While I’m not saying that flying business class on Cathay Pacific is a bad thing — quite the opposite actually — the product has a world-class reputation that, at times, seems misplaced. It has all the makings of a competitive international business class offering, sure, but then again, so does British Airways’s Club World. Like its oneworld counterpart, Cathay is just fine, but it lacks a defining feature to give it any sort of advantage over its regional rivals. Despite this, several reputable sources consider Cathay to be among the best in the world and a top higher flyer experience… which is a bit puzzling.
Perhaps Cathay Pacific benefits from operating primarily in a region where there are lots of excellent airlines and it gets a boost by way of association. Seriously though, when you consider its nearby competitors, like Singapore Airlines to the south…
…or its oneworld partner Japan Airlines to the north…
…it’s easy to assume that Cathay’s business class is comparably excellent. The carrier after all features one of the best — and most expensive — first class products in the world…
…so why wouldn’t Cathay’s next class of service be equally as impressive? Surely the hard product is appealing.
(But then again, so do all the other promotional images featured above! On to more “candid” shots!)
The issue with Cathay’s business class lies in the fact that — pardon the cliché — looks can be deceiving and first impressions can be misleading. Strong reputations don’t always reflect top-of-the-line products, and Cathay’s business class embodies this. This seems like a good point in the post to further emphasize the disclaimer alluded to in the introduction: nothing written here should be taken to mean that flying in business on Cathay Pacific is bad. That isn’t the point of this take; experiencing a (premium) cabin on any airline is a privilege.
But that said, there are some premium cabins that offer better value propositions than others. Cathay’s business class is on the lower end of that value-spectrum, primarily because it lacks any sort of special feature to set it apart from other carriers. It’s just fine, but “just fine” isn’t good enough for something that’s often ranked among the best in the world. That is the point of this take.
Cathay Pacific features reverse herringbone seats in its business class — the Zodiac Cirrus model to be specific, which can also be found onboard Air France’s 787s among others — and they’re quite good. Passengers are afforded plenty of privacy, lots of space to stretch out and store their belongings nearby, and direct aisle access for everyone. It has all you could want, which is all well and good, but the design is neither cutting edge nor innovative anymore. It’s well above average in the grand scheme of things, but the newer, more refined Collins Aerospace Super Diamond reverse herringbone is superior. If the Cirrus is the revolution (as it once was back when angled-flats were far too common), then the Super Diamond is the evolution. American Airlines nevertheless is refurbishing its fleet with the latest and greatest and Cathay is not.
Of course if it’s real innovation that you’re after, look no further than Cathay’s and AA’s oneworld counterpart Qatar Airways. The carrier is rolling its new QSuites product — most notable for having a door — out quickly across its fleet, giving its passengers in premium cabins unprecedented levels of personal space and privacy.
Qatar’s QSuites are truly stunning. It goes well-above and beyond expectations, and it matches up well against some first class products (albeit, first class on American carriers, but still!).
Cathay wants you to think that its business class is in the same world-class league as Qatar’s… but it’s not! In fact, it’s pretty easy to see that there’s a significant gap in quality between the two products. One is actually the best in the skies, and the other falls just behind American Airlines’s new reverse herringbone seat. For Cathay, that’s an, uh, unenviable position to be in if it wants to be considered among the best.
If the hard product is the most important part of the business class experience, bedding quality, by extension, ought to be up there too. One of the biggest advantages of flying in a premium cabin is that you can sleep in a lie-flat position and arrive at your destination feeling not-terrible. Naturally though, you’ll want something that looks and feels as close as it can to a bed. One of Cathay’s oneworld partners, also with a sub-par reputation for its premium products, British Airways, gets this.
Every passenger in Club World, as its called, is given a mattress pad, a comforter, a blanket, and a big fluffy pillow. While the seats themselves are a bit narrow, actually sleeping well is a pretty easy task once you’ve gotten comfortable.
Seeing that Cathay Pacific operates flights longer than 16 hours, you’d think that it would offer quite a bit of bedding materials too. After all, on a flight that long, you can have a multi-course meal and then get a full night’s sleep (and still have several more hours to go before wheels down). Unfortunately, it does not offer such luxuries. It doesn’t matter if you’re flying 800 miles or 8,000 miles, everyone in business class is issued…
…a thin-and-scratchy pillow and a comforter that’s equally scratchy. Nothing more, nothing less. If you’re picky you’re going to be out of luck. Heaven forbid if you’re on a too-warm plane and don’t have the option to sleep under a thinner blanket instead!
Flying on such long flights means that you’re bound to make more than a few trips to the loo, but despite that, Cathay neglects its lavatories more than it should. They’re fine and kept mostly clean…
…and some are even quite spacious on board its 777s.
But going back to Qatar Airways, its 777s have equally spacious lavatories and somehow, some way, they manage to look near-palatial too.
Again, there’s nothing wrong with what Cathay has, but there’s also nothing noteworthy either. For something to be considered among the best in the world, Cathay needs to be looking more like Qatar.
And this goes beyond appearance too. Notice the small touches that Qatar has in its bathrooms, like the dental and shaving kits sitting out on the counter. This isn’t necessarily expected in business class, but Cathay doesn’t come close to offering this level of service; it’s another difference that highlights why Qatar is one of the best and Cathay is just fine.
But of course, no one is going to be choosing an airline based on whether or not there are complimentary toothbrushes in the lavatory. There are aspects of the soft product that are far more important than this, and while Cathay may be stagnant when it comes to its hard product, at least it has excellent catering.
As is the case with a lot of Asian airlines, Cathay offers both “eastern” and “western” menu options, and consistently executes both styles quite deliciously. While some of the presentations might be a little bit questionable…
…you’ll have to take my word: the flavors and textures are superb. This is airplane food done right, and unlike so other meals on other carriers, Cathay’s aren’t terribly unhealthy for you either. The same can all be written for the “western” food too. Even Cathay’s signature hamburger and fries has fewer calories than a McDonald’s Big Mac (although that’s not exactly the standard bearer for healthy eating!) but tastes far better (but again, fast food isn’t the typical mark of excellence).
The issue that lies with Cathay Pacific is that while its dining options are good, they are, similar to the hard product, hardly unique. There are plenty of other airlines that serve excellent food too. Forgive me for bringing up the same comparison again and again, but Qatar Airways too offers an extensive menu that represents a number of cuisines and culinary styles, and British Airways has been investing quite a bit in its dining offerings. While all three serve similar quality dishes, not all are considered equal.
The hottest new trend in business class service is to operate on a “dine-on-demand” model. With this, you, the passenger, get to decide when it is you’ll be served the appetizers, the main courses, the desserts, and the snacks in between. This is objectively great because it offers so much flexibility; the most obvious benefit of such is that people can better adjust and maintain their body clocks as they see fit, among other things. It won’t surprise you to learn that Qatar Airways offers this service model and Cathay Pacific does not. Cathay once tried to implement it, but ultimately ditched those plans because of the challenges it presented. That’s fine, but it’s also telling: the other airlines with the best business classes have all figured out how to execute dine-on-demand. Cathay has not.
To reiterate, the past 1,600 words shouldn’t be read as: “Cathay Pacific sucks!” It doesn’t. The seats are comfortable, the bathrooms are clean, and the food is good. What more could you want for a long haul flight? Besides, even in its weakest areas, Cathay is still well above average. However, it could still stand to get a lot better, and thankfully, management is gradually steering the company in the right direction and addressing its flaws. For instance, the planes in the Cathay fleet used to have archaic in flight entertainment systems and no wifi. For a top-tier business class, both are unacceptable. Slowly but surely though, high definition monitors are being installed and speedy yet relatively cheap internet is now available on select aircraft.
If Cathay Pacific worked to enhance its onboard offering in the same way that it’s improving its IFE situation, then Cathay’s business class would legitimately be in the top tier. There are clear and obvious ways forward: even just including another blanket, a bigger pillow, and providing toothbrushes in the lavatory would make a noticeable difference. Bigger changes, like dine-on-demand and a new seat model, would be harder to implement but not impossible. It’s just a matter of getting there.
Perhaps Cathay’s leadership can look to its flight attendants for inspiration. While the rest of the business class product may not be, its cabin crews are truly world class. They’re attentive without being overbearing, and proactive without being grating. Plus, they’re fun and don’t take themselves too seriously… but they also never sacrifice their professional demeanors. Should you have a request, you can trust that the person helping you will bend over backwards to get you what it is you desire. If the rest of the business class offering can reflect their excellence, then it will genuinely have a claim to among the best in the world. Until then, Cathay can only pretend.
What do you think? Is Cathay Pacific’s business class product overrated, or is it one of the best in the world?