EXCLUSIVE | Cathay Pacific 's Airbus A350 business class seat will be 'evolution not revolution' compared to the current design, while all-new first class suites may be fitted only to half of its A350-1000 fleet.
The third generation of Cathay's lie-flat business class – internally codenamed FB3 – is being shaped by Porsche Design Group but will be more of a measured advance on the airline's award-winning FB2 product (below).
According to James Barrington, Cathay Pacific's Director of Corporate Development, "big changes are no longer available in a business class seat, although we still try to put in place incremental changes."
"The product we're going to put on the A350-900 and -1000 will be slightly different and slightly better than the Boeing 777-300ER, but the real differentiator will be the service proposition" Barrington told Australian Business Traveller at an event to mark the airline's 40th anniversary of flying non-stop from Hong Kong to Sydney.
"We will be taking the existing product and making some enhancements that we think will make a difference to passengers, but those won't be revolutionary changes."
Cathay Pacific A350 first class
As for first class, Barrington suggested that only some of the airline's 26-strong A350-1000 fleet will include the new suites while the rest of the planes will be outfitted in three classes (business, premium economy and economy).
"We won't have first class in the A350-900s, although we've ordered the Boeing 777-9X which will definitely have first class" Barrington revealed. "Now we're looking at how many A350-1000s will have first class."
"There are clearly a small number of ultra-long haul markets with a high demand for first class such as New York, Los Angeles, Chicago and London" Barrington added, drawing a comparison with Cathay Pacific's long-range Boeing 777-300ER jets – only some of which have first class.
"When we take take delivery of all our 777s, and there's 53 in all, I think 32 will have first class. We tailor the aircraft type to the market and the demand with a mixture of four-class and three-class aircraft."
Cathay's flights from Hong Kong to Vancouver, for example, use a four-class Boeing 777 if the service continues to New York but a three-class jet for the flight when terminates in Vancouver.
Similarly, of the two daily flights to San Francisco, one includes first class while the other tops out at business class.
"You don’t want to find yourself turning away first class or business class demand" Barrington said.
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PREVIOUS | Cathay Pacific will launch new designs for its business class and economy seats on its Airbus A350 fleet from early 2016.
The airline has hired Porsche Design Group to craft its next-gen business class seats, codenamed ‘FB3’ as it will be Cathay’s third flatbed business class.
Also on the roster is London-based Tangerine, perhaps best known as the former home of Apple design guru Jony Ive, which is responsible for Cathay's new economy seats.
In addition Tangerine has won a ‘tip to tail’ brief to design the cabin interiors for all three classes on the Airbus A350.
A spokesman for the airline confirmed to Australian Business Traveller “we are working with the companies mentioned” but declined to comment further.
Cathay Pacific is likely to roll out a new first class for the larger A350-1000 jets, of which it has 26 on order from 2018. However, the spokesman told Australian Business Traveller “we have not begun work on first class yet and no decisions of any sort have been made.”
The Hong Kong flag-carrier is buying 48 of the next-gen Airbus jets, generally held as a challenger to Boeing’s 787 Dreamliner, which will allow Cathay to retire its current Boeing 747s and Airbus A340s for the advanced and more fuel-efficient airplane.
Toby Smith, Cathay’s General Manager, Product, tells Australian Business Traveller that the first of 22 mid-size Airbus A350-900s “is scheduled for February 2016”, and will sport a three-class configuration with business, premium economy and economy class.
This will be followed “sometime in 2018, we don’t have an exact month yet” by the larger A350-1000, for which Cathay has 26 on order and will carry a compact first class cabin.
“We’ll have (all) 48 of the A350s by 2020” Smith forecasts.
CX: "We can't afford to stand still"
Speaking to Australian Business Traveller in late 2012 Toby Smith, Cathay’s General Manager, Product, said the airline was “very proud” of its current business class seat – a second-generation flatbed product "which we internally call FB2.
"But it’s going to be just over three years before our first A350-900 delivery in early 2016 and a lot can happen in a competitive marketplace.”
“We can’t afford to stand still, and our competitors don’t stand still either. So we’re continuing to look to see whether there are further enhancements, essentially something new we might deliver in FB3.”
Airlines have adopted lie-flat beds, direct aisle access and increased personal space as the cornerstones of ‘state of the art’ business class, putting pressure on Cathay Pacific which is widely considered as having the world’s best business class seat.
Increasing the stakes is the wave of orders for new aircraft designs such as the Airbus A350 and Boeing 787-9, and from 2020 the Boeing 777X. Airlines often align the debut of new seats to the launch of their impressive new flagships.
What goes into making a great business class seat? Here are seven things you didn't know about Cathay Pacific's new business class.
While many airlines have moved to fully flat beds, Smith believes that the laggards with sloping sleepers are poised to close the gap.
“There is a risk over the next few years that competitors that (today) have slightly sloped seats are going to catch up, and flatbeds and a 15” screen becomes the minimum expectation.”
So how do you make today’s first class suites and business class seats even better?
“I think that’s the challenge for us, what do you do next? I mean, you can’t get flatter than flat!” Smith laughs. “You might make it a little bit wider or a little bit longer, but if you’ve got a bed that takes someone who’s 6’ 2”, 6’ 3”, that’s probably going to be good enough.”
“There are clearly enhancements in IT and connectivity which we’ll be focusing on” he predicts, along with suggestions that the next wave of seats will embrace incredibly fine attention to detail and the overall experience rather than any single killer feature.
“For us it’s (about) some of the smaller details in terms of the finish and really making sure that when passengers get onboard they know they’ve deserved an absolutely premium product” Smith reasons.
“Perhaps it’s trying to think of some of those smaller details that just make that journey that much better.”
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About David Flynn
David Flynn is the editor of Australian Business Traveller and a bit of a travel tragic with a weakness for good coffee, shopping and lychee martinis.