Cathay Pacific’s latest jetliner is the smart single-aisle Airbus A321neo, which is now flying on selected routes throughout Asia.
The arrival of the A321neo is a milestone for Cathay Pacific in many ways.
It marks a reboot of Cathay’s regional flying, which used to be the domain of the now-shuttered Cathay Pacific.
It sees the launch of Cathay’s latest business class seat, designed for shorter-range regional destinations instead of the airline’s longest international routes.
There are some high-tech tricks such as seatback 4K video screens which can beam audio via Bluetooth straight to your own wireless headphones.
Finally, the A321neo represents a new generation of single-aisle jets to modernise Cathay’s fleet: despite two larger engines slung under its wings compared to the ‘classic’ A321, the A321neo is quieter, more fuel-efficient and operates with reduced carbon emissions.
Here’s what you need to know about Cathay Pacific’s new Airbus A321neo.
Cathay Pacific Airbus A321neo delivery
Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A321neo began life as the Cathay Dragon A321neo, until Cathay decided in October 2020 to shut down its regional arm and absorb the Cathay Dragon fleet and most routes.
As a result, the first few A321neo jets which were delivered to Hong Kong arrived in their original Cathay Dragon livery and had to be repainted into Cathay Pacific colours.
As of August 2021 Cathay Pacific has taken delivery of four A321neos, with two more due in the second half of 2021 and a further ten to follow over 2022-2023.
The A321neo deliveries will allow Cathay to retire some of the older Cathay Dragon A320 and A321 jets as it shifts to a more modern and fuel-efficient fleet.
Although Cathay Dragon initially ordered 32 A321neos, it will take delivery of only half that number, with the second 16 going to Cathay’s low-cost arm HK Express.
The HK Express A321neos are due to arrive from 2022 “and beyond”, Cathay says, in what’s almost certain to be an all-economy configuration.
Cathay Pacific Airbus A321neo routes
As the regional arm of Cathay Pacific, Cathay Dragon flew to some 50 destinations across Asia, with around half of those being in mainland China.
Those routes have been split between Cathay Pacific, which will focus on premium traffic, and HK Express, for destinations with a price-sensitive and predominately leisure market.
Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A321neo fleet will fly to mainland China as well as near-neighbouring countries, with the more distant regional routes served by Airbus A330s.
As of August 2021 Cathay Pacific’s A321neo was flying from Hong Kong to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hangzhou, Nanjing and Qingdao, as well as to the Taiwanese cities of Taipei and Kaohsiung; more cities throughout Asia will be added as Cathay takes delivery of more A321neo aircraft.
It’s worth noting that some Cathay Pacific A321neo destinations (including Taipei and Kaohsiung) are shared with HK Express.
This means Marco Polo Club members should make doubly sure they are booked on the Cathay Pacific service (even if it’s not an A321neo flight) so they can enjoy status benefits such as lounge access and a higher baggage allowance, which are denied to HK Express passengers.
Cathay Pacific Airbus A321neo seatmap
Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A321neo has a total of 202 seats, split across business class and economy class.
Determining how many business and economy seats the A321neo would have was a “decision made very early in the cabin design development stages,” explains Cathay Pacific customer experience executive Guillaume Vivet, who was deeply involved in the A321neo project when Cathay finalised its order with Airbus in September 2017.
“It’s a combination of factors, and at the end of the day it’s based on the missions the airplane will operate.”
For Cathay, this meant a configuration which would address the market for corporate and premium leisure passengers while also acknowledging the very high number of travellers who pay economy fares, which on short-range regional flights will often include corporate flyers.
Cathay’s A321neo sports 12 business class seats – half as many as the 24 business class seats on the older Cathay Dragon Airbus A321 ‘classic' jets – arranged in three rows of a 2-2 configuration, with one business class lavatory at the front of the cabin.
There are 190 economy class seats – a substantial increase on the 148 economy class seats on the Cathay Dragon Airbus A321 – ranked in the familiar 3-3 layout.
There are three economy class lavatories at the very rear of the aircraft: while that’s one more than the original Cathay Dragon A321, this also reflects that there’s almost 30% more economy class passengers.
They’re also a more ‘space-efficient’ (read: smaller) design by Airbus, as shown in these snaps from a recent media tour of the A321neo at Cathay’s Hong Kong hangars.
Cathay Pacific Airbus A321neo cabin
Step inside Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A321neo and some upgrades to the cabin and interior are immediately obvious.
For example, the A321neo’s cabin colour scheme is remarkably devoid of the signature ‘Cathay green’.
The palette is more subdued, with softer shades of champagne in business and charcoal in economy – although the economy seats remain trimmed in a muted Cathay Dragon red.
“It’s an evolution of our cabin design language but one that’s still aligned with the Cathay Pacific colour palette, but more with some of the secondary colours,” Vivet tells Executive Traveller.
“Our previous regional business class product was launched in 2012, so this is really a new- generation design language.”
JPA Design says it developed the interior colour palette and material selection “to align with Cathay Pacific’s brand principals and give a consistency of language with lounge design and styling.”
“The overall look is a smart and sleek aesthetic, characterised by warm and sophisticated tones, with ‘real’ materials such as wood and leather informing finishes for an emphasis on natural rather than synthetic.”
Another change from the Cathay A320 and A321 to the A321neo: the overhead bins are also larger, as Cathay instructed Airbus install the optional upsized Airspace XL bins instead of the regular-sized compartments.
This decision reflects that the aircraft’s short regional routes are more likely to see passengers travelling with only carry-on bags, Vivet says.
“On a standard A321 when you open the two compartments above the seats you can fit at best five standard-sized cabin bags, but in these bins you can fit eight carry-on bags, so there is 60% more space.”
Airbus’ new ‘Cabin Flex’ layout also optimises the A321neo’s interior so there’s more room for more passengers.
Cathay Pacific Airbus A321neo business class
Cathay’s A331neo business class seats – arranged in three rows of two-across – take the same cues as Cathay's previous regional product.
This means generous recliners rather than the fully lie-flat beds which regional competitor Singapore Airlines intends to roll out on its forthcoming regional Boeing 737 MAX jets.
Like its predecessor, the Cathay Pacific A321neo business class seat – based on the Collins Air Rest platform, with styling finessed by JPA Design – is enclosed in its own hard shell cocoon.
As the seatback reclines, the seat also slides forward while the seat pan angles up slightly, into a sundeck-style ‘lazy Z’ position while remaining inside the envelope of the seat’s shell and dedicated passenger space, so that the passenger behind doesn't lose any of 'their' personal space.
Vivet says the dimensions of Cathay’s A321neo’ business class seats “are pretty much in the same ballpark” as the A321, which is listed as 21” wide with 47” pitch and a 36° recline.
“The seat width is very similar but slightly bigger, and recline has been increased quite a bit.”
Vivian Lo, Cathay Pacific’s General Manager of Customer Experience & Design, has previously told Executive Traveller that as "the majority of the (A321neo) flights are below two hours, stretched to four and at most six", those flight durations did not require the relative luxury of a business class bed.
A sliding divider panel between the paired seats, JPA Design enlarged from the original Air Rest platform, provides privacy for passengers...
... with a 15.6" 4K video screen and supplied noise-cancelling headphones for inflight entertainment.
High-powered USB-A and USB-C ports directly beneath the screen plus a universal AC socket complete your inflight charging options.
Cathay says it considered several potential seat designs, and evaluated them with the help of many of it’s Marco Polo Club frequent flyers (all of whom had to sign a non-disclosure agreement, of course!).
Vivet says Cathay settled on the Air Rest about two years prior to the aircraft’s delivery.
“We looked at multiple options, we did a lot of customer testing with various seats, and eventually though the insights we learned from passenger testing, that seat was selected.”
Standout attributes includes what passenger were looking for in a premium seat for relativist short flights: “comfort, the ability to work, and privacy.”
“We have a long relationship with JPA Design in London, so they helped us take that seat and make it more of a Cathay seat as well as optimising a few areas such as the space available to the passenger… we focussed a lot on the leg area, the footrest has been redesigned quite a bit, and also the look and feel of the seat and the selection of materials.”
JPA says a revised literature stowage area compared to the original Air Rest seat significantly improves the foot space available to passengers, which is not only welcome while they’re seated but makes it easier for them to get in and out of their seat, especially during boarding – a time when they are juggling items such as a passport wallet, laptop bag or purse – and also when visiting the loo.
Cathay Pacific Airbus A321neo economy class
Cathay’s decision to install business class recliners rather than lie-flat beds in the nose of its new Airbus A321neo jets is a matter of contention among some frequent flyers, but travellers running right will find the same economy class seats as fitted on Cathay’s long-distance Airbus A350 flagships.
These are, literally, economy seats made for the long haul, with the A350 regularly chalking up flights of 12+ hours to the UK and Europe – even through the routes flown by the nimble single-aisle A321neos will typically be just a handful of hours.
“We chose the same seat as the A350-1000, so it has all the comfort attributes of a long-haul seat,” says Vivet.
That seat is the Vector Y+ model from Hong Kong’s HAECO Group, which like Cathay itself is an arm of global conglomerate Swire.
“Although adapted to a single-aisle environment, it is much more of a long-haul seat than a short-haul seat in comfort factors like the cushioning and the seat articulation,” Vivet tells Executive Traveller.
“We also ported over some key features from our A350-1000 such as the tablet holder and the ergonomic headrest.”
The A321neo’s economy seat pitch is 30-31”, with width between the armrests around the 18” mark.
However, Vivet prefers to downplay seat pitch – the distance between the same point on two seats one in front of the other, such as the start of the armrest of seat 22A to the start of the armrest of seat 23A.
Seat pitch has become de facto metric for legroom – and by extension, passenger comfort – but Vivet says “it can be quite misleading in so many ways.”
“I could show you two different seats with the exact same pitch but two completely different customer experiences – so we look at, and have improved on, the parameters that we feel are most important to the passengers, such as knee clearance and shin clearance.”
Speaking of comfort, creature comforts in economy class include this handy tablet and smartphone ledge which folds down from below the 11.6” HD video screen.
Tucked into the bottom of the videoi screen is a pair of USB ports: one in the more common USB-A size and the other in the newer USB-C flavour now appearing on everything from noise-cancelling headphones to laptops.
“These are high-power USB ports so the intent is that you can charge your laptop over USB-C,” Vivet explains.
He also confirms that while each business class seat has its own AC socket, there are no AC outlets – not even shared between passengers – in economy class.
“We know that USB-C has penetrated the laptop market, so we felt comfortable in not having the AC power socket in economy.”
Cathay Pacific Airbus A321neo inflight entertainment
Every seat on Cathay Pacific’s A321neo is fitted with an ultra-high definition 4K video monitor.
The business class seats boast a 15.6” UHD screen, with 11.6” UHD panels in economy class – and there’s a selection of 4K movies and TV shows content to go with them.
Vivet says the amount of 4K content offered through Cathay’s IFE library will continue to increase, but “passengers will notice the improved quality of the screens themselves on any shows they watch.
“It’s not just the outstanding resolution, it’s the colour depth, the ability to reproduce contrast and upscale content that’s not 4K… so it’s a really high-quality display that’s closer to what you might have at home on your TV or your laptop.”
The A321neo’s inflight entertainment system is built on the Panasonic NEXT platform, for which Cathay Pacific is the launch customer and which integrates hardware, software and services into a single almost Apple-like environment.
Another headline feature of both Panasonic NEXT and the Cathay A321neo jets is that every screen can stream Bluetooth audio directly to the passenger’s own headphones or earbuds, rather than make do with airline-supplied and generally inferior headphones.
It’s a smart play, especially considering how much money frequent flyers invest in noise-cancelling headphones, but it’s not without complications.
“Bluetooth is challenging on an airplane for two reasons,” explains Vivet.
“One is that the 2.4GHz frequency used by Bluetooth is also used by WiFi, and there’s also the density of users in the cabin – outside of an airplane you don’t have 200 potential users of Bluetooth in such a small area.”
Vivet says that Cathay and its IFE partner Panasonic carried out extensive testing on the system “to make sure it can support all the passengers, and also so we don’t have interference with WiFi.”
Cathay Pacific Airbus A321neo WiFi
Passengers on Cathay Pacific’s Airbus A321neo aircraft can access the Internet through the plane’s inflight WiFi system.
Cathay charges US$9.95 for one hour of high-speed Internet access, or US$12.95 to stay connected for the entire flight if it’s less than six hours – which is about the maximum duration of its A321neo services.
Unfortunately, there’s no free service or even a discount code if you’re in business class or hold top-tier Diamond or Diamond Plus status in Cathay’s Marco Polo Club frequent flyer program.