BACKGROUND This review was conducted, not on a regular commercial flight but on the recent special flight of a new Boeing 777-300ER, which departed from the Boeing plant in Everett, Seattle – documented as the biggest building in the world by volume at 13,385.378sqm – to Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong base.
It is the third aircraft, following the earlier arrival of an Airbus A330 and a B777-300ER, to feature the much-awaited next-generation business class seats. More are scheduled to arrive during the year (click here for coverage of the roll out) and in succeeding years until you find them on all long-haul services.
Aircraft pick ups are interesting experiences. In the mid-1990s, I was twice fortunate to witness CX and another Asian airline take delivery of their “babies” at the Airbus facility in Toulouse, where the plant tour opened my eyes to the intricate and amazing process required to produce our flying machines.
Some 15 years later, the Boeing visit proved just as fascinating, especially with today’s improved technology that has resulted in lighter, faster and more fuel efficient models. If you have the time and happen to be in France or Seattle, it would be worth dropping by the factories, and if the children are with you, bring them along – they will be talking about the visit for weeks. In China, both Airbus and Boeing have assembly facilities in Tianjin’s Binhai special economic zone, which are also open to the public.
CHECK-IN After the ribbon cutting, performed by new CX chief executive officer John Slosar (with Boeing vice-president and general manager of 777 programme Larry Loftis at his side) and countless photo taking of the gleaming aircraft on the sunny tarmac, ourselves on the staircase with the red carpet leading up to the cabin and ourselves again with the help of a ladder put in place by a patient technician in front of the humongous GE90 engine, it was time to head back to the Delivery Center building for processing for this special flight CX3337, departing at 5pm, April 29, 2011.
Earlier, our check-in baggage had been taken from us, so it was a matter of checking passports and issuing boarding passes.
I made sure to return to the airline staff the white departure card from US immigration. Failure to do so creates problems in the future as I found out when I once forgot to hand it back and returned to the US a few months after that trip.
BOARDING The carry ons went through the scanner, and thankfully, I was not required to remove my Mac from its case. One of the technical staff immediately volunteered to help carry that bulky laptop trolley up the long flight of stairs, which was such a relief as I had my knapsack, coat and two plastic bags with souvenirs to handle as well.
I was assigned business class seat 20K. One of the flight attendants led me through first class, which featured rows 1 and 2 (configuration 1-1-1, identified as A-D-K) and the first section of business class, which had two rows as well, 11 and 12 (configured 1-2-1, identified as A-DG-K) to the second section of business class, which had 12 rows (15 to 26) and to my window seat. Once there, she took my overcoat and a colleague of hers soon approached with a tray of drinks, which, unfortunately, did not feature CX’s signature kiwi smoothie. Shanghai Tang pajamas in gray were handed out a little after.
As there was time to explore before take off, I visited economy, which was divided into two sections, featuring 14 rows (30 to 44) in the first and 13 rows (55 to 67) in the second (configured 3-3-3, identified as ABC-DEG-HJK). The most legroom is to be found in rows 32 and 55, which are also positioned nearest the exit doors. I peeked in on the crew rest area, one for the pilots above first class – complete with two seats and two bunks – and the flight attendants’ bunks above economy class. I lay down on one of them, and found it so comfortable that I almost didn’t want to leave.
THE SEAT Customer interest in CX’s new business class seats is running high, primarily because the previous product line – still widely available on a number of aircraft such as the B747-300 and A340 – generated quite a bit of adverse reaction (click here, here and here). But since the new-generation seats were unveiled in a laser-studded presentation last December before 3,000 guests at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, comments from a sampling of those who saw them then and passengers, who have tried them out on the Hong Kong-Sydney and Hong Kong-New York services, have been consistently favourable (see story here).
The herringbone layout has been retained, but the sharp lines of the dividers in the old seats have been replaced with curvier paneling. Seats along the windows are offset from the middle seats and face the windows, with wing like headboards heightening the sense of exclusivity. The companion seats in the middle are angled toward each other, but privacy can still maintained in two ways. First, the seat is within a recess, and unless you press an innovative lever that brings it forward so you can see the other person, you need never address that individual in the next space. Second, there is a spring-loaded cabinet door (this area contains the noise-cancelling headset), which when opened can also act as a screen, although I would prefer not to use it since the door is not steady and there is a vanity mirror at the back of it, and I would be too conscious of seeing my face each time I moved.
Window seats also come with the movement lever, which is used to bring the passenger closer to the tray table. Gone is the seatbelt, found in the old business class, that one had to strap from the shoulder to the side of the waist, in addition to buckling around the tummy.
Studying the seat as a whole and its myriad features – given that I had over 10 hours between Seattle and Hong Kong to pore over it – I concluded it seamlessly combined work and rest functions. Why? I am a “spreader” – I like to line up my research documents beside me, allowing me to pull out something I need while tapping on my Mac, and the sideboard along the window wall provided a handy place to put these files, plus a drink, without any fear of spilling it onto any sensitive hardware.
The tray table accommodated my 13-inch MacBook Pro with even enough space for the ceramic container holding my ee fu noodles, and it wasn’t bouncy at all as most tray tables are. But what I found helpful was it swung from under the sidetable and folded out, instead of having to be pulled out from under the armrest, a task, which sometimes I have to help the flight attendant with. And if you are like me who wants as much of her/his personal accessories about them during the trip, this new seat has storage space galore.
There is a small shoe cupboard at the bottom aisle side and a cavity under the side counter to hold a toiletries kit, laptop, tablet or books together with a mesh pouch for a mineral water bottle or spectacles but which can only be placed there after take off. Meanwhile, the cabinet with headphones can take in smaller items. Just remember to conduct a thorough sweep of the various nooks and crannies before leaving the aircraft though or some valuables are in danger of being left behind.
As in the old business class, seat position controls (levers now, not buttons), IFE controls, universal power outlet and iPhone/iPod/iPad sockets, plus an adjustable mini reading light (a second reading light is overhead), are clustered in a shoulder level space for more convenience. The 15-inch TV monitor easily pops out when you a press a metallic button on the side.
Another innovation, CX proudly trumpets, is the retractable aisle armrest, which helps the occupant easily slip out and back without having to put back the tray table. Once up, the armrest serves as protection should you be sleeping facing the aisle, preventing your head from sticking out and being banged by a passerby or worse, a meal cart. Perhaps because it was fresh out of the factory, but it took some pressure on the push button to get it to rise. This retractable armrest feature is not for that purpose alone, but also to facilitate access for physically challenged passengers, executives of Zodiac Aerospace, the French firm which designed the new seats, told Business Traveller. Any airline, wishing to operate to and around the US, is required by the Federal Aviation Authority to allocate some seats in all their classes to accommodate disabled customers.
Getting the seat to convert into a flat bed was painless, even when done in the dark with just the overhead reading light. When fully straightened, it meets the small ottoman at the far end pretty nicely, affording more space. Designer Zodiac Aerospace told me that a person with a height of 1.98 metres (6’5"), lying perfectly prone would be comfortable, but since I am much shorter than that I had no problem at all. But here’s where CX said they’ve gone the extra mile – tailoring their flatbed for side sleepers. As the seat extends, an extension flap on one side emerges, providing more inches for those knees, and if sleeping on the opposite side, a space between the seat and the storage cavity doesn’t impede any limbs.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE? I was given a business class seat 20K. It is located on the right side of the aircraft and in the very middle of the second business class cabin and enjoys the view from two windows. It’s not a long way to the two washrooms behind row 26 for use of this section. Any window seat is desirable because the latest design affords a cocoon like ambiance. Choose to sit in the second business class cabin rather than the first one which features only two rows as there is bound to be a lot of crew movement between first class and that area since the galley is directly behind the second row, which is row 12. In the second business class cabin, I would avoid row 15, again because of the galley in front of it, and row 26 because of the washrooms behind it.
THE FLIGHT There were numerous bumpy moments during the 13-and-½-hour journey home that kept us strapped to our seats, but that didn’t seem to stop the cabin crew from conducting the meal service (selections were available on current commercial flights). For the first session, lunch, I immediately zeroed in on the kung po chicken with egg fried rice and stir-fried kailan in a list that also included grilled fillet steak with red wine sauce, roasted potatoes with herbs and seasonal baby vegetables, seared fillet of sea bass with tarragon caper sauce, potatoes and sautéed spinach and roasted porcini ravioli with cambozola cream sauce and porcini mushrooms.
The reason was because after two days of (fantastic) Seattle seafood, my taste buds were yearning for Asian flavours – I polished off the dish once it was set on my tray, following the Pacific northwest seafood and seasonal salad starters. Dessert was a choice of cheese, fruit or New York cheesecake served with raspberry coulis. I dozed off even before the sweets trolley came around, skipping the final course although I found a mineral water bottle and a blue box containing a single chocolate on my side table when I woke up later during the journey.
Unable to go back to sleep, I scanned the snack list, which could be requested at any time, consisting of both western and oriental tasties: chicken quesadilla, shui gaw with noodle in soup, pan-fried luncheon meat and fried egg in noodle soup, ham and cheese panini and grilled vegetable foccacia, Caesar salad with grilled prawns and abalone mushroom congee with steamed rice roll with mushroom and pan-friend turnip cake. The thought of a bowl of steaming shui gaw whetted my appetite once more, and I gave in to that temptation, along with a pint of Haagen Daz coffee ice cream.
About two hours before landing, the final meal service was laid out but since I was deep into finishing a news piece and had my laptop on the tray table, I requested for just the braised e-fu noodles with assorted dimsum from the lineup that also included a seafood crepe with Newburg sauce and vegetables as well as a mixed grill of spinach fritatta, Canadian bacon, mini steak, hash brown and grilled potato. The hot container with the noodles fitted quite nicely on a corner of my tray table.
ARRIVAL We arrived about 10pm on Saturday, April 30, 2011, loudly applauding once the mint-new aircraft touched down on the Chek Lap Kok runway. On CX’s B777, the overhead bins are harder to reach for a petite-size person such as me (unlike its B747 where the compartments are much lower), but the little recess on the bottom left-hand side of my seat helped me to reach them easily, meaning no more stepping on the upholstery!
VERDICT By listening intently and with sensitivity to its customers, Cathay Pacific has definitely set a new benchmark in the premier cabin arena. The new seat and accompanying enhancements in other touch points show why this airline is always a market leader.
Margie T Logarta
PLANE TYPE B777-300ER
SEAT CONFIGURATION 1-1-1 first, 1-2-1 business and 3-3-3 economy
SEAT PITCH N/A
SEAT WIDTH 21in/53cm