Chris Barnett on Business Travel
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The 'Good Old Days' in Hong Kong's Skies
June 16, 2011 -- Dragonair has always sounded somewhat sinister to me. Something out of a Robert Ludlum potboiler or a James Bond film starring Sean Connery.

But as you probably know, Dragonair is actually the intra-Asia airline now owned by Cathay Pacific Group, which itself is part of John Swire & Sons, the venerable British trading house commonly known as Swire Group. Launched in 1985 as Hong Kong Dragon Airlines, these days Dragonair is now best known for flying to 18 cities in mainland China.

But Hong Kong-based Dragonair isn't Cathay Pacific's stripped-down sibling or a low-fare competitor to Asia's growing cadre of discounters with names like Spring Air, Air Asia, Hong Kong Express, GoAir and Tiger Airlines. If you have ever flown Dragonair, you know that the airline is neither low-cost nor Spartan. If anything, it reminds me of the good old days in the U.S. skies.

On a recent Thursday evening, Dragonair Flight KA297 was sold out. One hundred and fifty eight flyers were packed into an Airbus A320-200 for a flight from Hong Kong to Hanoi. I was aboard with time to spare after taking the smooth, swift, nonstop Airport Express train from Hong Kong Station to Hong Kong International Airport. The 25-minute ride costs just US$12 compared to a US$60-70 cab ride that can take nearly an hour depending on the thick Hong Kong traffic.

Dragonair's roundtrip business-class service from Hong Kong to Hanoi was $1,387 roundtrip and unrestricted coach was around $700. (A Dragonair advance-purchase coach roundtrip costs about $450.) Rival Vietnam Airlines between the two cities is surprisingly pricier. I was quoted $1,500 roundtrip in business class and $840 in walk-up coach.

Flying Dragonair, the perks start near the departure gate. A large Starbucks outlet offers three PCs to use for free, last-minute Web searches or E-mail checks.

When you board, Dragonair thoughtfully gives the eight business-class passengers plenty of time to settle in and get comfy before the coach flyers file by. Two exceptionally friendly air hostesses in smart, blue pinstriped uniforms worked the eight seats on my flight. They passed out a half-dozen different newspapers with a back-up stash in case they run out. Next came a cold towel from a silver tray, then Champagne, orange juice, white wine and water, followed by a dinner menu.

I can't remember the last time I saw a printed menu for a 90-minute flight on a U.S. airline. These days, in fact, I never expect a meal on a one- to two-hour flight regardless of class. The U.S. legacy carriers have trained me to expect nothing.

But at 6 p.m., after a long day on the road, it's nice to sit down to an in-flight dinner and relax with a libation. On KA297, Dragonair didn't scrimp. It started with a Parma ham and melon appetizer. The entrée choice? Stir-fried beef tenderloin with lemongrass steamed rice or grilled seafood (a medley of scallop, prawn and fish) with lemon cream sauce over linguini. The dessert was a healthy slice of mango cheesecake. A long list of liquors and cocktails were proffered. French, Australian and New Zealand wines plus Piper Heidsieck Brut Champagne were all uncorked, too.

Dragonair's coach customers weren't forgotten. All got a full meal with a choice of two entrées and it was included in the cost of the ticket, a nice throwback to the old days of airline travel. Not only does the four-person cabin crew have time to serve the meal and clean up the cabin, they can also weave in a sales spiel for onboard duty-free goods.

How do they do it? My seatmate, Simon Beardow, deputy director of Vietnam for the British Council and a Dragonair loyalist, credits what he calls the airline's "elastic schedule."

KA297 is slated to depart Hong Kong at 6 p.m. and arrive at Hanoi at 8 p.m. Yet the flight is only about 95 minutes in length. "This flight invariably gets off the ground 25 minutes late owing to heavy tarmac traffic," says Beardow. "And always arrives on time."

FEBRUARY, 2019 UPDATE
Cathay Pacific in 2016 rebranded Dragonair as Cathay Dragon and integrated the short-haul carrier into Cathay's Web site and frequency schemes. Cathay Dragon now serves 47 destinations, 22 of them in mainland China.

This column is Copyright © 2011 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe.com is Copyright © 2019 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.