Good Advice Tried and Tested

Cathay Pacific B777-300ER Premium Economy

04/10/2012

BACKGROUND Since 2010, Cathay Pacific has been mulling over the idea of a premium economy cabin and finally, on February 25, the carrier unveiled this highly anticipated new product fitted on a Boeing B777-300ER. I was fortunate enough to be on the exclusive delivery flight from Seattle.

CHECK-IN/BOARDING Prior to check-in, there was a colourful ribbon-cutting ceremony at the Future of Flight Aviation Centre in Everett, Washington, US, complete with dragon dances. When the ceremony ended, we were told to clear security and immigration at two small counters set up especially for the occasion at the corner of the facility. As there was no one but journalists and a few members of the Cathay Pacific and Boeing teams, the process was quick and easy.

THE SEAT Currently this is the only Cathay Pacific aircraft to consist of three new cabins: in addition to the premium economy, the plane is also fitted with a refreshed economy and the business class seats unveiled in 2010. But it does not have the first class cabin because it will be used on routes such as the Hong Kong-Toronto, where demand for economy is higher. The new configuration means the economy cabin has 268 seats, up from the previous number of 238 for the B777-300ER (for more on the economy cabin, see side bar on opposite page); 40 business class divided into two cabins; and 32 premium economy seats. The plane also consists of an entirely new in-flight entertainment system.

According to chief operation officer Ivan Chu, who was also on the flight, it took Cathay two years from design to production to develop the premium economy cabin. The space feels more “premium” and exclusive than economy, with just four rows in a 2-4-2 configuration. The seats themselves – in the carrier’s signature emerald green – are comfortable, with a 19.5-inch width, 38-inch pitch and an eight-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 screen. There is a separate cocktail table on the centre armrest with a swing-out peanut tray and a footrest that slides down. Also, the meal table, stored in the armrest, is generous in size (it was large enough for my 15-inch MacBook Pro).

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 seat instead of the seat in front, and of course there is more legroom.

Alex McGowan, Cathay Pacific general manager of products, said the seats were initially designed to all feature the extendable leg rest found in the front row, but, “after many rounds of design review and mock-up trials, the leg rests were found to be inappropriate for standard row seating as they tend to become obstacles for the middle seat passengers entering and exiting their seats”.

The same goes for the seatback-mounted in-flight entertainment systems, which were initially designed to be stored in the armrest as is the case for the front row. But, again, this would be an inconvenience for the middle passengers.

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 economy class, which consists of four rows. If the flight is full, this might be an inconvenience.

THE FLIGHT The service provided to premium economy passengers on the ground and in-flight is what really differentiates this product from economy. At the airport, premium economy passengers will have dedicated check-in counters and up to 25kg of free baggage allowance as opposed to 23kg in economy. Passengers are entitled to a glass of juice or champagne upon boarding, and three out of the four meal options available in business class. Furthermore, there will be at least one flight attendant dedicated to taking care of passengers in the new cabin. All in all, the software is very similar to business class.

Once the giddy excitement of all the new products on the plane wore off, we prepared for our departure. Truth be told, the seat is comfortable enough to doze off in, which is what I did as the flight took off, and when I woke up I found that everyone else was still fast asleep.

The menu options consisted of a choice between grilled beef, kung po chicken and porcini ravioli. My pre-ordered vegetarian meal was of great quality and definitely better than anything I’ve had in economy.  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 will do. All seats also have their own universal power outlets. Passengers also get the same noise-cancelling headphones found in business class.

WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE The front row seats of this cabin are the best with the extra legroom, which combined with the recline means you can sleep comfortably. Fortunately, the cabin does not have its own galley so there isn’t any noise for passengers in this row or the last row of the cabin.

ARRIVAL Our flight landed smoothly and on time at 1955. And since there were so few of us onboard this special delivery flight, disembarking was swift and painless.

VERDICT It has taken Cathay Pacific a while to answer the growing demand for premium economy, but it has come up with a product that warrants the wait. The software and hardware of the new product draw on many elements from business class, making it a great package overall.

Fact File

PLANE TYPE B777-300ER

CONFIGURATION 2-4-2

PITCH 38in/96cm

WIDTH 19.5in/49cm

RECLINE 8in/20cm

PRICE Toronto will be one of the first routes to have premium economy, and a return mid-week flight in May is priced at HK$19,040 (US$2,452)

CONTACT www.cathaypacific.com

Alisha Haridasani