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Mid-life refresh for Cathay Pacific first class

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 3:37pm
UPDATED : Tuesday, 30 July, 2013, 4:03pm

No, I do not travel First Class. But I know a number of you do, but the new Cathay Pacific Business Class seats introduced on the 777s in 2011 were so good that several previously first-class diehards downsized and saved themselves or their companies a fortune. This must have left Cathay in a bit of a quandary. Now they are taking steps to “differentiate” First from Business on their fleet of Boeing 777-300ERs. They are doing what Cathay Pacific general product manager Toby Smith calls a “mid-life refresh” for the suites – not seats – in First Class.

I think I could do with one myself. The actual suite is not changing, he says. “There’s no need to rip them out, they are mid lifecycle,” he explains. The refurbished first class is being rolled out from now until September 2014 on the airline’s 30 or so long-haul 777s. When a return business class ticket Hong Kong to New York is half the first class fare, there’s quite a sum at stake. (First Class: HK$199,968 including tax; Business Class including tax HK$93,978; CX website, departing Thursday August 1, returning Monday August 5).

Cathay last upgraded first class in 2007 and was rewarded with a slew of industry and travel press awards. But now looms the challenge of “how to further differentiate” - don’t you love split infinitives - their product, according to the press blurb. Hence the “midlife refresh programme” to rejuvenate First Class on all Boeing 777-300ERs. The upgrade excludes the poor old Boeing 747-400s, as the last 10 of these workhorses will be progressively retired by 2017. So bad luck, you’re stuck with the previous generation of business class, known by passengers as the “coffin seats” if you pick a 747 flight before they disappear to the great aircraft graveyard.

Improving on perfection

So how do you improve on near first class perfection? Well, dancing guys and girls, airborne Jacuzzis and double beds spring to mind, but that’s all a bit Richard Branson. The press info is a heady slab of purple prose, which says the new First Class Wing Lounge designed by Foster + Partners “carries over the exceptionally premium, sophisticated and contemporary design” into the interior of the First Class cabin and, interestingly, the lavatory. Not the toilet, washroom or rest room, but the splendidly British middle-class “lavatory.”

There’re lots about “highly glossy dark grey textured material featured on the outer surface of the suite,” and “warm-tone natural leather used extensively on most interior surfaces of the suite for a luxurious feel and soft touch.” From the photo that seems to mean beige leather padding. There’s some “straight-grain American Walnut effect to add warmth and simplicity to both the suite and lavatory.” I’m not sure that warmth is crucial in the lavatory, but they also get new white rectangular wash basins and counter tops, specially designed “to assure a water stains and drip-free environment.” Well that’s a relief. I plough on; convinced the clever chaps at CX must have solved the other perennial problems of flying: snoring, coughing, squawking children and dreadful smells.

But no. Instead I learn that the suite remains one of the widest and longest in the sky and that “everything has a more clean and sophisticated look.” That won’t drown out snoring. The flatter the flat bed, the more they snore. Even in First Class. Coat closet latches are now to be leather-padded “to provide a softer touch and protection to passengers’ fingers.” Fingers? What about noses, forced to inhale unwelcome whiffs? The new seat fabric materials are “soft and smooth to touch” and the “ultra soft, thick-pile in-suite carpet is made of 100% new virgin wool, handcrafted in Switzerland, in an understated taupe colour.” To complement all this soft warmth, hand crafted, sculptural artworks have been installed “to add an element of interest” to the cabin, but try as I might, I cannot spot them in the photos. Being made of copper and steel and individually hand-etched by Maria Lobo and Linda Leviton, with a harmonious colour palette” you’d think they’d be hard to miss.

Enough of this waffle. To the horse’s mouth for the inside track. What’s changing, exactly? “The shell of the seat is more padded, there’s a touch-screen interface for seat controls and the duvet is softer,” says Smith. Thank goodness for executive brevity. The seat and bedclothes are thicker organic cotton, and the pyjamas made by local shirt maker PYE, he adds. Oh, and there are Bose noise-excluding headsets. Bose QuietComfort 15 Acoustic Noise Cancelling headphones, to be precise. At last! That should go some way to drowning out snores, coughs and squealing children.

So what, precisely, differentiates the refurbished First from Business Class? Based on feedback, this is what passengers say they want, explains Smith. “Exclusivity and feeling you are in a smaller cabin.” Well with only six people, yes, you are. They want better booze and food, bigger seats, posher headsets and more peace and quiet. And that great unquantifiable: an “exceptional experience.” When it comes to length of flight, they prefer to fork out for First on long haul flights over about eight and a half hours. So the flights with souped-up First start on routes longer than Sydney, such as London (11 hours) and New York (16 hours). For the shorter flights, it seems flat bed business seats suffice.

So when is the next generation of new seats due? In February 2016, when the A350-900s come on stream, with three classes. A slightly larger version will be rolled out on in 2018, “basically the same but with four classes,” says Smith.

Anna.fenton@scmp.com