A few years ago, I watched a Japanese TV drama series called Attention Please, about a tomboy rocker girl who decides to become a flight attendant to impress a boy. She then has to overcome all kinds of obstacles and impress her strict no-nonsense instructor to achieve her new life goal. The show was your typical over-the-top cheesy Japanese comedy-drama, and I wouldn’t recommend it unless you’re into that kind of thing. What was interesting about this show was how the characters were training to be flight attendants for Japan Airlines, the real-life flag carrier airline of Japan. The show was set and filmed in their actual training buildings, and the lessons given to the characters were accurate and shown in surprising detail. It was a fascinating insight into the real training procedures and tests undertaken by flight attendants. Ever since I saw this show, I’ve been slightly engrossed in the world of flight attending and passenger airlines as a whole.
So when I saw the email a couple weeks ago about a university-organised trip to Cathay Pacific City, the headquarters of Hong Kong’s flag carrier airline, I was ecstatic. Even more, the trip was completely free (just a $100 HKD deposit to make sure you show up), and included a free sponsored buffet lunch that normally costs 158 HKD (roughly £16)! Many of my favourite things all in one trip! Yes, please! The event was for residents of halls II, VIII, and IX, with only 40 places available. I immediately went down to the office to reserve my space, hoping to be the very first name on the list, but I was beaten by someone else. Oh well – mad respect to anyone who shares my love of premium Asian airlines and free meals. To my surprise, none of my exchange student friends who live in the eligible halls were interested in coming. More buffet food for me then, losers.
Cathay Pacific was founded in 1946 by an American dude and an Australian dude. Initially, they just used the planes to import stuff into China, but after getting in trouble with Chinese officials, they relocated to Hong Kong. ‘Cathay’ is an ancient name for China, and they put ‘Pacific’ in the name because they wanted to fly over the Pacific Ocean. They now fly to over 200 destinations and are the 10th biggest airline in the world in terms of sales. They also have one of the best safety records in the world and have won Skytrax’s ‘World’s Best Airline’ award more times than any other. Speaking to local and international students here, Cathay Pacific is widely preferred by those who can afford it. A return trip from London to Hong Kong generally costs around £700.
We met bright and early in the campus atrium, all dressed in our smart casual business attire as per the requirements. After a long bus journey, we arrived at Cathay Pacific City, located just southeast of Hong Kong International Airport. The place is huge. There are three 10-story office buildings, a 23-story hotel, a bunch of training and storage buildings, a leisure centre, and even a bridge. It’s one of the largest corporate headquarters in Asia. On a normal work day, there are over 3000 staff working in the City. Walking around the main building we spotted a food court, cafes, a supermarket, even a branch of HSBC. Apparently, all employees come here first to sign-in before starting their work day, even pilots and cabin crew. The first thing we saw upon arriving was the airline’s first ever aircraft, Betsy, on display outside the main building. We then took a big cheesy group photo in front of it. It isn’t a true Hong Kong field trip without an obscene amount of photo taking.
We were then brought to a training room on the third floor and introduced to our tour guides; two flight attendants, a guy and a girl. After failing to open a powerpoint presentation, they just stood at the front and told us some facts about the airline for a while, then answered some questions. The 40 of us were split into two groups: one would be given a tour in Cantonese, and the other in English. Instead of the typical arrangement where the tour guide just shouts everything so the people at the back can hear, we were all given little radio receivers. Our tour guide spoke quietly into a microphone, and using our own headphones (which we were told to bring beforehand), we could listen to the whole thing clearly no matter how far back we were. It was a really cool way to deliver a tour and it worked very well. Props to them.
Our first stop was one of the cockpit simulators. Unfortunately, we didn’t get to see it in action, but it was an impressive piece of kit nonetheless. According to our tour guide, they own loads of these things as they are each specific to the cockpit of a single type of aircraft. Each one costs £70 million. This is why flying is so expensive! I suppose that ensuring your pilots are properly trained is one of the highest priorities of an airline.
Next stop was one of the cabin training rooms, complete with full-size mock cabins for two different kinds of aircraft! This was the most exciting part of the tour for me because I’ve always wanted to explore the cabin of an aircraft. First, we were shown around by our tour guide Thomas, who told us about how the cabin operates, and in what way flight attendants are trained. It was very interesting to learn the function of all the different machines and cabinets in the galley. Turns out they’re mostly just microwaves and coffee makers, though.
Finally, we were let loose to explore the two aircraft cabins on our own. This was the first opportunity I’ve ever had to try out the seats in the business class and first class cabins. Now I see why people pay so much for them. Compared to the narrow, stiff seats in the crowded pleb-class cabins, they feel so much more comfortable and private. In both business and first, you have your own little booth separated from the others by privacy walls. There’s plenty of leg room, the seats fold down all the way into large, flat beds, and the seats themselves are just so much comfier. I was slightly disappointed that the seats in the training cabins do not recline at all, and the recline buttons were fake.
The real attraction of first class is the higher level of service you receive. You can order fancy food or drinks whenever you want, at no extra cost. You receive all kinds of amenities and special treatment both before and after boarding. The TV is bigger, they give you expensive noise-cancelling headphones, and just generally treat you like a king. Experiencing a long-haul flight in first class is something that’s right at the top of my bucket list, but I would never pay for it. I could do so much more with the money it costs. The tour guide Thomas advised us that the best way to get an upgrade to first is to volunteer to get the next flight when the airline overbooks. Name-dropping, sweet-talking and bribes don’t really work, he says. Still, I got to feel what it’s like to be rich, albeit in a fake plastic pretend-cabin surrounded by excited Asian university students.
Next was another fake training zone, this time for the check-in desks! Again we were let loose to explore and send hilarious videos to our friends where we pretend to be check-in attendants. I was hoping the conveyor belts would be real, but alas.
In order to train check-in attendants to handle customer with babies, there were prams containing incredibly disturbing baby dolls.
Finally, it was time for the long-awaited buffet lunch! We were seated along four long tables in the hotel restaurant and let loose on a smorgasbord of meat, curry, rice, noodles, salad, sushi, sashimi and desserts. The quality was roughly what you’d expect from a relatively cheap lunch buffet, but when given free to starving university students, it was like we had died and gone to food heaven. I ate one big savoury plate followed by three dessert plates. It was magical.
Before we left, I got to chat to Thomas for a bit about life as a flight attendant. I was curious about whether he had experienced a rise in disruptive passengers in recent years, as we are seeing in the UK. He says he has noticed a small increase which he argues is due to air transport becoming more accessible to poorer, less socially sensitive people. However, as Cathay is a premium airline, it is more protected from this problem than the low-cost budget airlines in the UK, flying hordes of drunk, chanting bellends to Shagaluf.
This was one of one of the truly unique experiences I’ve had so far in Hong Kong and something I never expected to have the opportunity to do. I’m loving all these emails I get out of nowhere with invitations to free or massively subsidised activities. Hopefully, I’ll get to experience more days like this during my time here.
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