A few weeks ago, the travel blogosphere lit up with a $500-and-change round-trip fare in long-haul business class from the U.S. to Asia. Business for the price of economy? A fully flat bed for the price of a sardine can seat? Yes and yes.
I took this flight in late August as part of an epic 10 day Asian adventure.
I was particularly excited to fly the airline’s recently launched Airbus A350 service, a super-modern aircraft with higher humidity levels, bigger windows, and a whisper-quiet cabin—a few of my favorite things on a 15 hour flight.
Hong Kong Airlines Mistake Fare
From its base in Hong Kong, the airline has ambitious expansion plans both to the U.S. and beyond. Founded in 2006, HKA is not a discount carrier. This is a full service airline going head-to-head with Cathay Pacific, one of the most venerable carriers in the world. Rather than cancel my ticket and others, Hong Kong Airlines made an announcement on Twitter honoring the mistake fare. I really appreciated this publicity move and certainly came away with some added goodwill for the airline.
So about that 600 USD business class transpacific fare 😳….we did it, we will honour it, and perhaps a few people will get to travel on our news business class product being introduced in September to LA. What’s not to like?✈️
— Hong Kong Airlines (@hkairlines) August 18, 2018
Booking the Flight
When this deal dropped, I had been planning an Eastern Europe or Istanbul trip for the first week of September, a great time to visit as peak summer crowds start to thin. In fact, I already had reserved a business class flight on Iberia from New York to Madrid, using 34,000 of the 90,000 Avios I acquired as part of an amazing promotion back in June.
However, when I saw my dates worked for this mistake fare — to two of my favorite cities in the world, Bangkok and Hong Kong–I couldn’t resist. After all, a little flexibility is all part of the fun in this airline game. I redeposited my Iberia Avios for a $50 fee and jumped on the opportunity.
I was able to include a free 2-night stopover in Hong Kong to see a friend before going onwards to my final destination, Bangkok—all-in for $580 round-trip. I paid using my American Express Platinum Card, which netted me five Membership Reards points for every dollar I spent, or 2,900 points for this incredibly cheap trip.
Being NYC-based, I also had to reposition to Los Angeles to catch my Hong Kong Airlines flight. With some luck and persistence, I snagged a rare SAAver Economy award on American Airlines from New York Kennedy (JFK) to Los Angeles (LAX) using 12,500 AAdvantage miles. This, on the Friday before Labor Day—sweet!
Selecting A Seat
You can’t select your seat online like you can with most airlines. (Note to Hong Kong Airlines’ IT department: the 2000s called and they want their website back). This meant that for seat selection, it was calling or live chatting. Both options had a long queue but after being on-hold for about 30 minutes, I snagged my desired seat closest to the window.
One of the first rules you learn about error fares is to avoid contacting the airline. Why? The prevailing opinion is that the fewer employees know about your too-good-to-be-true fare, the more likely it will stay intact. However, since this fare was being publically honored, no harm no foul in giving the airline a ring.
I created a Fortune Wings Club account online (Hong Kong Airlines’ frequent flyer program) and added that to my reservation over the phone too.
Check-In & My First Time Through Security at TBIT
I checked into my flight online the night before my flight and confirmed that I was assigned the seats that I requested. (Unfortunately, there’s no way to see if your seat requests were confirmed prior to check-in.) There’s also no way to get a mobile boarding pass so checking-in online still requires a pit stop to the check-in desk at Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT).
Once I arrived into Terminal 4 from my domestic flight at 9:00 a.m., I exited the terminal and strolled a couple hundred feet curbside to the Tom Bradly International Terminal (TBIT). I was looking forward to experiencing LAX’s designated international terminal for the first time.
From an AvGeek perspective, there’s so many interesting airlines that fly out of here that you don’t normally see, and TBIT is just a beauty design-wise with soaring ceilings and great lighting, especially for a US airport terminal. (NYC-area airports, I’m looking at you).
I found Hong Kong Airlines in section “A” alongside carriers like Japan Airlines. With about 2.5 hours before a 12:10pm departure, the check-in area couldn’t have been more easy and breezy (aka empty). Within a couple of minutes, I had my boarding pass and lounge invitation card in-hand and made my way to security.
Unfortunately, but expectedly, Hong Kong Airlines does not participate in TSA PreCheck, nor is there a dedicated security line for premium passengers. The standard security line seemed to be an endless stretch of walking back and forth, but apparently this helped passenger flow as the waiting time itself was fairly short—about 15 minutes to get through. There were also numerous scanners open, clear instructions from TSA, and no need to take out your laptop.
For once, color me impressed with TSA.
Lounge or Office Break Room?
After security, l was whisked onto the beautiful main concourse of TBIT on Level 4. High ceilings and high-end stores awaited. I spent about 15 minutes wandering the terminal, amazed that this wonderful facility was located in the U.S. But what’s a trip report without a visit to the lounge?
Hong Kong Airlines uses the LAX International Airport Lounge (creative name much?), on Level 6. I walked through a corridor passing the Star Alliance and Etihad lounges.
The exterior is as generic as it gets. As a contract lounge, access is available to a handful of international carriers’ premium passengers. Priority Pass is not accepted here, though.
Once inside, the agent took my invitation card and welcomed me in. The lounge basically consists of one large room broken up into sections.
Immediately beyond the entrance to the right is a seating area with a mix of both individual chairs and a long, flat bench with tables—a good spot for napping as one gentleman was doing.
To the left was the food and drink area. A decent selection of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages were available alongside a coffee machine with a huge touchscreen.
For breakfast, food options were basic and limited. Fruit, pastries, and packaged snacks were on offer as well as some not-so-appetizing-looking sushi.
Beyond the refreshments corridor was another room meant for dining. There were also newspapers and a TV here.
The only redeeming quality of the lounge, in my opinion—was the awesome terrace overlooking TBIT’s main concourse. Disappointingly, I didn’t notice any easily accessible outlets to juice up. But those views though…
I also checked out the bathroom situation and was pleasantly surprised they were private rooms each with their own toilet and sink. There were no showers.
Besides the terrace, the lounge was entirely mediocre, and to be honest, I’d probably rather spend time in the terminal itself. I got some serious office break room vibes.
It’s about a 10-minute walk from the lounge to gate 157 at the end of the South Concourse where my flight to Hong Kong was scheduled to board at 11:40 a.m. One negative thing about TBIT — common throughout many airports in the U.S. — is the narrow boarding area. While walking through the concourse, passengers spilled over onto the concourse while waiting to board flights.
I arrived to Gate 157 at 11:35 a.m. Boarding had yet to begin. Several people were mingling near the gate, but within a few minutes an orderly line was created by ground staff for the various boarding groups: economy, business, wheelchair passengers and families with small children. The Asian airlines usually do this well—no gate lice here.
Equally impressive was the seven to eight ground staff for an airline that has one flight a day from LAX. None of them looked stressed. US airlines, please take notes.
Boarding began at 11:45 a.m.,, five minutes behind schedule. Once onboard, I was greeted by a smiling flight attendant, first in Cantonese, then quickly in English once she saw my U.S. passport.
Initial Impressions – The Cabin
Design-wise, the 33-seat business class cabin is a bit jarring at first, with a deep red color that takes a little getting used to. Personally, I found it unique and gorgeous. An aside, red is a color of good luck in Chinese culture. Also, unlike other A350s, I noticed there were overhead bins above the center section of seats in business.
In business class, Hong Kong Airlines’ first five A350 aircraft are configured with seats in a “staggered” 1-2-1 layout. This design just means your feet and legs go underneath the console in front of you when in fully-flat bed mode.
The window seats alternate between closer to the window and private and closer to the aisle and exposed. Meanwhile, the middle section alternate between “honeymoon” style seats (close together and great for couples) and seats closer to the aisle.
I found my way to 18A, a near-window seat in the middle of the cabin. The first thing I noticed about the seat was how wide the even numbered rows “A” and “K” seats were. With an extra-wide armrest and extra padding for your feet and legs up against the fuselage, the seat was massive.
Just last week, Hong Kong Airlines announced a new version of their business class for newly delivered A350s—a more private reverse herringbone-style seat (read: better). Not that these seats staggered seats were bad, they’re just not my first choice.
Also waiting at my seat was a average-sized pillow, light but still substantial blanket and airline-branded headphones. The headphones were not of good quality, but they were fuschia. Cute.
Directly in front of the seat was a sizable touch-screen monitor where a cheesy branding video was playing introducing the A350 business cabin and the airline’s new flagship lounge in Hong Kong, Club Autus (someone got a little too creative on that name). If you were curious, autus means “growth” in Latin.
The cabin filled up completely, with every seat occupied. The majority of passengers were native Chinese-speakers, with a few English-speakers and gwai-lo’s* sprinkled in.
*gwai-lo – Hong Kong slang for westerners
About 10 minutes after boarding, a flight attendant offered a tray of water, orange juice, or lemon tea. I took the lemon tea which was refreshingly sweet. Of note, no pre-departure alcohol was served.
Menus, amenity kits, and sturdy slippers were distributed a few minutes later. Right before boarding was completed, flight attendants were frantically running (and yes, I do mean running) up and down the aisles in preparation for…something. I understand there’s a ton to be done prior to closing the aircraft door, but jeez, this looked like a 100-meter sprint or something.
The amenity kit was pretty decent, but nothing to write home about. It contained the usual suspects—dental kit, L’Occitane lip balm and lotion, socks, an eye mask and, interestingly, a sewing kit.
Taxi, Takeoff, and A Closer Look at That Seat
Boarding was completed about 10 minutes behind schedule, at 12:20 p.m., and we started our taxi shortly thereafter.
LAX is always a great spot for planespotting and today was no exception. After the safety video played and a relatively short 15 minute taxi, we were ready for takeoff at 12:40 p.m.
Once we reached cruising altitude, I explored the seat a bit more. As mentioned, the foot and leg space underneath the monitor was huge in both depth and width.
Immediately to the right of the seat were the easy-to-use seat controls. One minor annoyance with this seat was that before reclining, the seat moved forward. The meant that when sitting in a reclined position, my legs were forced into the footwell. While this space was large, it still felt a little claustrophobic.
Besides the headphones, the table area had a remote control, two USB ports, and the headphone jack.
Beneath the console, near my feet, was a standard power outlet. As it was hidden, it was difficult to use and my plug kept getting knocked out of its socket when I squeezed through to use the toilet or stretch my legs. It was quite the narrow walkway to get from your seat to the aisle—some contortion was necessary.
I took a quick peek at economy which looked very full but probably as comfortable as it gets on an A350, with seats laid out in a 3-3-3 setup.
Initial In-Flight Service
The purser, Pearl, took meal and drink orders about 20 minutes after takeoff and went to each passenger to individually greet them by name. Service by the purser throughout the flight, who also worked my aisle, was curt—fairly well-intentioned but there was a clear language barrier with the English-speaking passengers.
While the purser’s service was simply unmemorable, the other flight attendant who worked my aisle and served my lunch and pre-arrival meal was actively unpleasant. She often would walk away as I was mid-sentence with a request.
It went something like this.
Me: “Can I have another iced Hong Kong milk—
FA: [Eye roll and starts walking away]
Me: [Shouts after her] “…milk tea and a water please!”
Besides being a bit rude, she also just didn’t seem very experienced, which I found to be the case for this entire crew. Service on Hong Kong Airlines seems to lack the polish of other Asian carriers—notably Hong Kong’s flag carrying airline, Cathay Pacific.
Anyways, back to lunch. I loved the design of the menu which was drawn by a Hong Kong-born artist Vico Ngai. Here’s what was on offer:
Things kicked off with room temperature mixed nuts and an iced Hong Kong-style milk tea. Then, came a tray with the appetizer course of duck fois gras, grilled peaches, smoked salmon, and prosciutto. I was skeptical of the combination initially but it was really good. The side salad was fresh as well.
I also loved the dining ware which was used and the cute, little dum sum-shaped salt and pepper shakers.
Next up was a creamy lobster bisque soup—served at the perfect temperature.
Unfortunately, I wasn’t offered a drink during the meal. The purser seemed to be working the galley at this point, and I had to remind the other flight attendant in my aisle two times for a water and milk tea refill. She was very concerned with efficiently delivering appetizers, soups, main courses and clearing plates—and totally forgot about any other element of service. Even then, she gave me the wrong main initially but quickly changed it out for my braised chicken.
While not the most beautiful presentation, the chicken was great and super flavorful. Bread wasn’t offered until after my meal was completed. But the garlic bread was tasty.
Finally, dessert was served and although I was stuffed at this point, I took both options—a decent cheese plate and a lovely coconut cake that hit the spot. When I asked for a green tea to go with dessert, the flight attendant simply said “wait!” and walked the other way. I guess “wait!” just meant “yes” because she arrived with my tea a few minutes later.
At the end of the meal, I asked for a bottle of water which took an additional reminder, but was finally brought to me as the crew switched on some mood lighting.
While service was subpar and had serious room for improvement, I do have to say the food was excellent and a step up from most airlines, including Cathay Pacific.
The meal service concluded about two-and-a-half hours after takeoff. I reclined my seat and took a peek at the entertainment options.
I checked out the A350 tail and belly cameras again and these did not disappoint. Resolution was crystal clear and I had great views at takeoff from Los Angeles and landing in Hong Kong—two cities with stellar views near the airports.
The English movie selection was pretty good with about 25 to 30 new release and classics. The TV selection, however, wasn’t great, with just a handful of episodes.
I love airlines that have live programs and Hong Kong Airlines was one of them. One of the channels was even showing the U.S. Open Tennis Championships—score!
After a few hours of high octane Williams sisters’ tennis at 35,000 feet, I decided to refuel and check out the snack options. The snack basket in the galley was quite disappointing with just some chips, nuts, and fruit. On the menu, there were a couple of additional hot options (hint: I eventually ordered both). I wasn’t really hungry but I wanted to nibble on something so I ordered the brioche vegetable sandwich.
About 10 minutes later, my sandwich appeared and it didn’t look like much—but it was pretty tasty. I did wish there was some kind of accompaniment.
Afterwards, I watched The Terminal for the first time which was pretty much the perfect airplane film. Tom Hanks’s character is forced to live in a fictional JFK terminal after his country’s government is overthrown enroute to the U.S. Chaos ensues. I didn’t buy Tom Hanks’s accent, but I was surprised how emotional the movie got me—probably due to its relevant immigration theme.
There were two toilets at the front of the business class cabin, both by the galley area, which was a bit awkward when you had to wait your turn to use it. They were fairly basic with L’occitane hand wash and lotion. (And a weird looking green hand wash.) The lavs were kept clean throughout the flight.
Hong Kong Airlines offers Wi-Fi, but boy was it slow. Unfortunately, I forgot to take a screen grab of my speed test but trust me when I say it was glacial. Data-based pricing always stinks and is expensive for what you get. The $9.99 30MB plan lasted me only about 20 minutes with normal surfing. $4.99 got you 15MB while $22.99 got you up to 100MB.
I fell asleep at this point and slept for about five hours. Unfortunately, the bed was a bit firm for my likeing and my sleep was a bit restless due to the warm temperature of the cabin. No air vents here, the case on most Asian airlines. However, I was tired due to my 4 a.m. start for JFK and needed to catch some shut eye.
Arrival Meal and Landing
I awoke about 3 hours before landing, and ordered a yuenyeung (mix of Hong Kong milk tea and coffee) and the dim sum off of the menu—for review and photo purposes mostly.
While the drink was delivered fairly promptly, I had to once again remind the flight attendant (a different one this time) about the dim sum. She responded that they had run out and walked away. Uh ok, could you have told me that earlier?
However, a few minutes later, she proudly proclaimed she found me some dim sum! Sadly, it wasn’t very good.
About 30 minutes later, pre-landing meals were served with a trolley down the aisle. I ordered the penne pasta which unlike the dim sum, was cooked perfectly. I was impressed. The pasta was al dente, and it came with fresh fruit and light mousse cake. And this time, my drink was promptly delivered.
Approximately 30 minutes to landing, the crew began preparing the cabin. We arrived about five worse, there was no dedicated bus for business class passengers and we packed onto the bus like a subway in NYC during rush hour.
It was about a 10-minute ride to immigration where my inaugural journey with Hong Kong Airlines concluded.
My first flight with Hong Kong Airlines was a mixed bag. For a $500 flight, I have zero complaints. Give me a lie flat seat, a meal, some flicks and I’m a happy camper. However, fares are normally $2000 or more and I realize not everyone was lucky enough to score this deal. And in order to retain customers, the experience has to be up-to-par.
The ground experience was just so-so and the remote stand in Hong Kong was decidedly un-premium.
The main meal and pre-arrival meal are what really shined. And I really appreciated the playful design, décor, and elements of Hong Kong that were highlighted.
Entertainment options were good, the seat and bedding was decent, and I appreciated that Wi-Fi was offered. All the elements were there but it was just missing the polish and streamlined experience that you usually expect from Asian carriers like Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines. While Cathay is sometimes criticized for being too “mechanical” in their service delivery that resembles an assembly line, I would much rather take that over sloppy service.
I’m looking forward to giving Hong Kong Airlines another try to see if service on this flight was a one-off. Even with its service shortcomings, I would recommend Hong Kong Airlines—error fare or not.