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First look: Cathay Pacific's premium economy cabin

27 Feb 2012 by ahmarshah
Cathay Pacific Premium Economy Class seating arrangement

On a typically crisp, cold morning in Everett, Seattle on February 25, Cathay Pacific Airways had reason to celebrate: it formally became the owner of a brand new Boeing B777-300ER aircraft featuring the long-awaited premium economy and redesigned long-haul economy seats in a ceremony at the Future of Flight Aviation Centre complete with a dragon dance and Chinese drummers.

This aircraft, fresh out of the Boeing factory, also offers an upgraded inflight entertainment system, as well as the carrier’s newest business class seats that were unveiled in 2010 (see story here or view a review of the seats here).

But it no longer consists of the first class cabin because it is to be used on routes such as Hong Kong-Toronto. “First class will not be available on Toronto flights starting March 2012 as the new three-class configuration offers more seats in economy and overall provides a better match of capacity with demand across classes for this route,” according to a statement from the airline.

This B777 has therefore been completely reconfigured to include 268 economy seats divided into two cabins – up from the usual 238 seats – 40 business class seats, also divided into two separate cabins, and 32 premium economy seats.

“It took us two years from design to production to develop the premium economy product: we wanted to use every inch to provide comfort and space for our customers,” said Ivan Chu, chief operating officer of Cathay Pacific. “We want the product to be more premium than economy.”

The premium economy cabin feels quite exclusive, with just four rows in a 2-4-2 configuration, and the seats themselves – in the carrier’s signature emerald green – are comfortable, with a 19.5-inch width, 38-inch pitch and an 8-inch recline, soft cushioning and a headrest that can slide up to accommodate taller passengers. Furthermore, the pillows provided in premium economy are the same as those found in business class.

The wide pitch means that even if the passenger in front reclines, there’s still plenty of space to stretch out and maintain a healthy distance from the IFE screen. On Airbus aircraft, the seats will be in a 2-3-2 layout, thus making the cabin feel even more exclusive and spacious.

The hardware has several additional features that make it a thoughtful product:  there is a small space to store personal items such as phones or glasses just below the IFE screen at the back of every seat, as well as a coat hanger next to the IFE screen. There is also a separate cocktail table on the centre arm rest with a swing-out peanut tray and a footrest that slides down.

For the front row, things are a little different because there isn’t the storage compartment although they do have a more comfortable footrest that slides up because it is attached to their own seats, instead of to the seat in front, and of course more legroom.

The service provided to premium economy passengers on the ground and in-flight is what really differentiates this product from economy. “We don’t just win by a seat: buying a seat is quite easy. Any airline can sign a cheque and get hardware. We always win by our service,” said Chu.

As reported earlier (see story here), at the airport, premium economy passengers will have dedicated check-in counters and up to 25kg of free baggage allowance. Passengers are entitled to a glass of juice or champagne upon boarding and three out of the four meal options available in business class. All in all, the software is very similar to business class.

The only drawback with the premium economy cabin is the lack of its own washroom – passengers have to use the economy ones all the way at the back of the first section of the economy class, which consists of four rows. If the flight is full, this might be an inconvenience.

The new long-haul economy seats are definitely a step up from the current ones. First off, the unpopular mounted-back design – or the “banana seat” as it came to be known – has been scrapped; instead of sliding forward, the seats recline by six inches. They are also much softer than the current seats since they feature the same cushioning as the premium economy seats and are at least a few centimetres wider (for more on the dimensions of the seat, see our story here). Also, like the premium economy seats, the headrest can slide up.

As for the IFE, all seats are now equipped with a multimedia outlet that allows passengers to connect their iPods and iPads to the system or charge their personal devices. In order to view or listen to the contents on their Apple gadgets on the IFE screens, passengers need to ask the cabin crew for a special cable and once connection is made, the Apple device becomes the remote control. To charge the battery of a device, however, any regular USB cable would do. All seats also have their own universal power outlets.

Oddly enough though, the economy class seats are equipped with advanced touchscreens while premium economy seats are not. According to Chu, the reason for that was because the touchscreen product was introduced after Cathay had designed the premium economy seats. Fortunately, in premium economy, passengers will get the same noise-cancelling headphones found in business class, which compensates for the lack of the touchscreen.

Though it has taken Cathay a while to jump on the premium economy bandwagon, there is still a huge demand to meet in the market, says Chu. He points to the fact that within four days of going on sale, more than 1,000 premium economy seats were sold, which reflects the large potential in the market.

To view on which routes the new premium economy and long-haul economy seats will be available between April and May, click here. In August, aircraft fitted with these products will be deployed on flights to Adelaide, Los Angeles, Melbourne and San Francisco; in September, Frankfurt and in October, Brisbane and Mumbai.

Though this aircraft has three classes, some B777s will include first class. The carrier has not revealed when the first four-class B777 aircraft will be introduced but according to Chu, they will be used on “flights to New York, London, Chicago and some Tokyo flights”.

Stay tuned for a more detailed analysis of the new products, which will appear in the Business Traveller Asia-Pacific April issue.

For more information, visit www.cathaypacific.com

Alisha Haridasani

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