With the ongoing protests and trade war happening, flying long-haul has gotten far more affordable even at the front end of the plane. The avgeeks have long discussed about Cathay's pricing policy of offering connecting passengers cheaper deals than flying direct out of Hong Kong, and historically Taiwan had plenty of these deals. As the airline got smarter, the Taiwan deals seemed to have become harder to find while adventurers headed further afield to find them.
Ex-China has gotten especially cheaper as locals and tourists stay away from each other's territory, but I didn't want to risk air traffic delays or any other potential mishaps that would ruin my connection. Taipei was not particularly cheap, but Kaohsiung was, even a few weeks before departure. Premium Economy was only priced at about TWD 43000 from Kaohsiung to Toronto, about HKD 5000 cheaper than HK to Toronto direct.
Having been to Kaohsiung earlier in the year en route to Taitung, this would be a decent place for a positioning flight and a short stay. Hotels are cheap and the flight is short - only an hour from HK. Being a bit more ambitious, I decided to even save that night and do a day trip to Taiwan.
This itinerary would start in Kaohsiung with an overnight in HK. I would head home and finish packing to continue to Toronto the next morning.
12 Oct - HKG-KHH (positioning flight)
Historically, I have preferred not flying direct on the eastbound, choosing to transit through Europe or Japan in previous years as redemption seats opened up. That was from my Economy Class travelling days. With age comes more expectations of a comfortable and perhaps luxurious experience.
With increased security measures at the airport to prevent protesters from getting in, everyone needed to show their identification and plane ticket before entering the terminal building. The long line moved steadily and I was inside within a few minutes, even though I left a much bigger buffer ahead of my departure time just in case.
Having learned the Premium Economy counters are now in aisle C the day before on my positioning flight, I was back to send my checked bag through. Everything was done in typical efficiency.
Automation is slowly creeping in with these automated self-service kiosks to send your bags away. With barely a line at my elite counters, I wouldn't recommend trying to figure all this out by yourself when a well-experienced staff can do it all for you in a shorter period of time.
Today's gate would be at the far-flung end of the terminal. I decided to head to Gate 67 the long way by walking along the length of the terminal and doing some plane spotting en route.
By the time I reached the gate, they were ready to board.
During online check-in, I noticed many empty seats in Premium Economy, and we were about half full when the doors closed. A pillow, blanket, and noise-canceling headset were already on each seat.
The crew came around a few times to distribute various items : the welcome drink, menu, amenity kit, and menu again. This is my first time flying Cathay's Premium Economy product, which looked similar to the regional Business Class. The seat felt noticeably wider and there was more armrest space for each passenger. With Business being astronomically costly for a revenue ticket, this was a happy compromise with sufficient space to do some work on your laptop and not having to worry about bumping your knees onto the seat ahead of you during the long flight.
We pushed back on time and made our way to the other end of the airport for departure.
With 14.5 hours in the air, I wanted a morning flight to beat the jet lag. I would arrive just after 1am Hong Kong time, and can tough it out for the rest of the day before Toronto's night-time, which should make bridging the 12 hour time zone difference a bit easier.
Construction of a new bridge from the main terminal to the North Satellite is well under way. The actual bridge structure is being pre-assembled in a distant part of the tarmac.
We didn't have to wait in line for long to take off. However, the cloudy weather as well as the engine got in the way of my aerial shots.
Many years ago, Cathay made a big deal of using Rolls Royce engines. I guess GE has caught up to supply them now.
The IFE on these jets has a nicer and more modern interface. I could swipe with my fingers to scroll across the menu, and zoom in/out on the flight map. Even when I quickly leave what I'm watching to check where I am flying over, the system is smart enough to resume the program afterwards.
As I enjoyed the blue skies and plotting what shows to watch for the rest of the flight, a drink and almonds were served. Only Premium Economy gets these almonds in a bag. Out back, they have the regular peanuts.
Soon, we were above Taiwan and we continued north along the middle section mountains.
The first meal was presented in Economy Class style, although the fish and potatoes were tasty enough. The metal cutlery in a thick towel is a noticeable upgrade from the typical cattle class fare, but this certainly doesn't look anything close to Business Class. This product's positioning is often confusing as Economy passengers expect a more Business Class experience to justify the hefty premium, while the airline would interpret this cabin as a glorified front part of Economy Class with slightly more legroom. I don't think the two sides will ever intersect.
Cost-cutting in the meal service again? It tasted great though.
After lunch, we were somewhere over the ocean heading towards Japan.
Japan was also enjoying a nice day, but we skirted off the coast after Kyushu so there wasn't much in terms of views. Mount Fuji was visible way off in the distance.
I couldn't spot Tokyo although the flight map said it was off in my direction.
The sun had set as we headed across the Pacific towards Alaska. There were a few persistent announcements that smoking is not allowed in the lavatories, the legal consequences, and smoke detectors are installed on board. It was annoying to hear this in today's age when smoking on board had been banned for more than a generation already, and I didn't think the pilots would risk an emergency landing to weed out the culprit unless something more serious occurred. Since there is no dedicated lavatory in Premium Economy, I had to head back to use the Economy section. The toilets were definitely not clean and got gradually worse with time and I thought it was the user(s)' issue rather than spotty cleaning. Economy was not full and many have claimed entire rows for their makeshift beds.
9 hours into the journey, a second meal was served. The sun started to rise again about 2000 miles or 3.5 hours from Toronto above BC.
Just past 1am Hong Kong time, we started to descend towards Toronto. The weather was nice and I could see pockets of fall foliage across the countryside. I was arriving a bit late for the viewing season and had hoped for the best from the weather gods.
At this late stage of the flight, I realized I had not opened the amenity kit yet. As the crew had dropped by to ask us to close the shades early into the flight and we each had noise-cancelling headsets, I wasn't in a pressing need to open it up and look for the eyeshades or earplugs.
We came in from the north and turned east to loop around for landing. My left window seat would be ideal to see the city's skyline. Too bad the engine was in the way. I either have to pay up for Business Class further ahead or stay at the back of cattle class for the unobstructed views.
The weather was great and final approach was smooth for a 20 minute early arrival into a cool Toronto, 3 hours after we left Hong Kong thanks to the time difference.
We landed on the northern runway, which was closer to Terminal 3 and the final leg to the gate didn't take long. Most planes around here are narrowbodies (some are really small ones), which is an interesting contrast to the big birds we typically see in Asia.
Arriving at Pearson can be an unpredictable experience. I've had long waits at immigration but with the kiosks taking over some of the formalities, things have steadily improved. Being at the front of the plane, I didn't have to wait long for a kiosk after a long walk from the gate. I noticed a PIA jet pulling in shortly after us so my priority was to run ahead of them and find a bathroom at the luggage belt after clearing immigration.
The kiosk's processing is a bit clunky as the machine slowly adjusts to the proper height to take your picture and some travelers arriving together were having a hard time getting things to work. After finishing up with the receipt, I headed down yet another long corridor to the main immigration are, where there are many more kiosks. This confused some people but there was a staff on hand to wave us through to the manned counter line at the other side of the room. You still need to go through a physical person for both immigration and customs even with kiosk processing.
Having rushed through, I expected to wait a bit for my checked bag, but it wasn't too bad and the custom line after that was short. This would be one of the smoother days at this airport!
Premium Economy is definitely worth the investment for any tall person flying such a gruelling ultra-long haul across the Pacific. For reward redemptions, Business Class offers much better value for points but for fare-paying passengers, how much extra are you willing to pay for the extra seat room? Creative researching for transit itineraries may yield a nice surprise. I still think this new class of travel hasn't yet found a proper image as it is nowhere near a basic Business Class on a premium international carrier today yet it doesn't associate with Economy at the front either.
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