75 Years And Counting: Looking Back On Cathay Pacific’s History

Established in 1946, Cathay Pacific has reached the impressive age of 75 years. The Hong Kong-based airline, founded by two ex-Air Force pilots, has grown into a global airline well-known for its high standards of service. Let’s take a look back at the airline’s history and some of its significant moves.

Arrival of Cathay Pacific Airways' first Boeing 747 plane (B747-200B) from the United States at the Kai Tak Airport. 31JUL79
Shown here is the arrival of Cathay Pacific’s first Boeing 747, a 747-200B. The jumbo jet touched down at Kai Tak Airport on July 31st, 1979. Photo: Getty Images

Originally based in Shanghai

Although Cathay Pacific is deeply rooted in Hong Kong, its operations initially began out of Shanghai. It was back in 1946 that two airmen by the names Roy Farrell and Sydney de Kantzow founded the airline. Their main goal was to fly much-needed goods from Australia into post-war China. This was done with their first aircraft, a Douglas DC-3 nicknamed Betsy.

“From there came Cathay Pacific, an airline fuelled by its founders’ passion for flying and love of the region,” the airline says on its website. The airline says that its name comes from Roy Farrell’s sense of ambition – “that the new airline would one day cross the vast Pacific Ocean from China.” For this unfamiliar with the word, “Cathay” was an alternative European historical name for China.

According to Culture Trip, the founders moved the airline to Hong Kong after the first few months of operation. The early months would see “Betsy” operating commercial freight services between China and Australia.

The following year, the company would add another four aircraft to the fleet and launch passenger flights to other Asian cities, including Bangkok, Manila, Singapore, and Shanghai.
777-300 cathay pacific
Cathay Pacific’s flagship aircraft would eventually move from the 747 to the 777. Photo: Cathay Pacific

Expansion over the decades

75 years of history is a lot to cover. However, here are some of the carrier’s proudest achievements over the decades:
  • 1960: The airline was the first international carrier to fly to Osaka.
  • 1976: Cathay Pacific Cargo was launched, making Cathay Pacific the first Asian carrier to launch a freighter service brand.
  • 1979: The airline would receive its very first 747, a 747-200B.
  • 1982: The airline operated its first non-stop Hong Kong to Vancouver service and set a brand new world record in the process.
  • 1983: The launch of non-stop service between Hong Kong and London.
  • 1990: The launch of non-stop service between Hong Kong and Los Angeles.
  • 1998: The first 777 would be delivered. That same year Cathay Pacific would operate the first non-stop flight from Hong Kong to New York. Dubbed Polar One, the service at the time was the world’s longest flight.
  • 1999: Cathay Pacific would become a oneworld Alliance member. Indeed, the airline was a founding member along with British Airways, American Airlines, Qantas, and Canadian Airlines.
A321neo cathay pacific
The airline’s newest aircraft type is the Airbus A321neo, originally ordered for (now-closed) regional subsidiary Cathay Dragon. Photo: Cathay Pacific

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The last decade

Cathay Pacific has managed to maintain a modern fleet over its 75 years of operation.

In the past decade, this has been achieved with the acquisition of the Airbus A350. The airline’s initial order would be placed in 2009 for 30 A350-900s and firmed up the year after. The airline would go on to expand its order to include the stretched A350-1000.

In 2017, Cathay Pacific Group signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) with Airbus for 32 A321neo single-aisle aircraft. The single-aisle jets were to be operated by Cathay Dragon, the regional carrier of the Group (which was founded in 1985).

In July of 2019, Cathay Pacific officially acquired budget carrier Hong Kong Express Airways, or HK Express. A full subsidiary of the Cathay Pacific Group, the low-cost carrier continues to operate under its own name and distinct branding.

Unfortunately, Cathay Dragon would be a victim of the ongoing global health crisis, with Cathay Pacific shutting down the subsidiary in October of 2020 and merging most of its operations into the mainline brand.

In 2021, Cathay Pacific’s operations have contracted, largely due to the ongoing health crisis. However, the steady increase of competition in the region, as well as continued political instability, continue to threaten the airline’s passenger numbers.

Have you flown with Cathay Pacific before? What was your earliest flight with the carrier? Let us know in the comments.