Recently I had the chance to fly two of the world's top-five airlines on the same day. A series of events led to me flying from Beijing to Singapore via Hong Kong on Cathay Pacific Airlines, and then connecting to Manila on Singapore Airlines.
Travel magazine Conde Nast Traveler just named Singapore Airlines the best airline in the world for the 20th year in a row. 20th. Year. In a row. Beijing only had two subway lines and had not yet won the right to host an Olympics the last time Singapore Airlines wasn't the best in the world. Conde Nast found Cathay Pacific to be the fourth best airline in this year's reader survey.
So, how are they to fly? In both cases I flew economy. I am a member of Cathay Pacific's Asia Miles, which gave me a bit of check-in and boarding priority, and have gold status on Star Alliance, of which Singapore Airlines was a founding member, although my membership is via United Airlines. Still, I had the same check-in, boarding, and lounge privileges as I would have on a United flight.
Honestly I don't remember what I was served or ate on Singapore Airlines, but I remember it as being decent. I can't say the same thing for Cathay, which on my return leg from Singapore to Hong Kong offered me a vile stir-fried shrimp and rice. Frankly I was shocked that Cathay could serve up something so bad. Remember the Talking Travel golden rule of flying: never trust an airline to feed (or entertain) you. Sadly Cathay proved this to be true.
Singapore Airlines offers more family-friendly viewing options and a number of Singapore-related history programs as part of its inflight entertainment, which is very much the way one feels when in the city-state. Cathay Pacific's CX Studio shares a lot of its content with British Airways' system, and contains quite a bit of travel, lifestyle, and comedy programming, including whole seasons of shows like Entourage. Cathay's offerings are definitely better in this respect.
Cathay Pacific's staff are polite and efficient, much like Hong Kong service at its best. Their uniforms are contemporary, and I've always wondered what the material of the female crew chiefs is – seems like Thai silk but could be something else. Singapore Airlines of course has the "Singapore Girl" style. I have to say, while it's unquestionably iconic, it also seems dated. The associated hairstyle borders on weird, and while the uniform speaks to Singapore's Malaysian heritage, it's too traditional for what is the most contemporary city in Southeast Asia. Think of it this way: if All Nippon Airways or Japan Airlines dressed its female flight attendants all in kimonos, it would be quaint for the first 15 minutes, and then start to be a bit strange, especially on a longer haul, whereas if Issey Miyake or Yohji Yamamoto did the uniforms, you'd think, "this airline is cool," and the crew would look really sharp.
That said, for pure attention to detail, the Singapore Girls (and Guys, who are almost entirely overlooked) win this round. "Would you like more," "may I," "can I get you," are heard so often it's almost annoying – but it most certainly isn't. Compare this to, say, United Airlines' crew, who on my most recent flight were taken to exclaiming "Jesus Christ!" when passengers who didn't speak English failed to comply immediately with their request to be seated, you wouldn't turn it down Singapore's service.
Cathay Pacific is clearly a big fan of Airbus planes, whereas Singapore Airlines offers a mix (it was one of the first airlines to adopt Airbus's enormous A380), although it seems to favor Boeing's 737 fleet for regional flights. Again, I don't really remember the Singapore seats, which meant they must have been fine. However, on my Singapore to Hong Kong leg, I sat in the single worst airline seat I've ever occupied, aboard an A320. It was so upright that I felt like I was falling forward when it was in its original position. This was the only position the seat could take, as the charming woman behind me had her feet or knees into the chair firmly enough to prevent even the slightest recline. Cathay's planes are gorgeous to look at inflight, and the shades of green with which it paints those aircraft is equally distinctive. If I flew on the outside of the aircraft, it would be Cathay all the way, but since one sits inside the plane, Singapore wins this one too.
Singapore Airlines' commitment to quality and service seems to have also boosted the reputation of its home base, Singapore's Changi Airport, which regularly also tops world's best airport lists. On this one, I'm going to beg to differ. Having gone in and out of two different terminals, while Changi is clean and pleasant, there no longer seems to be anything special about it. Its food and shopping offerings are nothing different than any other major airport.
Hong Kong International Airport (HKIA) is a bustling hub that seems full no matter when you go there. In that sense, it is an exact reflection of the city that it serves, and for that, I love it. Walking down its main corridor and seeing the destinations and airlines and mix of people that are about to head down the gangways and off to points around the globe is a traveler's dream. It will be at Hong Kong International Airport that one day I will keep a travel promise to myself: arrive at the airport with a packed bag but no itinerary, look up at the departures board, pick a flight, buy a ticket, and go. Not to mention that in-town check-in and the Airport Express are the best to go to or from an airport anywhere. The only thing I don't like about transiting HKIA or flying out of it is not spending (more) time in Hong Kong itself. HKIA wins this one hands down.
For Beijingers, it comes down to convenience, price, and routes. Both Cathay Pacific and Singapore Airlines fly south from Beijing, and most likely connect to Southeast Asia and Australia. One could easily fly to Europe or North America on them, but, why? Other airlines in the same frequent flyer membership networks fly more directly. As we've shown in the past, Cathay Pacific is consistently less expensive than Air China, and almost always offers lower fares than Singapore Airlines.
If money and time were no object, and I were just gallivanting here and there, I'd pick Singapore Airlines, partially because my gold status on Star Alliance would go further with them, and because their business and first class service are legendary. But in real terms, I plan on flying Cathay Pacific more in the next year or two, although I will bring my own food from now on – more on that in a future post.
Regardless, we're spoiled to be able to choose from these two fine airlines for many destinations we will choose. No non-Hong Kong-based Chinese airline made the top 20, and neither did any American carriers, for that matter. Enjoy flying them both and doing your own comparison.
More stories by this author here.
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