Seven things you didn't know about Cathay Pacific's business class

By John Walton, April 20 2012
Seven things you didn't know about Cathay Pacific's business class

It's no secret that we at Australian Business Traveller -- and many of our readers -- are impressed by Cathay Pacific's new business class seat.

If you're new to the seat, check out the in-depth photo gallery and up-close pictures, plus our full on-the-plane review, for the executive summary.

But with the seat spreading to more and more flights to and from Hong Kong, Australian Business Traveller sat down for a chat with Cathay Pacific's Head of Product, Alex McGowan, at the airline's HQ in HKG.

McGowan is the man in charge of just about everything you experience, from lounges to seats to entertainment, so we were keen to grill him on the nitty-gritty: how the seat was bedding in, what frequent flyers think of it, and to find out more about the little details that passengers notice surprisingly often.

1) Priorities for business travellers: fully flat, direct aisle access and storage

McGowan started out by talking about the extensive research that Cathay Pacific carried out with its business class passengers and its most frequent flyers -- members of its Marco Polo Club.

We asked what the top three things on the frequent flyer wish list were, and McGowan was happy to share them with us.

"The number one priority is: I want to go flat, and I want to sleep," McGowan explained. "Number two is privacy, and privacy really means direct aisle access."

Cathay Pacific has been adamant since its first fully flat business bed that the benefits of a fully flat bed with direct aisle access outweigh the compromises of not sitting fully forward and being a little restricted on width -- problems that have, largely, been fixed with the new business class.

"Number three, actually, is storage. It's amazingly high up there," McGowan says of Cathay's business travellers' wish list.

"We wanted to find somewhere for you to put stuff -- thus the side cabinet."

McGowan explains that business travellers in particular are keen to have somewhere to stash the contents of their pockets. "You can close your door and you know everything's safe and secure -- it's not going to fall down the side of the seat or anything like that."

2) Cathay has done some serious customisation work on its seats

Cathay Pacific took some time to test and re-engineer the seats with its most frequent flyers before finalising the design on the plane, McGowan told us, since Cathay isn't the only airline to use these "reverse herringbone" seats.

US Airways was the surprising launch customer for what manufacturer Zodiac calls the Sicma Aero Cirrus, although Australians are unlikely to see US Airways' seats unless flying transatlantically on that airline.

After Cathay picked them, though, both American Airlines and Delta have also selected the seats, with Delta getting the standard model and American picking up the Cathay-enhanced designs.

Here's what the stock model looks like on US Airways -- note the slide-up table rather than Cathay's slide-across version, the absence of the storage cut-out area by the knees, no shoe locker by your ankles, the different shape without the privacy screen near your head, and the cupholder where Cathay has an extra section of bed foam.

McGowan uses the side of the dining table, which almost looks as if a small triangular piece is missing, as an example of the detail the airline considered in the refining process. We've circled that section below:

"When people turned over in beds they hit their knees," McGowan explained, pointing to the table. "So we moved it back -- making it slightly less aesthetically pleasing -- but now people don't knock their knees on it."

McGowan also told us that Cathay shaved away the angled underside of the table, "so if you do brush it, you're brushing it at an angle. We just don't want people to wake up in the middle of the night because they've banged themselves on it."

The Cathay-specific additions also include a sound-absorbing material around your seat.

"All around the inside of the footwell, and all around the inside of the headrest here, is a padded soft Nomex material. It's slightly sound-absorbent, so it helps keep the sound inside and deaden any crew or galley or passenger noise. And it gives you a nice, soporific environment to sleep in." 

"When the bed goes fully flat, there's a couple of interesting things that we added to the seat. There's a bed extension that comes up between the armrest area and the foot locker area. You can scoot back over that for support, and then tuck your knees all the way through to sleep in a foetal position."

The space -- which the arrow above shows -- is about four feet of room, McGowan tells us, which should be big enough even for people who aren't the extra-short seat models used in glossy airline PR photoshoots.

3) The seats are good for in-flight meetings and collaboration

One of the more useful features is the ability to slide the whole seat forwards 11 inches while still in the upright position.

Cathay's Alex McGowan explained that this is primarily to enable passengers in the middle pair of seats to talk during the daytime, but an added benefit is being able to peer out of the window more easily too.

"We wanted to make a feature of companion travel," McGowan told us. "It effectively brings the two centre passengers face to face, at a slight angle together, in a private twin suite between the aisles."

The twin pair of seats are a remarkably efficient use of space -- and flight time, especially when travelling with a colleague.

You can put together a presentation (or refine one you downloaded in the lounge before departure) on a single laptop, with both of you able to see the screen without resorting to contortionist gymnastics.

"You've still got the ability to recline all the way into bed mode at the touch of a button," McGowan continues. "You can adjust the legrest independently. You can also move the entire seat forwards and then play around with the recline and legrest as you like."

4) The foam of each seat section is constructed differently to support your whole body

"We've tiered the cushions," McGowan explained, highlighting the different sections of the seat.

"When you're lying, most of your weight is on the seat itself -- you're compressing the foam."

That foam -- the top arrow in our diagram -- is one that Cathay developed specifically with manufacturers MGR Foamtex.

"There's a quilted mattress topper on the top surface, so you can really soften down into that mattress," McGowan added.

"The next level, just above the shoe locker directly, is a little bit firmer and a little bit lower, so when you go onto that it's all on the same level. So when you compress that a little bit, it goes down onto the same level as the armrest, which is harder."

5) Cathay carved out the side storage area for business traveller carry-ons

"This is creatively named the side storage area," McGowan quipped with a grin, "because it's at the side and it stores things."

"It's big enough for a bag, but you can't use it for takeoff and landing because it's not covered. You can use it in flight," with laptops, tablets, electronic readers, headphones and paperwork among the most popular items to be stowed away.

And as for the net water bottle pocket, which isn't the easiest to reach in seated mode, McGowan explained that it's really for when you're ready for bed: "The reason we put the net pocket there is another passenger feedback item when we tested this in our passenger development centre."

McGowan said that having the bottle on the side table is fine when you're in seat mode, but at night-time: "I want to be able to reach out, grab it, take a drink and put it back. I don't want to have to sit up and clamber around, and I don't want to have to worry about it falling over."

6) Passengers pay attention to a surprising amount of detail, so Cathay does too  

We asked McGowan what the most surprising reaction has been to the new seats -- and he said he's surprised by how much detail passengers notice.

"They really notice stuff, and they notice the little things we've done and comment on them. They like the fact that there's the water bottle in its slightly anomalous location. They like the mirror. They like the bed extension. They like the soft padded interior of the shell."

All those things are among the Cathay-specific additions to the stock seat.

"The mirror is a little touch we added during passenger testing. Ladies said that it would be nice if they could do a little touch-up, and men said that it would be nice if the ladies weren't doing their makeup in the bathrooms."

And if you're not touching up your makeup?

"Imagine you don't want to look at yourself in the mirror, and you certainly don't want to see a reflection over the other side of the plane, and you don't want someone to be able to see you in the reflection from the other side of the plane." Just slide the flap up, McGowan says, and voila -- no reflection.

McGowan also mentioned in passing that the flap is also useful for devotees of feng shui to adjust the amount of qi reflecting around the cabin.

"Ninety-five percent of passengers said we either met or exceeded their expectations" McGowan told us. "We did some specific surveys on the Sydney flight, talking to about five hundred passengers."

"We looked in depth at every aspect: upright comfort, recline, full flat, dining, TV watching, reading a newspaper, storage space, companion interaction, across the board," McGowan said. "We were getting a third of people or more ticking the top box."

That means "a third of our passengers telling us they're totally satisfied with all aspects (of the seat)."

As any businessperson dealing with customer feedback knows, that's an impressive top-box proportion.

Cathay's randomly-assigned "Reflex" passenger surveys -- and there are 25,000 of these handed out every month -- continue the trend of satisfaction, McGowan tells us. "We're borderline first class territory in terms of satisfaction with the overall seat."

"We talk to our Marco Polo frequent flyers on a regular basis. We do focus groups every three months. We do parties and events -- Hong Kong Sevens and various things. People are saying 'thanks for listening', and we really did listen to what people are telling us."

McGowan was obviously proud of the reaction from his airline's most frequent passengers.

"That's why we kicked off the project, and that's why we spent so much time in the cabin development centre with waves of frequent flyers coming in to help us hone every aspect of the seat."

"It's not our seat, actually -- it's their seat." 

More in-depth analysis and reviews from Australian Business Traveller:

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John Walton

Aviation journalist and travel columnist John took his first long-haul flight when he was eight weeks old and hasn't looked back since. Well, except when facing rearwards in business class.

20 Jul 2011

Total posts 73

It's a great seat, but I managed to break the concertina sliding door on the lower side pocket when using it.  If the door is not completely closed when you bring the seat upright, it catches and can break.  I'm sure I'm not the only person who has done that, too...

10 Mar 2011

Total posts 527

Dear Mr McGowan... I think Cathay have done a great job with this seat... But please do something about the adjustment position of the seatbelt, which really is a silly design... And also please do something about the tray table as you have to sit bolt upright to use it comfortably and if you knock the table it slides back in, knocking glasses over. Many thanks. Ausflyer.  PS... I have size 10 feet and my shoes don't fit in the shoe cupboard. 

26 Aug 2011

Total posts 17

It is an amazing seat design, but the seatbelt design is annoying.

Qantas - Qantas Frequent Flyer

13 Sep 2011

Total posts 181

Seat is great but you are not allowed to use the storage bin while the plane taxis, takes off or lands. That sort of defeats the point of it in my view as I want to store things in it so I do not have to go to the overhead compartment after takeoff.

Qantas Frequent Flyer

16 May 2014

Total posts 3

I agree the new Cathays Business section and seats are very confortable and I wish other airlines would adopt the same.

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