Head To Head Comparison: Cathay Pacific First Class vs. Japan Airlines First Class

by Chris Dong

Flying first class is amazing — but not all airlines do it the same. Besides fewer airlines even offering a first class cabin, using points and miles to fly at the very front of the plane is becoming increasingly tricky.

Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines are two oneworld alliance airlines that, for years, have built a reputation for stellar first class experiences. And since this is a points and miles site after all, thankfully both airlines have made it possible to book seats in first with frequent flyer miles.

Besides being extremely lucky and coming across an error fare, the best way to book first class on Cathay Pacific and Japan Airlines is by using Alaska Airlines Mileage Plan miles or American Airlines AAdvantage miles. Yep, booking with a partner airline program is likely your best bet.

For example, a one-way first class flight between the US and Asia on Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines would be 70,000 miles through Alaska Mileage Plan.

Ben over at One Mile At A Time has a more extensive write up about how to book Cathay Pacific first class awards.

Compare that to one-way cash prices…

Back-To-Back First Class Flights

Recently, I flew Cathay Pacific first class (thanks mistake fare) and Japan Airlines first class (redeeming 80,000 AAdvantage miles) — within one week of each other. That means I had both experiences fresh in my memory, for better or worse.

The Flights

  • Cathay Pacific First Class Boeing 777-300ER JFK-HKG (CX 841)
  • Japan Airlines First Class Boeing 777-300ER HND-JFK (JL 6)

Let’s go head-to-head on:

  1. Ground Experience
  2. In-flight Service
  3. Dining
  4. Cabin, Bedding, & Amenities
  5. Entertainment & WiFi

Just how do these two classic Asian airlines compare all the way up front?

Ground Experience

While neither Cathay Pacific or Japan Airlines have their own first class terminal or Porsche gate transfers (looking at you, Lufthansa), one airline came out clearly ahead on ground experience.

Cathay Pacific First Class Ground Experience

Since I originated at JFK for my Cathay Pacific flight, I was able to access American Airlines’ awesome Flagship First Dining, which is essentially a sit-down restaurant within the Flagship Lounge.

Cathay Pacific has an exclusive agreement with American so their first class passengers can use this space. Otherwise, Flagship First Dining is only accessible to American Airlines long-haul international or premium transcontinental first class flyers.

My omelette for breakfast was pretty run-of-the-mill, but it was really nice to be able sit in a quiet space with runway views…and be served endless cappuccinos.

Related: Review — American Flagship Lounge DFW

American Flagship First Dining JFK

American Flagship First Dining JFK

After the flight in Hong Kong, transiting is an absolute breeze since HKG is a super easy airport to navigate. You do have to go through security again to continue onwards, but that only took a few minutes.

Cathay Pacific also has some of the nicest first class lounges in the world — we’re talking private cabanas, massages, sit-down dining, and more.

the pier cathay pacific

Cathay has amazing first class lounges, like The Pier

the wing cathay pacific lounge hkg

…and The Wing, at the other end of HKG

I love how Cathay also prints out lounge invitation cards (with information on where the lounge actually is) when you check-in for your flight.

Japan Airlines First Ground Experience

On my flight back to the US from Japan, I originated at ITM, Osaka’s smaller domestic airport close to the city center. For a 7:30am flight, the check-in desk didn’t open until 6:00am which meant a brief wait since we arrived at about 5:45am.

The good news was the lounge at ITM was surprisingly gorgeous and even included its own private security area. That’s where the good things come to an end for the Japan Airlines ground experience, unfortunately.

japan airlines itami lounge

Japan Airlines domestic oneworld Emerald lounge at ITM

After an uneventful domestic flight to Tokyo Haneda (boy, do the Japanese know how to board and deplane quickly…), it was time to connect to the long-haul in first class to JFK. With a three hour connection, I was hoping to check out a couple of Haneda lounges.

However, the transfer procedure at Haneda is clunky, and signage is not the most clear. We eventually figured it out (after asking), and exited the domestic terminal and waited outside for a 10 minute bus ride to the international terminal where we had to re-clear security.

HND bus transfer

Compared to Hong Kong, transferring at Tokyo Haneda is a bit of a headache (and not very premium).

Once through security, there was only about 75 minutes until boarding so we went to the “annex” Japan Airlines first class lounge, near our gate for the flight to JFK. Another first class lounge is located right after security in the center part of the concourse.

Unfortunately, the “annex” first class lounge was quite crowded initially, and also very warm. The design felt a little dated, especially compared to the small, but gorgeous domestic ITM lounge. Overall, while it wasn’t a bad space (great runway views), it just didn’t really feel special like Cathay Pacific is able to do with its Hong Kong lounges. The lounge did have a shoe shine area and massage chairs (although no longer with a real masseuse).

japan airlines first class haneda lounge

Japan Airlines First Class Haneda lounge

Cathay Pacific also operates their own business class lounge at HND, and I ventured upstairs to the Cathay Pacific quarters. Surprisingly, it was much more pleasant, and in the style of their Hong Kong lounges (think warm, yet home-y chic). The Cathay lounge had nicer decor, was less warm temperature-wise, and even had a made-to-order coffee station with a barista.

cathay pacific haneda lounge

Cathay Pacific Tokyo Haneda lounge

While I didn’t expect a white glove ground experience, transferring at Haneda was kind of a pain and the first class annex lounge paled in comparison to even Cathay’s business class offering. Cathay Pacific wins here, hands down.

Winner: Cathay Pacific

In-Flight Service

I’m an introvert, and tend to generally keep to myself when flying. Still, my preference when sitting up front is for service to be personalized without feeling too formal and, well, subservient. It’s nice to have an occasional conversation or two with the cabin crew, whether that be asking for an entree recommendation or what they did in their three days off in New York, etc.

Cathay Pacific Service

This Cathay Pacific crew was the perfect balance of service-oriented yet not too formal. One of the lead flight attendants was probably one of my favorite flight attendants ever. She was warm, friendly, conversational, and you could genuinely tell she loved her job.

Most impressive was how proactive the crew was in terms of filling up drinks, clearing plates, and really just anticipating what I was probably going to ask for next.

cathay first new dining concept

However, because the first class service concept was brand-new, there were definitely some kinks that needed to be worked out. For instance, my pre-departure beverage was a beet and grape juice drink (sounds gross, tastes pretty good) which I thought was super strange. Later, I found out that was a wake-up energizer drink before landing (still strange, but less so).

There were other relatively small missteps throughout the flight, like the wrong sides given with the entree. However, I chalked this up less on the service and more on the fact that the crew was still figuring out a new dining concept.

Japan Airlines Service

Japan Airlines, and in fact Japan itself, has an incredible service culture. It’s a quality about the country that I love — people take pride in the work that they do. That was certainly the case on my flight. My crew was very attentive and extremely polite.

However, it just didn’t feel warm in the way that Cathay Pacific did. First, none of the first class cabin crew had a strong command of English, so any conversation besides ordering something off the menu was a bit tricky. I certainly don’t expect English to be the cabin crew’s native tongue when flying a flag carrier for another country (and I don’t know any Japanese). However, I still felt like the language barrier impeded a bit on the actual service.

Japan Airlines just had this feeling like “I’m here to serve you” instead of Cathay Pacific which was felt more like “I’m here so you have a memorable experience,” if that makes any sense. Japan Airlines’ deferential service onboard might be someone else’s preference, but it’s not mine.

I should note that while both cabin crews on CX and JL didn’t make many passes through the cabin, someone was at my seat literally within five seconds whenever I pressed the flight attendant call button.

Winner: Cathay Pacific

Dining

First class dining is not for the faint of heart. When you board with an empty stomach, the goal is to fill it up with some top-quality grub that rivals that of restaurants on the ground.

Cathay Pacific Dining

Long before the Hong Kong protests that rocked the airline, Cathay Pacific was in cost cutting mode. Many have criticized that one of those cuts came in the form of food quality both onboard and at the lounges.

However, Cathay just introduced a new first class dining concept that includes not only new dishware, cutlery, etc, but a refreshed menu and food with supposedly healthier options. Was Cathay going to improve their food?

cathay pacific dinner menu first class

Cathay Pacific Dessert First Menu cathay pacific first drinks menu

I was lucky enough to experience the new menus just a few days after it was introduced on the JFK-HKG route. Unfortunately, I was pretty underwhelmed overall. While the menus themselves and crockery were gorgeous, the food was just good, not great.

Service started with an amuse bouche, then caviar, a soup course. the appetizer, the entree, and finally, dessert.

cathay pacific meal first class

Cathay Pacific caviar presentation

I literally can’t tell the difference between any caviar I’ve had on an airplane, so I can’t really comment there. However, the quinoa salad with chicken appetizer that I had was…bad. Plain and simple. The chicken was dry, the quinoa ice cold, and the portion measly (thankfully, in this case).

cathay pacific first class

That’s not a breadstick…just a cold slab of hard chicken.

Cathay redeemed themselves with two delicious entrees that were flavorful and well cooked. For my first meal, I had the cod. Later on in the flight, I had the rack of lamb entree which was also beautifully presented.

cathay pacific meal first class

Cathay Pacific first class lamb.

The biggest difference to me as compared to Japan Airlines first class dining was just how limited the Cathay Pacific menu seemed. With only a handful of snacks and entrees, this paled in comparison to the overwhelming JAL menu which featured over 20+ dishes and options.

Japan Airlines First Class Dining

Japan Airlines dining really shined, and since I love food, this was a highlight across both of these flights. The sheer breadth of the menu was overwhelming with enough options to feed you for days.

Since I had a ton of Japanese food in the week leading up to the flight, I decided to mix it up and order mostly off the western menu, while adding in some Japanese items.

From the perfectly cooked medium rare wagyu beef to the juicy meat skewers (Japanese brochettes) to the ridiculously refreshing yet sweet pomelo dessert, everything tasted amazing. My mouth is watering thinking about it, and I only wish I had a few more hours of flight time to devour some more.

P.S. That drink below is an incredibly smooth tea that comes in a fancy bottle and retails for over $100 (called Queen of Blue).

japan airlines first meal japan airlines first meal japan airlines first meal

Winner: Japan Airlines

Cabin, Bedding & Amenities

Cathay Pacific First Class Cabin, Bedding, & Amenities 

The Cathay Pacific first class cabin is an intimate affair with only six seats. The “A” side of the cabin, where I sat in 2A, is particularly private since it does not share an aisle with any other seats. With no passengers behind you getting up to use the lavatory, the only foot traffic you’ll have is the occasional flight attendant.

cathay pacific first class seat

While the “bones” of the seat have been around since 2007, the cabin still feels fresh and spacious — and the seat is still amazingly wide as ever (seriously, two average-sized people could sit side by side without a problem). And with refreshed seat fabric, new entertainment screen, and now WiFi, the cabin didn’t really feel dated at all.

In addition to new dining, Cathay has introduced new amenities and bedding from Australian brand Bamford (no more Aesop).

Japan Airlines First Class Cabin, Bedding, & Amenities

The Japan Airlines cabin consists of eight seats in a 1-2-1 configuration. There’s deep reds and browns throughout the cabin that give it a warm feel, but it is showing its age a bit more than Cathay’s cabin.

I also didn’t love the material of the seat itself, which was this firm leather-y / pleather-y material that didn’t breathe well. I would much prefer a softer fabric seat a la Cathy Pacific.

japan airlines first

Waiting at my seat was an Etro amenity kit and a Shishiedo men’s products including moisturizer and face wash. Sorry to say it, but I thought the Etro kit’s design was kind of ugly, and the products inside were pretty basic which included lip balm, toothbrush, and a “moisture mask” to breath into.

The Shishiedo products, on the other hand, were impressive since these were larger than sample size and could last quite a while with plenty of use. They were great travel size items to take home. Yep, those went in my bag.

Also, I loved the pajamas that were fitted but still soft and comfortable. My only objection was that they were very beige, which happen to match the color of the lavatories perfectly.

I was lucky enough that no one was sitting across from me, so I asked the cabin crew if they could make the bed while I relaxed and dined in the window seat.

Here’s my biggest disappointment with Japan Airlines — the bedding. After a fantastic sleep the previous week on Cathay Pacific, the bar was set pretty darn high. And this bed couldn’t deliver.

While comfortable, the mattress pad oddly didn’t have a sheet over it so it didn’t feel super sanitary. The pillow was firm and very flat, and while I know this is preferred by some people, it’s not my preference. Thankfully, adding a few more pillows helped a bit.

And the duvet wasn’t very soft and was thin compared to Cathy Pacific’s bedding.

Asian airlines, particularly Japanese ones, are notorious for overly warm cabins, and this was no exception. It was too warm to sleep comfortably, so I just ate some more (which really wasn’t that big of a problem). Eventually, I was able to doze off for a few hours.

Winner: Cathay Pacific 

Entertainment & WiFi 

Cathay Pacific Entertainment & WiFi

Cathay Pacific is in the process of updated its international widebody fleet of Boeing 777s with WiFi, a new entertainment interface, and also adding seats to economy (3-4-3 configured instead of 3-3-3 configured).

My Cathay flight was one of the planes refurbished with it all up in first — a new entertainment interface, new touchscreen controller that can also display the moving map, and was also equipped with WiFi.

The movie and TV selection really hasn’t changed between the old and new system, but it’s displayed in a much more easy-to-use format. Cathay has a large selection of movies and shows, with quite a few new releases too.

Resolution is much, much better now on the newer screen too. Best of all, the moving map is now super customizable and zoom-able.

Cathay Pacific Entertainment First

Cathay Pacific uses Gogo high speed WiFi, and when it worked, was decently fast. Pricing for a 16-hour flight is also reasonable, with first class passengers getting free access.

Unfortunately, about half of the flight was over the North Pole and Russia (outside of the WiFi coverage zone), so while I wanted to get some work done, I couldn’t.

cathay pacific entertainment

The WiFi coverage map vs the moving map

Japan Airlines Entertainment & WiFi 

Japan Airlines’ in-flight entertainment isn’t its strong suit, to put it nicely. While the fixed monitor was large, the screen was susceptible to glare and wasn’t a touch screen (it’s too far to touch anyways). The handheld touchscreen remote, however, was not responsive and the entertainment system was really slow. Unfortunately, the selection of movies and shows was not great either — with seemingly random episodes and older movies.

There were a few new releases though, thankfully, so I sat back, relaxed, and watched Hustlers with my dinner. The Bose noise cancelling headphones were also a nice touch, similar to Cathay Pacific.

Finally, WiFi was also free for first class passengers, but unfortunately, it didn’t work at all for me for the entire flight, even with a flight attendant troubleshooting it.

Winner: Cathay Pacific 

The Upshot

I was impressed by how refined the new Cathay Pacific first class experience was, and how I actually preferred it to Japan Airlines. The experience just felt more upscale as a full sensory experience — the smell of the pillow mist, the texture of the menus, the very fluffy bedding, etc.

Japan Airlines’ food was exceptional though and that really shined through. Even after putting more weight on food versus the other categories, JL still lagged behind CX in terms of head-to-head first class experiences.

Overall, with such stellar reviews of Japan Airlines first class, I was surprised by how much I thought the experience was, well, a bit overrated to be honest. It certainly was not a bad experience — in fact, it was pretty good. But it just wasn’t as good as Cathay Pacific.

If you hadn’t guessed by now, the winner in this oneworld first class battle was pretty clear: Cathay Pacific first class takes the cake over Japan Airlines first class.

The responses below are not provided or commissioned by the bank advertiser. Responses have not been reviewed, approved or otherwise endorsed by the bank advertiser. It is not the bank advertiser's responsibility to ensure all posts and/or questions are answered.

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7 comments

ken December 30, 2019 - 2:31 pm

to me the most important two factors in evaluating my flight experience are service and bedding/hard product. I didn’t like CX’s first hard project. It is just like SQ business bed…On the other hand, JL has a straight bed with comfortable bedding, so it is a win for JL for me. Of course the food is far better at JL. Maybe it is personal differences but I prefer JL style service over CX service. To me, CX service is a bit too casual for me. More like american style whereas JL has truly japanese service style. But I still put a lot more wait on bedding and my ability to sleep in first class, that is why I pay extra. So it was a clear choice for me and I don’t think I will ever fly CX fist again unless I don’t have any other good options…A side note: CX lounges were great but not like Thai or LH lounges, slightly similar or less than EK first in DXB. but I don’t think it was something far better than business lounges.

Reply
Serg April 28, 2020 - 4:58 am

Agree – I flown both and would pick JL over CX when everything equal. For me CX street ahead only in one area – their lounges in HKG are absolutely fantastic. And would you believe it or not I like business Pier lounge more than First. Call me an idiot.

Reply
Christian December 30, 2019 - 2:39 pm

Having flown both in the last few months, I’d say you pretty much nailed it. One thing that my wife and I didn’t particularly like was that the Japanese menu was Japanese, and the western menu pretty much was as well. One amazing thing about JAL was the sliding dining table. I’ve never seen that before.

Reply
pdxluver December 30, 2019 - 7:32 pm

I definitely preferred JL over CX by miles. JL has really good wifi in my experience so not sure why it didn’t work for you on the flight. I also preferred JL service than CX. Definitely the Japanese service!!! I definitely agreed with you on the lounge. But you can’t compare ground service for connecting from domestic to int’l vs int’l to int’l.

Reply
Jason December 30, 2019 - 10:15 pm

I flew CX F 2 years ago SFO – HKG round trip, and JAL F 3 months ago, SFO-HND.
Service: I thought the service for both CX and JAL was inferior to SQ F. I think the service of CX is slightly better than JAL.
Food: Like everyone else, JAL is better.
Seat: I liked CX better. The JAL seat looked and felt old (nothing special at all).
Lounges: CX is way better.
I think JAL (except for their food) is over rated.
I will be flying CX F again 2X later this year. I hope my experience is better than my first flight.

Reply
WR2 December 31, 2019 - 5:03 am

Agreed that JL only wins on the food category. There should also be a Wine/champagne category, in which case to me it depends on if the Cathay flight stocks Krug (some may give JL the win for whiskey offering). CX also wins a little if you are using Alaska miles, as it’s a bit cheaper. Finally, JL wins bonus points because I’d much rather do a stopover/long layover in Tokyo.

Reply
Steven Holmes January 3, 2020 - 10:41 pm

Great review mate

Reply

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