I was privileged to fly international first class on three One World airlines this Fall: Cathay Pacific, Qatar Airways, and British Airways. Yes all three were wonderful, but which one rises to the top as the best?
Details like seat pitch, luggage storage space, and boarding ease are important in the village called economy class, but certainly not in first class. In first class, the ratings include caviar service, pajama comfort, and how perfectly chilled the Krug is. As such, I picked 11 first class criteria with which to evaluate each airlines. Before I get to the winners in each category, I provide a summary of the flights.
(All photos were taken by or of me).
Cathay Pacific CX 811
- Route: Boston to Hong Kong
- Flight duration (scheduled): 15 hrs 25 min
- Departure time: 1:37 am
- Arrival time: 4:30 am (40 min early)
- Equipment: 777-300ER (4 classes)
- Seat: 1A
See detailed review: Cathay Pacific International First Class Review
Qatar Airways QR 833
- Route: Bangkok to Doha, Qatar
- Flight duration: 7 hrs 25 min
- Departure time: 19:30 (7:30 PM)
- Arrival time: 22:55 (10:55 PM on time)
- Equipment: A380 (3 classes)
- Seat: 2F
See detailed review: Qatar Airways International First Class Review
British Airways BA 122
- Route: Doha, Qatar to London Heathrow
- Flight duration: 7 hrs 35 min
- Departure time: 8:55 AM
- Arrival time: 13:30 (1:30 PM on time)
- Equipment: 777-200 (4 classes)
- Seat: 2A
See detailed review: British Airways International First Class Review
First Class Criteria
The first set of criteria falls under the category of “soft product” as it is primarily the services offered:
Best Caviar Service
Both Cathay Pacific and Qatar offer lovely caviar service with all the proper garnishes, including a mother-of-pearl spoon which of course is the only appropriate utensil for caviar. The edge goes to Cathay for the overall quality and taste. Category winner is Cathay Pacific.
Best Arabic Coffee and Dates Service
Both Qatar and British Airways offer an Arabic Coffee and Date service to start the flight. Qatar’s dates where in sealed plastic packaging which just sort of took away from the moment. Category winner is British Airways.
Best Champagne/Wine/Bar Service
All three offered an extensive and high-end wine and bar list each with their own highlights: Krug Grande Cuvee, Johnnie Walker Blue, Tesseron Lot 76 Tradition Cognac, and Chateau Leoville Poyferre Saint-Julien 2008 ($120 Bordeaux that made me emotional in its beauty), and so much more.
Based on the breadth of the high-quality offering, the category winner is Qatar.
All three airlines offer dine-anytime with any combination of food from their extensive menus. All three airlines had tasty and classy first class food, and never did they run out of anything I asked for.
There were certainly highlights on all three airlines. For example, I had a Harira soup (a savory lentil and chickpea soup cooked in a lamb broth) on British Airways that was just over the top delicious. And the ice cream service on Qatar…well enough said there.
Prior to my flight, I had read such mixed reviews about Cathay Pacific’s food. I had an honest conversation about the food with the lead attendant and she advised that being a Chinese airline their best food was their Chinese offerings (makes total sense) but she recommended trying both western and Chinese which I did. Cathay’s western offerings were very nice and tasty. Their Chinese offerings were equal to what I would expect at a highly-rated restaurant. Category winner is Cathay Pacific.
Best Tea Service
As formal tea is such a British thing, if British Airways were not the best in this category, I would fear something was wrong with the world. But the world is amazing as was British Airways’ tea service. The Sencha green tea was very nice but the highlight were those warm scones with that heavenly clotted cream. Mmmmmm so good. And no tea would be complete without a glass of port, in this case a smooth Warre’s 2000 Colheita Tawney Port. Category winner is British Airways.
Cathay Pacific has wonderful and stylish pajamas that I would have love to worn at home – except they did not have any in my size (they only had large sizes left). Qatar’s pajamas are warm, stylish, and comfortable as are British Airways. However, British Airways pajamas have a fitted cut to them and breathe well. Category winner is British Airways.
Each member of each crew was professional, warm, helpful, friendly, hard working, and truly seemed to care about me and my experience. I commend all of them and could easily call this category a tie. But in the end, there was one little thing that stood out to me about the Cathay Pacific crew – they seemed so happy that I was so happy, the happiness was contagious. Category winner is Cathay Pacific.
The next set of criteria fall are “hard product” – the airplane itself:
Sorry Boeing, but an Airbus 380 and all its features including the air quality wins over a Boeing 777 for any flight. Category winner is Qatar.
All three airlines have a well-designed and well appointed suite, each with different benefits and highlights. Although Qatar’s is the least private, I found it to be the most comfortable with the biggest video screen and best features. Category winner is Qatar.
British Airways first class bathroom is sadly a regular, cramped airplane bathroom. Cathay Pacific’s bathroom is slightly larger with a nice sink. Qatar’s bathroom is an event unto its own. Category winner is Qatar.
Best On-board Bar
The Boeing 777 does not have an on-board bar (though it could), so Qatar automatically wins this category. But the automatic win is not to take anything away from Qatar, because their bar is brilliant. I had previously written about Emirates’ wonderful and tasty on-board bar which I am a huge fan of, and Qatar’s is even better. Category winner is Qatar.
Overall Best First Class
Believe me that I would be happy to fly international first class on any one of these airlines again, but which one rises to the top as the best?
Cathay Pacific and British Airways scored some strong points in the soft-product categories. Clearly Qatar cleaned up in the hard-product categories but was it enough.
I do not think an amazing hard product like an A380 can ever make up for a mediocre soft product. All three of these airlines had wonderful soft products with with their own strengths. The A380 enables Qatar’s soft product to rise to new levels, therefore the best overall winner among these three airlines is Qatar Airways.
Lets make no mistake, I would be thrilled to fly any of these airlines again!!! All are wonderful.
Have you flown any of these in international first class? Let me know if your thoughts in the comment sections. Any other comments or questions are welcome.
Excellent report, unfortunately only flown business class with all three airlines – first class with QF, and years ago on a stretch DC8 HNL / ORD first class (I think it was first), with Northwest Airlines. The flight was non-stop, which would have been 1970 or 71, of course the entertainment then was a old fashioned Kindle called a book, or shock horror you could actually talk to other passengers! Quite revolutionary when you think about it . . . :-o)
Thank you sincerely. I am curious of the 3 in business class which did you like best?
I do remember Northwest (never flew them), and I remember passengers asking other passengers what they were reading and striking up wonderful conversations. Another reason why I like onboard bars because that’s what it takes these days.
I have really enjoyed reading your blog posts. They are a lighthearted and pleasant break for me.
I have only flown first class once, and was ill so I slept through the flight. Miserable trip.
Still, I must say that I am fascinated by the differences between the classes. What a treat for you to be able to experience all of this. Thank you for letting us in to see the other side!
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I am sincerely glad you like them and Happy New Year. Yes the differences in the classes is enormous. I will be writing details of each of the three in the next few weeks. But I must ask which first class did you fly? Sorry to hear you were sick for it, but better to be sick in upperclass than in coach I suppose.
My first class experience was Delta from LAX to ATL. They were very kind to me. A few years ago, due to a leg injury, I paid for a bump up from coach to business from Singapore to ATL, and it was probably Delta again, but THAT was wonderful. I had so much more room for me to squirm around in. It was worth it.
I have started bringing my son on long flights with me again. It was fairly easy when he was a baby but when he hit 2, forget it. I was not flying alone with a small child again. He is now 7 and had to earn long distance flying privileges. We are in NC and at 5 he did his trial run to DCA, then to MCO, and did very well on both. The next big trip was to family- SFO, and on from there. We have trips planned to PHX, DTW, and SFO again this year already. He is a very good traveler now and one of my favorite companions. He makes me slow down and gives me a new perspective on things. I am considering Tokyo with him in a year or so.
Paying for an upgrade when you have a leg injury is probably priceless especially on a trip as far as Singapore to Atlanta. That is so cool about travelling with your son. And what a great thing for him too. Slowing down and gaining new perspectives also goes in the priceless category. Thanks for the comment. Enjoy your next 3 trips!