a bar with chairs and a table

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.

a plane on the runwayWhat’s Happened

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…

a long hallway with chairs and a painting on the wallThe 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.

a bar with chairs and a tableBorderline Inedible

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.

a table and chairs in a roomReturn To Glory

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.

Gilbert Ott

Gilbert Ott is an ever curious traveler and one of the world's leading travel experts. His adventures take him all over the globe, often spanning over 200,000 miles a year and his travel exploits are regularly...

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  1. For what it’s worth, Sodexo has the contract with AA for the Flagship First Dining Rooms. Food there is generally good. So to some extent it’s a question I suspect of what the airline is willing to pay for their services.

  2. Agreed. Was in the F Pier and the Wing last week. Travels don’t often take me through HKG but I wouldn’t rush back on the basis of CX lounges. The bar staff were ok (as in just ok) the restaurant staff were really very sub-par. You may laugh but my outward experience in the Concorde Room was preferable in all aspects – yes I know that came as a shock to me too.

  3. Recently had breakfast in the F Wing and it was dreadful, really disappointing from previous visits, such a shame

  4. I visited the Pier a couple of weeks ago for the first time having read rave reviews. I was so disappointed. The service was dreadful and the food simply awful. I was wondering what all the hype was about!

  5. Cathay set the service level agreement and the price point. Sodexo is simply executing on that contract. Food and service quality are more related to the details of that contract than to the provider.

    Sodexo, like other providers, can offer food and service at a variety of price points. I would avoid attributing changes in to the providers.

    1. Regardless of price point, if Sodexo was “executing” on any acceptable level, the article written nor the feedback in the comments would be merited.

    2. So you mean there is never a problem with the skill, technique and art of food making and serving. When food served is not up to satisfaction it’s always because of the low price paid for it. That means there are only two kinds of food expensive and cheap, and always expensive means great food. I don’t get your justification.

  6. I’ll be visiting the Pier in 6 weeks so I’m curious to see what all of the fuss is about. +1 on the commentor who said that Sodexo caters the meals for AA’s flagship lounges. It’s all about what Cathay decides to pay Sodexo which seems like not much. We all know Cathay isn’t in the best of financial situations right now. At the end of the day, lounges are a place to relax and have a drink or two. Cathay could give a sh*t less whether the food is great because it’s technically free with the purchase or redemption of your ticket. Pretty much every review of the Wing I’ve read is about someone ordering the burger and some vintage champagne. If you’ve visited the Pier or the Wing multiple times in the past few months, provide some pictures of the food you’re receiving. I’m sure readers would like to see what is being described as low quality.

    1. Can’t wait for you to experience it for yourself. I feel like there will be a lot less defence of Cathay afterward.

      I understand very well how the lounge contracts work, and that there are levels agreed upon, but that doesn’t excuse the food tasting like garbage, or the staff being entirely disinterested. Even the lowest contract should strive for some level of quality. That’s on Sodexo.

    2. Well I’m telling you directly the food was not great quality – if it had been served in a “normal” restaurant I would have sent it back – yes I had the burger. My companion had noodles – as described by Gilbert and yes his various courses all arrived at the same time. The server whilst smiley didn’t speak very good English. This particular article is spot on. In response to “lounges being a place to relax and have a drink or two” – no. If I’m taking a flight in a premium cabin from HKG to London it will usually be around midnight, I want to have my dinner before I get on the plane and then go to sleep. That it what I am paying for – and no it isn’t free.

  7. Sodexo really are a terrible outfit having worked in several large UK companies who brought them in to do the catering. Like most catering providers they likely did the sale pitch we can do XX for half the price your paying without cutting corners.

    1st couple of weeks, everything’s shiny and new lots of choice, food tastes great, managers all happy. Give it a month the food and service standards fall off a cliff!!!

    have they taken over the contract just for HKG or the London lounge too? Will be a shame if they do as had a great meal there last November food and service was very good.

    1. Interestingly they have both. I still find the LHR food to be worth eating, and some of it even to be excellent. No idea how they can get it so close to correct in one outpost, yet can’t get it anywhere near in line at home base!

  8. Wow, shocking to hear as CX lounges in HKG have always been such a treat for me. I have in the past gone out of my way to put HKG connections in my itinerary just for the lounge experience. That’s really too bad… I have visited Plaza Premium at HKG, and while they’re perfectly fine by Priority Pass standards, it didn’t compare to service standards of the Pier or Wing previously. What a shame.

    Would have been cool to see the pics of what was served to you. If you have any, perhaps share them on Instagram?

    Sodexo, eh? Yep, my only experience was back in my university days in residence. And no, I do not have fond memories.

    My home airport is YVR but it has been a while since I had visited the CX lounge there. I wonder if CX has also switched suppliers at that location. The last few times I had visited it was run by Plaza Premium. The service and food were quite good, especially for an outstation.

    1. I’ll try to dig some up! I took some on one of the legs, but generally only try to photograph pretty things ; )

      It’s just an odd one. Sodexo do a very solid job at LHR, and have done well for AA in other locations. How they can get it so wrong at home base is just strange, but they do. Ask any Cathay long time loyalist. It seems a few have chimed in here.

  9. Cathay are not alone in providing Beyond Abysmal lounge experiences as a result of “doing their job” & cutting costs at the price of customers everyday!

    1. Following advice from others, I’d suggest a combo of the following…

      1) Eat at either Plaza Premium First, or Beef and Liberty in the terminal. Either will cost around $20USD, but will provide solid food.
      2) Then enjoy the space in the Pier or Wing, as they are two of the best out there. I love them, I just know the food to be terrible now.

  10. Do you have before/after pics? Might help to contextualize a bit…

    was looking forward to passing thru the pier next month… oh well, CX F for $800 RT makes up for it I suppose

  11. Stopped in HKG on the way to YVR. First Class lounge was so bad that the only thing I could order was the Dan Dan noodles – and they were awful. They even got rid of the Krug.

    So planned to eat on the flight as I was in F.

    Couldn’t find anything appealing. What I ate was almost inedible – so bad that I can’t remember what it was!

    Best food I have had recently was on Condor ex FRA if you can believe it😀

  12. If memory serves, Sodexo handles the Virgin Atlantic lounge in BOS. Food was very good by Boston lounge standards. A roast carved to order, excellent side dishes, full deli and more. Service was impeccable. Warm and efficient. A well managed operation!

  13. Was in the Pier about a month ago and must say that the quality is a little better than in Wing. Both lounges are lovely as far as decor goes but I have to say the restaurant food quality and service has deteriorated in the last few months. The menu ingredients in the Wing restaurant has simplified and it’s obvious they are presenting lower cost ingredients. Specifically what I noticed is the dim sum quality has dropped also. Hong Kong is known for its amazing dim sum and what they now serve is embarrassing.
    In full disclosure, I am not a fan of Cathay Pacific. Onboard the plane, their services also have become in consistent. They are putting flight attendants on board who lack the finesse and experience that Cathay Pacific used to be known for. I think this might be indicative of their financial situation… You get what you pay for. Customer service it’s truly a joke.

  14. I’m not sure you understand the issue.

    Sodexo is not the problem. The problem is that Cathay slashed their budgets. This post – including your replies – has a lot of misplaced angst. Sodexo is just doing what Cathay asked them to do.

    The issue is hardly restricted to the lounges. Cathay is in cost slashing mode full stop. Your focus on Sodexo comes at the cost of seeing the big picture about the airline.

  15. I was in HK recently and was really looking forward to going to the Cathay Lounge, even booked a longer layover. It had been a year since my last trip through there. What a disappointment, I had indigestion from the peanut noodles for the rest of the day. Although, I did get to see them empty large vats of Skippy peanut butter to make the sauce. Had no idea that is what they normally use. As others have said, it was still better than some of the others, I went to the Centurian lounge on the private centurion section the food was even worse.

  16. I have not been in Cathay’s lounges for over a year plus. I was not impressed by the food. I was amazed at how dirty the rest rooms were. I thought it was just me. This was before Sodexho.

  17. Couldn’t agree more. I flew a lot with Cathay until a few years ago and I try to avoid them as much as possible now — on top of declining food quality, their lounges are way too crowded and noisy.

    HKA’s Autus lounge, despite their questionable owners, offers a much more relaxing and quieter environment, more lounge-like. Their food, while mediocre IMO, is ways better than Cathay’s.

    Just shows how bad Cathay is these days.

  18. Sodexo… A name a dread to see when I visit hospitals in the UK. I think they run some prison services too.

  19. I was there yesterday and the good was phenomenal. Maybe they knew all of you were there on points lol

    1. Yeah… about that. I was there on a revenue J ticket, but thanks for making assumptions about my personal finances.

      And if you think that food is phenomenal, I can recommend a fantastic McDonalds for your next visit.

  20. I frequent the wing and pier often, about 100 visits between the two over the past 8 years [noted that the pier is fairly new]. The food has gotten abysmal and the level of staff service has tanked. One can defend Sodexo executing the budget given all they want, but that doesn’t excuse the staff service.

    I once spent 13 hours in the wing first class lounge and it was a pure joy despite being delayed.

    All told the lounge experience is not what it was. They are still lovely spaces but it is a shame to see Cathay let their polish fade.

  21. Put it this way guys

    Last August I passed through the first class lounge in Hong Kong and got the following:

    – Dim Sum basket: it came with 6 full sized freshly steamed juicy siew mai, and 6 same quality har gau

    – Wonton Noodle Soup: a bowl wider than my fat face with about 10 wonton

    I know it was overkill for one person but I enjoyed the food.

    After they got rid of their old caterers…

    – Dim Sum Basket: you get one har gau, one siew Mai, one char sau bun, and whatever the other dumpling was, all small and dry

    – Wonton Noodle Soup: bowl the size of my palm, two bites worth of noodles and one wonton

    Some budget cut that. Horrible.

  22. In general CX’s services have gone down let alone lounges . For lounges, some of the overseas lounges like in Vancouver and Taipei , I understand they are still under the previous caterers Plaza’s management – their quality still maintains for sure. In Hong Kong, there is a new Plaza Premium First ( I believe was sometime opened last year) near gate 1 – tried it a couple of times and it is very well done i must say. Yes, I had to forgo my “free” business lounge access and paid for the Plaza access ( there was an opening offer) – but it’s very well worth it. I went there before my red eye – their bar was amazing with a full range of whiskey collection, never seen that anywhere else. Food ( ala-carte or self-serve stations ) was plentiful and top-notch – the burger (made of Beyond beer) was very juicy. Perhaps CX should consider hiring the Plaza First team to get the reputation back!

  23. I have never been to any CX lounges in HK but I’m a frequent traveler and also heard much about their cost-cutting measures. A good lounge option in HK is Plaza Premium- ok, I cant stand the super crowded one but I go to the upgraded version Plaza Premium First. Last time I tried the pulled pork wrap, some fresh juices, and had a coffee martinis. It is spacious and they offer massages. If you are rushing, don’t bother, but if you have a few hours there, it’s definitely a great option.

  24. I go to HK all the time and stay in the first class lounge at Cathay Pacific…I have noticed a change recently but I didn’t think the food was much worse. Their were a lot of people there very carefully “curating” the buffet and bar, making sure it was hot, tidy and clean. I still like it better than most others with the exception of Qantas First in Sydney (which has recently declined) or Iberia in Madrid (declined a bit as well). All part of the devaluation of the experience at the expense of premium customers.

  25. As a frequent traveler based in NYC, I love the Hong Kong airport because of the immediate differences I feel between it and airports I am in more frequently. I also am wild about the Cathay First Class Lounges. My favorite is the one entered from the balcony just after passport control. This article explained much because a couple of month ago, after an 8-10 month absence, I spent several hours in the Lounge and could not believe the changes. To my eye, the quality of open serve (buffet) food, general cleanliness, and staff attentiveness had all plummeted since my last visit. What I was most horrified by was the change in the restaurant. The menu was generic, uninteresting and the items served were not of the same quality I had experienced. I used to describe that small restaurant as “the only Michelin-starred restaurant in an airport, and if it is not, it should be”! Not only was the food impeccable, the presentation was beautiful and the service was flawless. No longer. While I don’t expect First Class Lounges generally to maintain such elevated standards, flying into HKG was always enjoyable if for no other reason than the memorable Lounge. For me, it set Cathay, HKG and that First Class Lounge apart. I hope Gilbert’s article’s closing paragraphs act as a reminder or an effective scolding to that department at Cathay, because it is still a beautiful Lounge, but it could be so much more. Thanks.

  26. Spoiled brats of the world united. What a crock. It is an airline not a restaurant. Don’t use it.

    1. I have not. I find that when you compliment an airline they either ignore you or thank you, and when you disparage them, they choose to discredit you with Russian bots or simply continue the ignoring.

  27. How about their Champagne and wine selection, what do they currently offer in HK First Class lounges?

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