I flew 14 hours on one of the best airlines in the world that you've never heard of - and even its worst seat put other long-haul flights to shame
Katie Canales/Business Insider
- With just 12 years of operations under its belt, Hong Kong-based carrier Hong Kong Airlines has become one of the best airlines in the world.
- I recently flew from San Francisco to Hong Kong at the very back of the economy cabin on one of the airline's new Airbus A350-900s.
- Though there's no such thing as a perfectly pleasant 14-hour flight in economy, my Hong Kong Air experience put other flights I've taken to shame, largely due to the upgraded in-flight entertainment system and the tasty meals.
For some, riding business or first class is a must when taking long-haul flights. The lie-flat seats, the Champagne, the 3-course meals - ah, the luxury.For the rest of us mere mortals, jumping at low-priced economy seats is the way to go. Advertisement
Such is the case for a recent trip I took to Hong Kong from San Francisco aboard Hong Kong Airlines, a young carrier based out of the city of the same name that has quickly become one of the best airlines in the world.
The airline is known for its "affordable luxury," which I can certainly vouch for - I purchased a round-trip ticket to Hong Kong from the Bay Area for a mere $500.
Here's what my economy experience was like aboard a Hong Kong Air flight:
My trip began at San Francisco International Airport (SFO.) Always antsy before a flight, I arrived three hours before we were scheduled to take off at 12:30 p.m.
The two largest airlines at the West Coast airport are United and Virgin America, the latter of which merged with Alaska Airlines just this year.Advertisement
The newest player on the SFO scene is Hong Kong Airlines, which in its 12 years of operation has become one of the best airlines in the world.
Its goal of "affordable luxury" has delivered a new dose of competition for Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airline's main competitor and Hong Kong's dominant airline.Advertisement
And affordable the airline is — I paid only $500 on Kayak in early June for a round-trip ticket from San Francisco to Hong Kong.
Though, to be fair, it is the region's typhoon season, which may have also had something to do with the low price. It was hot and rainy every day I was in Hong Kong — not peak tourist season.Advertisement
The young Hong Kong-based carrier recently rolled out a fleet of shiny new Airbus A350-900s for its North American routes. They're now a part of the airline's 37 passenger plane count.
One of these new planes is used on flight HX061 from SFO to Hong Kong, the route that would take me to the Chinese city for a long weekend trip.Advertisement
This wasn't my first time flying economy on a long-haul flight. I recently flew British Airways from Houston, Texas, to Paris, France. And I had the same spot for that flight too — the very last seat in the cabin in an aisle next to the restrooms.
I also flew from Houston to Rome on United in 2013.Advertisement
Around 48 hours before my flight, I checked in using Hong Kong Airlines' website. I was immediately peeved by the airline's check-in process and website interface — it wasn't intuitive, and it took me a few attempts to realize I had to add "MRS" to the end of my name for it to work.
I should have checked in through the app, which looks easier to navigate. But I was rushed during the days leading up to my trip and didn't think to.Advertisement
On the day of my flight, I strolled up to SFO security with my boarding pass on my phone...
...only to be directed to a long line to print out my pass. Hong Kong Airlines does not accept mobile boarding passes, only physical ones.Advertisement
I've used my phone to check in on other flights I've taken — and I missed that ease while I was checking in for my Hong Kong Airlines flight.
Though on the bright side, I got to skip long baggage lines. I was able to bring a decently-sized duffle bag as my carry-on for my five-day trip, and I'm still shocked I was able to fit everything neatly.Advertisement
My friends and I eventually made it to our gate, only to be told that our flight was delayed two hours. We fiddled around the terminal in the meantime.
When it was time to queue up at the gate, there didn't seem to be any rhyme or reason to how we lined up to board the plane, at least as far as we could tell.Advertisement
We weren't organized by zones, which for me, having seat 66G stamped on my ticket, I didn't mind so much. I would have been one of the last to board if front rows got priority.
I made my way past the lie-flat business seats placed in a 1-2-1 layout to the very back of the cabin...Advertisement
...and I'm not kidding when I say I was in the very back of the plane.
Hong Kong Air doesn't offer first class on any of their planes, but the price for a business class ticket aboard the airline usually runs north of $3,000. That's still half of what competitor Cathay Pacific offers for a spot in business.Advertisement
The plane had striking red seats, with the economy rows arranged in a 3-3-3 format, and boasts a seat pitch of 31 to 34 inches based on which row you are in. Seat pitch is simply the amount of room between two rows of seats. There was a pillow, blanket, and amenity kit placed on each one.
Even at the very last seat in the cabin, I got an amenity kit.Advertisement
It held your standard items: sleeping mask, socks, toothbrush, toothpaste, and earplugs. A flight attendant also came by with complimentary earphones.
After I stowed my bag in an overhead compartment, I scoped out the spot in which I'd spend the next 14 hours. There was a USB port in the back-of-the-seat touchscreen to charge my phone, my seat could recline, and I had plenty of legroom — granted, my legs are quite short.Advertisement
I was afforded a nice panoramic view of the cabin, thanks to my back-row seat.
Soon after taking off, it was time for dinner. The presentation was similar to the meals I had on my transatlantic flight on British Airways...Advertisement
...but it tasted way better than any other parcel of airplane food I've ever had. The beef, steamed rice, and veggies were very tasty.
The meals that followed — like this spicy potato salad — were equally appetizing.Advertisement
I made sure to take advantage of the complimentary alcoholic beverages, but not too much.
Inebriated or unruly passengers aboard Hong Kong Air flights may come face-to-face with the airline's Kung Fu-trained flight attendants if they cause a scene.Advertisement
The airline trains all its crew in Wing Chun, an ancient art form featuring quick movements for close-range combat. It was admittedly a publicity stunt, but it also theoretically comes in handy in the tight quarters of a plane cabin.
I wasn't about to get tipsy and draw attention from the moonlighting martial artists.Advertisement
But a glass of wine was warranted for the intimidating 14-hour flight ahead of me...
...which, I'll tell you right now, was made exponentially better with the top-tier in-flight entertainment system. I can't praise it enough. There's nothing better than shaving off a good slice of flight time with a nine-hour movie marathon.Advertisement
The 17-inch touch screens were powered by a Thales' AVANT IFE system and featured a nice selection of movies, music, TV shows, as well as the standard real-time flight map.
There was zero need for the excessive screen tapping that inevitably leads to grumpy seat neighbors, which is what I've experienced flying United before. Hong Kong's system was brand new, and it made screens on other flights look like nickelodeons.Advertisement
Hong Kong Airlines is one of the airlines that offers WiFi. Unfortunately, a flight attendant announced over the intercom at the beginning of the flight that, due to improvements being made to the system, we wouldn't have access to it.
But the WiFi was hardly missed, what with the good food, entertainment, and service. There's no such thing as a perfectly pleasant 14-hour economy flight (though the seat reclined, it was nowhere near enough to sleep deeply) but Hong Kong Air made it as comfortable as possible.Advertisement
We landed at Hong Kong International Airport in the late evening.
When it was time to fly back, our return flight HX062 ended up being delayed a whopping five hours (it was Labor Day after all.)Advertisement
If we had shelled out an estimated $3,000 for a business class ticket aboard Hong Kong Air, we could have passed the time at the airline's premiere lounge at Hong Kong International Airport. But, luckily, we were able to hang out in another airport lounge thanks to my companion's travel rewards.
In the evening, we boarded our flight that would prove to be just as smooth as our first, at least as far as the service was concerned. There was considerable turbulence throughout the flight...Advertisement
...which we discovered when we landed was most likely caused by the incoming tropical storm, Typhoon Jebi, that slammed into the coast of Japan.
The typhoon is reported as the worst to hit Japan in 25 years, leaving thousands stranded and disrupting travel from western Japan's main airport.Advertisement
SFO was luckily unaffected, and we landed the next day sufficiently exhausted but safe.
Hong Kong Airlines serves a total of 40 major cities. In addition to San Francisco, it offers nonstop routes to Los Angeles...Advertisement
...and Vancouver, Canada.
A service to New York is also set to be added on this year...Advertisement
...as well as routes to London. For me, the airline I choose to fly with depends entirely on how affordable the tickets are, so as long as the tickets were priced low, I would absolutely fly with Hong Kong Airlines again.
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