These are first world problems, but you didn’t click here to solve world peace, did you?
There was only one direction to go, and Cathay Pacific went there. Frequent travellers have a knack for disagreeing on almost everything from where to sit to which airline is best, but if there’s one thing everyone seems to agree on, it’s the quality of Cathay Pacific’s First and Business Class lounges in Hong Kong. For decades, they’ve been regarded as the finest examples of what airport spaces can be, and while that’s still true – the food is no longer a part of that praise. To say it’s gone downhill is like saying that Hong Kong is just a little bit hilly.
I pass through Hong Kong International Airport fairly often, and the one thing I once adored is now gone. Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong lounge food was once so good, I would skip meals before coming to the airport. Now, I load up beforehand. Cathay Pacific has gutted its beloved lounge food program to a level where the meat can only be described as bare bones, and that’s if you’re lucky enough to get anything other than gristle.
The airline has changed the catering contract for its Hong Kong lounges for the third time in less than five years. This time: they’ve gone too far. What was once an “a-ha” moment for travellers is now a set of beautiful spaces serving food which would fail to please most college students either by taste, portion size or presentation. Here’s the backstory…
Many travellers fail to realise that airline lounges are rarely actually managed by the airline itself. This work is typically contracted out to third party providers which staff the lounges, curate the food and beverage services and arrange all other necessities and send the airline a bill. In the case of Cathay’s Hong Kong lounges, this was long handled by the highly revered Peninsula Hotel. It was the perfect local luxury partnership, combining five star hotel service with the premium airline of the city.
In 2015, Cathay Pacific axed its Peninsula HKG lounge contract in favour of Plaza Premium, a major operator of independent lounges around the world in exchange for a deep price cut. To say the switch wasn’t well received was an understatement. At the time, frequent travellers lamented the significant drop in food and beverage quality and lack of polish in service training, which was once managed by one of the world’s finest five star hotels.
Despite this, I visited many times during this tenure and found the food memorable, delicious, plentiful and well delivered. Compared to the current offering, it was practically the belle epoque. Some of my most memorable airport meals in history happened during the Plaza Premium years when the Hong Kong style noodles were still richly incredible, the tuna nicoise was lightly seared and not canned, and service was still refined, by most normal standards.
Fast forward to present day, and the lounges are managed by Sodexo. You probably know the name, because they probably catered your college mess hall, or your favourite sports teams stadium stalls. In fairness to Sodexo, the group does some excellent work at a few outposts outside of Hong Kong, including London, but the magic touch has not made it’s way to Chep Lap Kok.
According to those in the know, Sodexo offered an extreme price drop at a time when Cathay Pacific was looking to plug losses in any way possible. They may have succeeded in cost cutting, but it came at a significant price, at least in Hong Kong. Considering it’s “home base”, it seems rather silly.
On multiple recent visits to multiple lounges almost all the food was inedible, and what was edible was portioned for a small pet. The “Iberico Pork” was nothing more than trimmed fat edges which very few humans would find appealing. The Hong Kong Noodles have become a watery bowl of quasi ramen, which a decent microwave packet runs laps around.
Making things worse, the exemplary service which endeared the airline to many of the world’s most sophisticated passengers is now practically a joke. On almost every occasion, each dish was brought to the wrong person, without cutlery or entirely out of sequence. On the few occasions things did go right, staff had to be flagged down. Amongst many staff members, attitude has replaced aptitude and if you do wish to enjoy a full meal, you begin to feel the heat of the eye roll.
On the beverage side, it’s all up and down. Outstanding options such as the Rothschild champagne have been replaced with larger, more commercial houses, but on the upside, the First Class lounge does now offer a very palatable vintage option.
The wine list almost entirely lacks inspiration though. In an age where a good wine review is only an app away, serving bad wine is inexcusable. Cathay is serving cheap bottles, which is fine, but cheap and poorly rated bottles, which is not. Travellers will almost always take a delicious bottle at a more reasonable price point, over swill not worth the indulgence, just because it has an extra $5 tacked on.
Know this: I still don’t believe there’s a more enjoyable place to pass time in between flights than the Cathay Pacific Pier or Wing lounges in Hong Kong when it comes to design or comfort. They are in a league of their own.
But when it comes to food, which is a major part of passing the hours before or between long flights, the lounges are hardly up to the standards of Priority Pass lounges. For the first time in my life, I was tempted to forgo my complimentary Cathay first class lounge access in favour of paying $250HKD per person to visit the Plaza Premium First Lounge. Apparently, it’s run by the crew who once ran the Cathay Pacific Pier First Class lounge.
As airlines seek to cut costs, creativity seems to be the first thing to go. To save money on flowers, you don’t need to lose flowers entirely, you just need to find cheaper ones, or a better supplier. To save on catering costs, you don’t need to compromise on ingredients, perhaps just offer fewer dishes. Travellers will always prefer a few dishes worth waiting for over a diverse menu of garbage.
The highlight of my last visit was when the “warm chocolate fondant with vanilla and raspberry”, which is never served warm, with vanilla or raspberry was out of stock; and replaced by a delicious opera cake. By all financial accounts,
Cathay Pacific has weathered the financial storm, so now it’s time to start acting like it. With lounge investment, it can’t come soon enough. The airline succeeded in creating the world’s most beautiful airport spaces, relaxation zones and even yoga rooms, so it’s high time to bring back the great food Hong Kong is famous for too.