I flew 14 hours on one of the best airlines in the world that you've probably never heard of — and even its worst seat put other long-haul flights to shame

Katie Canales/Business InsiderThere were no lie-flat seats or complimentary Champagne in sight from my back-row economy seat. But that doesn’t mean Hong Kong Airlines didn’t deliver a comfortable flight experience — at least for what I paid.
  • With just 12 years of operations under its belt, the 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 Airlines experience put other flights I’ve taken to shame, largely because of the upgraded in-flight entertainment system and the tasty meals.

For some, riding in business or first class is a must when taking long-haul flights. The lie-flat seats, the Champagne, the three-course meals – ah, the luxury.

For the rest of us mere mortals, low-priced economy seats are the way to go.

Such was the case for a recent trip I took to Hong Kong from San Francisco aboard Hong Kong Airlines, a young carrier based out of Hong Kong 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 $US500.

Here’s what my economy experience was like aboard a Hong Kong Airlines flight:


My trip began at San Francisco International Airport. Always antsy before a flight, I arrived three hours before we were scheduled to take off at 12:30 p.m.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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.

Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Source: SFGate, Business Insider


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.

Source: Airline Geeks, Hong Kong Airlines, Forbes


Its goal of “affordable luxury” has delivered a new dose of competition for Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong Airlines’ main competitor and Hong Kong’s dominant airline.

Christian Keenan/Getty Images

Source: Forbes


And affordable the airline is — I paid only $US500 on Kayak in early June for a round-trip ticket between San Francisco and Hong Kong.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Though to be fair, it was 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.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Source: Hong Kong Free Press


The young Hong Kong-based carrier recently rolled out a fleet of shiny new Airbus A350-900s for its North American routes. They’re part of the airline’s 37 passenger-plane count.

Airbus

The additions made the airline’s average fleet age about 5 years old.

Source: Hong Kong Airlines


One of these new planes is used on flight HX061 from San Francisco to Hong Kong, the route that would take me there for a long weekend trip.

Airbus

This wasn’t my first time flying economy on a long-haul flight. I recently flew British Airways from Houston, Texas, to Paris. And I had the same spot for that flight too: the very last seat in the cabin in an aisle next to the restrooms.

Jack Taylor/Getty Images

I also flew from Houston to Rome on United in 2013.

David McNew/Getty Images

About 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 realise I had to add “MRS” to the end of my name for it to work.

Hong Kong airlines/Business Insider

I should have checked in through the app, which looks easier to navigate. But I was rushed in the days leading up to my trip and didn’t think to do that.

Hong Kong Airlines/Business Insider

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.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I’ve used my phone to check in on other flights — and I missed that ease while I was checking in for my Hong Kong Airlines flight.

Apple Wallet/Business Insider

On the bright side, however, I got to skip long baggage lines. I was able to bring a decent-sized duffle bag as my carry-on for my five-day trip, and I’m still shocked I was able to fit everything neatly.


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 board, there didn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to how we lined up to get on the plane, at least as far as we could tell.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

We weren’t organised 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 had priority.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I made my way past the lie-flat business seats, placed in a 1-2-1 layout, to the very back of the cabin.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

And I’m not kidding when I say I was in the very back of the plane.

Hong Kong Airlines/Business Insider

Hong Kong Airlines doesn’t offer first class on any planes, but the price for a business-class ticket aboard the airline usually runs north of $US3,000. That’s still half of what Cathay Pacific offers for a spot in its business class.

Source: The Points Guy, Cathay Pacific


The plane had striking red seats, with the economy rows arranged in a 3-3-3 format, boasting a seat pitch — the amount of room between two rows of seats — of 31 to 34 inches, based on your row. There was a pillow, a blanket, and an amenity kit placed on each one.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Even at the very last seat in the cabin, I got an amenity kit.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

It held your standard items: a sleeping mask, socks, a toothbrush, toothpaste, and earplugs. A flight attendant also came by with complimentary earphones.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

After I stowed my bag in an overhead compartment, I scoped out the spot where 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.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

My long-legged friends, on the other hand, were definitely struggling in that department.


I was afforded a nice panoramic view of the cabin, thanks to my back-row seat.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Soon after takeoff, it was time for dinner. The presentation was similar to the meals I had on my transatlantic flight on British Airways …

Katie Canales/Business Insider

… but it tasted way better than any other parcel of aeroplane food I’ve ever had. The beef, steamed rice, and veggies were very tasty.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

The meals that followed — like this spicy potato salad — were equally appetizing.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

I made sure to take advantage of the complimentary alcoholic beverages, but not too much.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Inebriated or unruly passengers aboard Hong Kong Airlines flights may come face-to-face with the airline’s kung-fu-trained flight attendants if they cause a scene.

Source: Business Insider


Hong Kong Airlines trains its crew members in wing chun, an ancient martial art form featuring quick movements for close-range combat. The airline acknowledged it was a publicity stunt, but it also theoretically would come in handy in the tight quarters of a plane cabin.

Source: Business Insider, CNN


I wasn’t about to get tipsy and draw attention from the moonlighting martial artists.

Source: Business Insider


But a glass of wine was warranted for the intimidating 14-hour flight ahead of me …

Google Maps

… 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.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

The 17-inch touchscreens were powered by a Thales’ Avant system and featured a nice selection of movies, music, and TV shows, as well as the standard real-time flight map.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

Scrolling was simple, and the picture quality was fantastic.

Source: Aviation Pros


There was zero need for the excessive screen tapping that inevitably leads to grumpy seat neighbours, which is what I’ve experienced flying United. Hong Kong Airlines’ system was brand new, and it made screens on other flights look like nickelodeons.


Hong Kong Airlines offers WiFi, but a flight attendant announced over the intercom at the beginning of the flight that because of improvements being made to the system, we wouldn’t have access.

Source: eDreams


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 Airlines made it as comfortable as possible.

Katie Canales/Business Insider

We landed at Hong Kong International Airport in the late evening.

Keith Tsuji/Getty Images

When it was time to fly back, our return flight, HX062, ended up being delayed a whopping five hours. (It was Labour Day, after all.)


If we had shelled out about $US3,000 for a business-class ticket aboard Hong Kong Airlines, we could have passed the time at the airline’s 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.

Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty ImagesA guest at the bar of another lounge in Hong Kong International Airport.

Source: Hong Kong Airlines


In the evening, we boarded our flight that would prove just as smooth as our first, at least as far as the service was concerned. There was considerable turbulence throughout …


… which we discovered when we landed was most likely caused by Typhoon Jebi, which later slammed into the coast of Japan.

Source: The Guardian


The typhoon was described as the worst to hit Japan in 25 years, leaving thousands stranded and disrupting travel at the main airport in western Japan.

Source: The Guardian


Luckily for us, SFO was unaffected, and we landed the next day sufficiently exhausted but safe.


Hong Kong Airlines serves 40 major cities. In addition to San Francisco, it offers nonstop routes to Los Angeles …

Source: Forbes, Airline Geeks


… and Vancouver, Canada.

Robert Giroux/Getty Images

Source: Airline Geeks


Service to New York is also set to be added this year …

Source: Airline Geeks


… as well as routes to London. For me, the airline I choose to fly depends entirely on how affordable the tickets are — so as long as tickets are priced low, I would absolutely fly with Hong Kong Airlines again.

Source: Forbes

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