Inside story: the evolution of Cathay Pacific

By David Flynn, June 17 2013
Inside story: the evolution of Cathay Pacific

The pod-like Solus chair is a hallmark of Cathay Pacific’s new-look lounges around the world.

Each of these futuristic pieces of furniture offer a self-contained space for the busy business traveller, complete with a small laptop/tablet desk and AC power.

The Solus is an adventurous concept, and also an ambitious one – who ever thought at an airline would want to design its own lounge furniture?

Australian Business Traveller sat down with Toby Smith, Cathay Pacific’s General Manager Product, to learn the story behind the Solus chair.

"This might sound a bit trite but we are always trying to meet our passengers’ needs and requirements” Smith says. “As part of that we’re also trying to anticipate new ones, even if the passengers are not fully aware of what they might want, because it calls for something that doesn’t really exist.”

“We’re constantly striving to develop something which is going to improve the overall passenger experience. And we felt there room for something in lounge seating which didn’t fit immediately into one of those standard categories like a traditional armchair, sofa or desk chair."

The need for what became the Solus chair was also driven by the overall design of airport lounges, Smith explains.

“Some of the lounges today are pretty big and although you try to make them calming and restful, there are still people walking to and fro getting food, they’ve got their hand carry-on bags with them, and it’s not always perhaps as restful as you would like.”

The Solus was seen as a means to provide passengers with some privacy and a sense of their own space within the lounge itself.

Creating the Solus was a joint effort between Cathay Pacific, London-based design firm Foster + Partners and Italian luxury furniture manufacturer Poltrona Frau.

The first challenge, Smith recalls, was “to strike the right balance between privacy for making a phone call, using your laptop or tablet or just reading a book, but without feeling claustrophobic and enclosed.”

Foster + Partners mockups began with the C-shell design
Foster + Partners mockups began with the C-shell design

“That’s something that we’ve tried to do in our business class seats as well, and it’s where we came up with this idea of a C-shape, which provides a certain amount of privacy but doesn’t block your view.”

Once the basic shape was defined, the conversation shifted to how to fill that space.

Usability testing of curved desks for the Solus
Usability testing of curved desks for the Solus

“Do you just put a chair within a C-shape, so you have a comfortable desk chair with a shell around it?” Smith says.

Foster + Partners hone in on the final form of the Solus
Foster + Partners hone in on the final form of the Solus

“There were several iterations until it evolved into an all-in-one unit which you see today, which from a design perspective looks better and also provides a high degree of comfort.”

The small desk does double-duty for working and snacking
The small desk does double-duty for working and snacking

“Having a power socket was a prerequisite, and a table which is large enough to be put a laptop or an iPad on, or to place food without completely dominating the space so it was hard to get in and out of the chair itself.”

Another thoughtful touch is a small coat-hanger button on the side, decorated with Cathay Pacific’s feathered-wing logo.

Something that Cathay wasn’t able to do was fit every Solus with a universal power socket capable of taking any type of AC plug.

Those at Paris CDG sport a European connector, while in Hong Kong it’s the local (and also UK-style) three-pin socket.

“We would like to have put in a universal plug, clearly that would be more convenient for travellers than having to use an adaptor, but we’re simply not allowed to due to building codes” Smith explains.

And while a USB socket would be a welcome addition today, Smith points out that work on the Solus began in 2008 – years before the iPad was launched – but adds that the popularity of USB for charging tablets and smartphones means “it’s potentially an evolution to implement something like that on the Solus”.

While Foster + Partners fine-tuned the design, Poltrona Frau went to work on the physical aspects of the seat, with an eye towards ergonomics as well as a high-end finish.

“It was their idea to put ribbing in the leather back to provide lumbar support” Smith adds.

But not all Solus seats are the same. While most have a white shell, those in The Wing First Class Lounge get the luxe touch with a black lacquered shell.

The colour of the leather also varies between lounges, and even zones within a lounge – most Solus chairs sport grey leather seating and padding, but some are a richer burgundy or tan.

The Solus chairs in The Wing also lack the perspex screen which surrounds the top of the chair in other lounges.

Solus chairs in The Wing lounges lack the perspex screen at the top due to airport fire regulations
Solus chairs in The Wing lounges lack the perspex screen at the top due to airport fire regulations

“That perspex screen, apart from being quite a fun design feature, adds a greater degree of privacy” Smith explains, “but we’re not able to have it in The Wing due to height restrictions to accommodate the sprinkler system” demanded by The Wing’s open design.

The stand-alone nature of the Solus also lets Cathay Pacific choose how they are implemented in each lounge, such as grouped in a cloud-like cluster or just positioned here and there as space permits.

“We can move them around, we can also angle them slightly differently if there’s a particularly good view from the lounge that you want the passenger to see.”

You can check out the Solus chairs at Cathay Pacific’s The Wing and The Cabin lounges at Hong Kong airport, as well as Cathay’s San Francisco and Paris’ Charles de Gaulle lounges.

Follow Australian Business Traveller on Twitter: we’re @AusBT


David Flynn is the Editor-in-Chief of Executive Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.

12 Apr 2011

Total posts 71

Interesting article! I have also spotted these chairs with a slightly larger table in the new Grand Hyatt Kuala Lumpur.


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

10 May 2011

Total posts 734

Nice insight on the process which preceeds a seamingly simple decision to get some new furniture introduced in a lounge! Very suprpised CX went for a complete customised design, which obviously costs a pretty penny.

Seats are very comfortable though and indeed strike a good balance between privacy and openess and the work space is just good. Seat is nice to relax in as well.

I wondered about the lack of connectivity points in the seat when I was in the Wing last week, now I know the reason behind it!

02 Jul 2011

Total posts 59

I'm glad they mentioned the power points as it was the one annoying thing about a beautiful chair.

Virgin Australia - Velocity Rewards

23 May 2012

Total posts 268

The seat is very well designed and ticks all the boxes for privacy. Well done Cathay Pacific!


Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

01 May 2012

Total posts 121

Thanks David, an informative article - looks like a very practical with added privacy for the biz traveller - spotted them before but never tried one but will do so on my next trip via HK in July.

Cathay Pacific - Asia Miles

25 Apr 2013

Total posts 543

A perfect alternative to the Solus chair.

Hi Guest, join in the discussion on Inside story: the evolution of Cathay Pacific