Cathay chief Slosar is in it for the long haul
In one important respect, selling a consumer a soft drink is no different to selling a passenger a business class air ticket - both transactions should leave the customer satisfied and wanting to repeat the experience.
That is the view of John Slosar, chief executive of Cathay Pacific Airways.
That Slosar should liken the two is no surprise, since the Swire Group owns both the Hong Kong flag carrier he runs, and the Coca Cola bottling company on the mainland.
And just in case anyone forgot it, playful Slosar would take his seat at every Cathay Pacific press conference behind a Coke, prominently on display on the desk in front of him.
'The customer who bought a Coke yesterday may not necessarily buy a Coke today,' said Slosar. 'So we have to give people a reason for coming back to buy our products.' The policy is certainly working in the case of the airline, since most of the business and first class seats on Cathay and its wholly-owned subsidiary Dragonair are occupied by repeat passengers.
But there is a lot more to running an airline successfully than maintaining the loyalty of top-paying passengers. Nearly a year since taking up his post with the carrier, Slosar has taken the major initiative of introducing two new classes of seats - the long-haul economy seat and the premium economy seat.
The long-haul economy seat was introduced to fix the existing hard-back shell seat in the economy class launched in 2007.
Passengers complained about the lack of leg room and that they slid forwards on the seat.
Slosar decided to replace the hard-shell seat in a 14-month retrofit programme that coincided with the installation of the premium economy seat class.
New planes delivered this year will now fill in for the other planes in the fleet when they are retrofitted.
There will be, at most, four aircraft down at the same time this year, compared with two in normal operating conditions.
The first aircraft fitted with long- haul economy seats will enter service in March, initially on routes to Sydney and Toronto. A total of 36 Boeing 777-ERs and 26 Airbus 330-300s will be fitted and refitted by December 2013. 'I would like to roll out the new products as soon as possible as the customers will be very excited about it,' said Slosar.
Cathay's new premium economy class is located in a separate cabin, and offers passengers an additional six inches of leg room, comfortably-reclining seats and a separate menu from the economy class. Prices will be 80 per cent to 200 per cent higher than ordinary economy fares.
The highly-competitive Hong Kong-London route will be the first to offer the new seats from April 1.
Fares would be HK$9,000 to HK$10,000 for a round trip, compared with a normal economy fare of HK$5,000, Slosar said.
Meanwhile, Hong Kong Airlines' all-business flight to London will start in March. The Airbus 330-200 aircraft will have 86 cradle seats and 34 'lie flat' seats - the so-called Club Classic and Club Premium seats.
Club Classic seats are priced at HK$16,640, between business and economy class, and will be in direct competition with Cathay's new premium economy seat on the London route. Club Premium seats will be priced at HK$33,640.
Asian carriers had come a long way in upgrading the facilities by introducing fully flat-bed seats and promoting private space on board to make the journey more pleasant - even to the extent of being comparable to private jets, Slosar said.
Cathay is one of the partners to the 'trusted passenger' programme which is led by the International Air Transport Association.
The programme allows frequent flyers to bypass the traditional security check-in at airports once they have gone through a vetting process by the government to identify them as trusted travellers.
More than 19 countries are working on the trusted travellers programme before it goes truly global.
Striking a balance between security and a smooth travel experience required comprehensive discussions between the governments, airports and airlines, said Slosar.
He added: 'I am sure that in the next few years something will show up.'
The percentage year-on-year rise in the number of passengers who flew with Cathay Pacific Airways in the first 10 months of 2011