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Putting the best to the test

By CNN's Richard Quest

Cathay Pacific has been named the world's top airline by business travelers.


Is first class air travel worth the expense?
or View Results




Biz Traveller
Air Transportation

(CNN) -- When it comes to air travel surveys, there's only issue that really matters -- which is the world's best airline?

It's a tricky question. After all, there are Asia-Pacific airlines, transatlantic airlines and European airlines.

Then there's business class versus economy, and food and entertainment to consider -- the list goes on and on.

But only one survey -- compiled by market researchers Skytrax -- is voted for by business travelers themselves.

This year Cathay Pacific topped Skytrax's poll while Cathay's home airport in Hong Kong was also named best in its category for the fifth year in a row.

I took Cathay's overnight flight -- first class, of course -- from London to Hong Kong to find out why.

Once in the air, it's easy to see why Cathay often tops surveys. It's been a strong contender for Skytrax's Airline of the Year for the last three years, according to Skytrax CEO Edward Plaisted.

"It is a well developed product," Plaisted told CNN. "You are dealing with a luxury market in first class. One can't dispute the fact that the number of first class travelers now is not what it was 10 or 20 years ago, and therefore to hang on to those customers they know that they have to provide the highest levels [of comfort]."

Cathay's first class suites have a 6-foot-6-inch pitch. As a seat it is comfortable, but not overly so. Like other taller passengers I found my feet dangling over the end of the footrest.

As a bed though, it was more than adequate. Large pillows and duvets were standard although I think Virgin's new Upper Class suite has more room.

Food and service is where Cathay excels. Dinner was six courses long -- and, when it came to the caviar, perhaps a little bit fussy but wonderfully tasty.

But when judging an airline it's easy to nit-pick about what you liked and didn't like. In the end, it's the feeling overall that matters.

Cathay does have several unique selling points that are prized on the Asian routes. I think their distinctive edge over many other carriers is the actual quality of staff service on board the aircraft.

Eleven hours after taking off, we land in Hong Kong. The $20 billion Norman Foster-designed Chep Lap Kok Airport opened to architectural acclaim seven years ago, although old hands still reminisce about landing at Kai Tak with it's rollercoaster approach between the buildings.

Skytrax is just one frequent flyer survey. Others have different results, reflecting the geography of its readers. For instance, the U.S.-based OAG has Continental Airlines as its top airline, while the European edition of Business Traveller Magazine puts British Airways at the top.

True first class travel is a dying breed, however. Carriers like Air New Zealand have done away with it altogether, while others like South African restrict it to very important routes.

Today, very few of us regularly get to enjoy this sort of luxury. Which is why I enjoyed myself so much. It's nice to be spoiled and to be treated to the best. How lovely to be reminded that there is still an elegant way to fly.

-- Business Traveller airs on CNN International on Sunday, Oct. 9 at 2030 CET/2330 HKT

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