Cathay Pacific premium economy class stretches out
Marking its foray into the "enhanced" economy-class trend that's been re-igniting passenger enthusiasm for long-haul travel, Cathay Pacific accepted delivery of a new Boeing 777-300ER aircraft yesterday.
Fitted with the airlines' new "premium economy" class seating configuration, the aircraft is the first of 87 planes Cathay plans to offer with the new class of service by the end of 2013.
Cathay Pacific premium economy class will be offered in a dedicated section with 26 to 34 seats. The section will be located between economy and business class areas.
Cathay Pacific premium economy features include more legroom than in economy class and a dedicated flight attendant for the section.
Noting that the cost of a premium economy ticket will be 50 to 80 percent higher than for a standard economy ticket, Cathay Pacific Chief Operating Officer Ivan Chu said that Cathay is stressing the "premium" over "economy."
Though Cathay has not released exact figures, Chu confirmed that the airline has "spent a lot" to upgrade its aircraft with the new service.
"We are always competitive," added Rupert Hogg, director of sales and marketing for the Hong Kong-based airline. "But we will never be the cheapest, because we believe people will pay for the value if you get the product right."
Premium economy enhancements
An early look at Cathay Pacific premium economy class suggests that the airline has indeed gotten the product right.
The first and most important feature that I noticed upon boarding the new Boeing delivery flight from Seattle to Hong Kong -- and that most travelers will undoubtedly notice, as well -- is the roomy 38 inches of seat pitch. (The distance from the back of a seat to the front of the seat behind it).
That's six inches more than in normal economy class.
By comparison, Cathay Pacific's premium economy class beats the 34-to-36 inches on United Airlines' economy plus class; is similar to Qantas Airways' 38-to-42 inches; but is less roomy than Turkish Airlines' luxurious 46 inches on its Boeing 777-300ER V2.
Thirty-eight inches of pitch and six additional inches over economy class might not sound like much compared with the downright regal 82-inch bed-length recline offered in business class on Cathay's 777-300ER, but it makes a huge difference in comfort.
As the trans-Pacific hours ticked by, I found I had plenty of room to work comfortably on my laptop, even when the passenger in front of me had fully reclined his seat.
The additional space also means no more scrambling over sleeping row mates just to get from your window seat to the aisle. Unless someone has a meal tray down, in which case the old "excuse me, sorry, do you mind?" routine is still required.
Cathay Pacific premium economy seats recline up to eight inches. The seats are also slightly wider than in economy class and come with larger video screens.
The headrests are a bit hard and thin, though this is made up for by business-class-size pillows provided to premium economy seat passengers.
Footrests have three ratchet positions.
Rather than being mounted on the seat-back in front of you, meal trays are housed in armrests, similar to the setup found in many business- or first-class cabins.
That's tough luck for those wanting to get cozy with a neighbor, or when searching for some extra space when there's a vacant seat. Only the two center seats in the 2-4-2 layout allow arm rests to be raised.
Complimentary welcome cocktails and Champagne are also offered to premium economy passengers.
More than just added legroom
Special menus are offered to Cathay Pacific premium economy passengers.
The meal on my flight was grilled U.S. beef tenderloin with red wine sauce, roasted potatoes and seasonal baby vegetables. It came with a small bottle of virgin olive oil and balsamic vinegar, as well as a cup of Häagen-Dazs ice cream.
Not spectacular, but overall the meal was similar to those served in Cathay's business class.
Premium economy passengers also enjoy priority check-in and boarding, and a five-kilo increase in baggage allowance.
Premium economy means no more 'hurly-burly'
Premium economy class is the hot trend in commercial aviation, according to Neil Hansford, chairman of Australia-based Aviation Strategic Solutions.
"Airlines who have not launched this product clearly don't understand market dynamics," said Hansford. "From business to economy (class) is a step too far, so premium economy is a workable alternative.
"It provides [an option] to those who can't afford or aren't authorized by their employer to use business class. It takes regular travelers out of the hurly-burly of economy class. For airlines, it's a way of getting [better] yield from the economy traveler."
Response to Cathay Pacific's premium economy class has been typically enthusiastic. Since booking for premium economy seats became available on February 14, the carrier has sold more than 1,000 tickets.
The first Cathay flights offering premium economy class will take off in March. Beginning in April, premium economy class will be offered on select flights on Sydney, Toronto, Vancouver and New York routes.
The new class of service will gradually be offered on more long-haul routes.
Space for premium economy seating will be taken out of economy sections, meaning fewer economy-class seats will be available on flights offering the new premium economy service.
Economy designs innovations
As it seeks to reinforce its image as a premium international carrier, Cathay Pacific has added new design touches in economy class, as well.
Small footholds have recently been installed beneath seats, allowing shorter passengers easier access to the overhead storage bins.
Amenity stowage spaces have been added beneath video screens for small items such as mobile phones and iPods.
Multi-port connectors next to screens allow passengers to connect personal devices to the aircraft's inflight entertainment system and charge electronics through USB ports.
These are attractive options, especially when compared with carriers such as United Airlines, which doesn't supply any power sockets.
For Cathay travelers still unwilling or unable to pony up for the new premium economy class, there's some good news -- the carrier plans to unveil a new and (thankfully) improved long-haul economy class seat.
The new seats will be installed on 62 long-haul aircraft by the end of 2013.
"The current economy seat has been a polarizing product," Hogg admitted when discussing the seat redesign. "Some people like it more than the others."
That's putting it mildly. While some loyal Cathay fliers have been waiting patiently for the promised new seats, on sites such as seatplans.com and Skytrax the airline's economy class has suffered rousing criticism.
Cathay's new economy class seats will allow passengers to recline, unlike their much-criticized fixed-back seats. The seats will recline six inches on a cradle mechanism designed to limit the impact on fellow passengers.
New seats also mean a chance for new in-flight entertainment. The new long-haul economy seats will be installed with touch-screen televisions.