only one bus was needed for our 34% load factor.
An amenity pack (grey this time) containing a pen, eye shades and ear plugs, plus a bottle of water, headphones and a blanket awaited at each seat. I say each seat, unfortunately the seat next to mine was broken and everything had fallen onto the floor.
The aircraft had a few cosmetic maintenance issues, for example missing reading lights.
The IFE was already on. VA’s range of programme is limited, but does include quite a few episodes of each, ideal for binge watching.
Menu cards were handed out before take off.
Departure was held due to a shorter than normal flight time. Upon push back our taxi took a detour via the cross runway to clear the way for a Thai 747 returning with a medical emergency.
Our take off was to west, before heading north towards Townsville. As the captain had announced we would fly over Darwin I thought this odd, but it did give some lovely views of the Great Barrier Reef.
Lunch was served about 45 minutes after take off, followed by drinks.
The meal was tasty and I save my cake for later. I chose to take some of the halluomi and liven up the roll.
Perhaps disappointingly this was the last service we saw until the evening meal was served before landing, I felt in view of the light load it wouldn't have hurt the crew to do a few rounds.
The evening meal was served around 1h 45 minutes before landing. It tasted fine.
We circled for about half an hour before landing, passing through some fairly rough turbulence that had passengers shouting out.
Transit in Hong Kong
With six hours to spare I decided to hit the town. So I passed through immigration and caught the MTR to Hong Kong Island.
With typhoon warnings, the weather was super hot and super humid. None the less I had a little ride on the legendary Star Ferry over to Kowloon and back.
So which looks best?
So there you have it, three reports from the same route across 26 years, from the established airline and new challenger.
Getting to and from the airports has definitely got easier with new mass transit links. Today you get two hot meals and not just one anymore. One thing I can say is that PTVs definitely make long flights seem less boring, or maybe I just grew up? Little touches, like adjustable winged headrests, make for a more comfortable journey too. Somehow, on the other hand, Cathay of old had a way of making you feel part of something quite exclusive, that has gone.
Which looks best? I'd love to know your thoughts below.