Cathay Pacific’s new premium economy seats strike a near-perfect balance between economy and business class.
Having travelled for 14 hours from Seattle to Hong Kong on a factory-fresh Boeing 777 fitted with CX premium economy (and also the new international economy seats), Australian Business Traveller can attest that these comfortable and legroom-friendly seats are definitely more than just an ‘economy plus’ experience.
They also share some high-value business class touches.
Above and below are the two 'hero shots', lovingly crafted by Cathay Pacific's PR & marketing people, which you'll see time and time again in advertisements and travel publications.
But what are the seats – especially those which aren't in the very front row – really like?
Here’s our world first review of Cathay Pacific’s premium economy seats, which launch next month and will be rolled out to all of Cathay’s long-range fleet.
Cathay’s Premium Economy cabin is sandwiched between business and economy, with a curtain separating both classes of travellers.
It’s a compact space with only 28 seats on an Airbus A330, and 32 on a Boeing 777.
In the Boeing 777 there are four rows (numbered 30-33) with the seats in a 2-4-2 layout.
The Airbus A330, which will be seen on Australia-Hong Kong flights, has four rows in a 2-3-2 configuration.
One flight attendant is dedicated to premium economy, with additional crew available to help out from either the business or economy teams depending on the number of passengers in each cabin.
The cabin has a cosy feel but Cathay’s shift towards a slightly softer green than the airline’s traditional ‘sea green’, shot with subtle threads of gold (similar to CX business class) keeps things on the light side.
On the Boeing 777 there's a unique 'peek-a-boo' slot at the front of the premium economy cabin, carved into the bulkhead wall between premium economy and business class.
This isn't to stoke upgrade jealousy in premium economy passengers – rather, it's a safety measure so that the cabin crew can have a clear line of sight to all passengers during take-off and landing.
Once the plane in in steady flight, a partition slides up from the wall to reduce your 'J class jealousy'.
As there’s no toilet in the premium economy cabin, passengers must head to the very first toilet in economy, which is four rows behind at the rear of the first economy section.
Cathay Pacific exec Ivan Chu describes the new premium economy seat as being “more premium than economy”, but in fact it’s a business class seat used on domestic and regional business class flights which has been modified by Cathay to better suit ‘long haul’ international flights.
The canny decision to use a business class seat gives Cathay Pacific a substantial head start in the premium economy stakes.
The seat pitch is 38 inches – six inches more than Cathay’s economy class – which provides plenty of legroom.
What's this 'seat pitch' business all about, how is it measured and what does it mean? Read out article and get seat-savvy!
Of course, the very front row has even more legroom.
Each of the first row of seats in the premium economy cabin is fitted with a plush inbuilt leg rest.
Add the pop-up video screen and extra legroom and row 30 is clearly the place to be in premium economy – as long as you’re willing to gamble on a baby travelling in one of the bulkhead bassinet positions (located in front of each block of window seats).
All premium economy seats in the other three rows have a three-position footrest.
The seat is 19.5 inches wide, compared to around 18 inches for Cathay’s economy seat.
That extra 1.5 inches makes a noticeable difference, no doubt helped by the wide armrests (which are capped with leather) as well as the seat’s padding, scalloped side panels and lumbar support.
There’s an 8 inch recline which keeps plenty of space around the knees, even if the person in front of you fully reclines their seat.
However, you’ll find it hard to use your laptop – even a compact 13 inch Ultrabook – as the screen can’t be pushed back much past the vertical position.
Here's how things look for the tech-toting traveller when seat in front is in its regular position...
... and here's the scene when that seat is fully reclined.
Each seat has its own AC power outlet with an international socket, mounted in a centre block between each pair of seats.
For eating, working or reading there’s a standard bi-fold table.
Each pair of seats also shares a small centrally-located table and has its own tiny swing-out surface which Cathay perhaps over-generously calls a ‘cocktail table’.
We’d be somewhat cautious about resting a drink there: at around 8cm on the diagonal (slightly less than the length of a business card) and sitting out perilously close to your leg, we predict many an accident involving spilled drinks and swearing.
That said, it’ll prove a handy resting spot for iPods, iPhones and the like if you’re using them for some in-flight music.
There’s also the option of playing video from your iDevice onto the 10.6 inch screen, in the event that your entertainment desires are not sated by Cathay’s exceptional collection of movies and TV shows on its Studio CX network.
While a USB port sits adjacent to each screen, this is only capable of recharging your smartphone, tablet or other USB-powered device.
To get video from your iDevice onto the in-seat screen you’ll need to use the round multi-pin video plug below the USB socket, using a special adaptor cable which can be borrowed from the cabin crew.
This has Apple’s unit iPod/iPhone connector on one end and plugs into the round multi-pin socket directly below the USB port.
You can then control video playback straight from your iDevice.
Most CX flights already carry around 10 of these adaptors to be used in business class, which already has the same capability.
We’re told this number will increase to 20 at launch. It remains to be seen if that’s sufficient, especially as Cathay’s new economy seats also have the same capability.
Cathay says they’ll monitor the demand for adaptors and increase the per-plane allocation if needs be.
However, if you’re a regular CX traveller we suggest buying your own in-flight adaptor cable (such as Griffin's eXport) to avoid being caught short, as Cathay doesn’t sell these through their in-flight duty-free service.
We were also surprised that the entertainment system doesn’t share the touchscreen technology of the video panels in Cathay’s new economy class.
Commenting on this oddity of premium passengers getting a less-than-economy entertainment experience, CX exec Ivan Chu says this is because the economy seats were finalised later in the product timetable than premium economy.
“We were able to make use of the latest touchscreen system in economy but it wasn’t ready when we were developing the premium economy hardware with its larger screen” Chu told Australian Business Traveller.
However, Chu admitted that despite the rapid roll-out of premium economy “there are no plans to upgrade premium economy to touchscreen at this time.”
To the left of the seatback video screen is a coat hanger hook, while directly below is a nook for stowing personal items.
It’s over a foot long but is quite narrow and shallow, with small cut-outs with CX says is to help passengers see what they’ve stowed and hopefully avoid items being forgotten and left behind.
This nook is about the right size for your smartphone or iPod, your own earbuds, a snack bar, a pair of reading glasses (but not in their case) and, well, we’re not sure what else… but it’s better to have that one hidey-hole than none at all.
Premium economy passengers get the same noise-cancelling headphones handed out to business class...
... along with a business class pillow, which is larger and better padded than its economy counterpart.
Ditto for the blanket, another item shared with the pointy end of the plane, which is a softer and gentler weave than the standard economy throw.
The amenities kit is on the sparse side – there’s nothing which you honestly shouldn’t be getting in economy, such as a simple moisturiser.
So when can you fly the new seats?
The new premium economy service will officially debut on April 1st on selected flights between Hong Kong and Sydney (CX101/100), New York (CX830/831), Vancouver (CX888/889) and Toronto (CX826/827, CX828/829).
However, premium economy will appear on some of those flights – including the Sydney-Hong Kong route – from March 1st, with four weeks of free upgrades offered to 'high-value frequent flyers' from Marco Polo and oneworld partner airlines who happen to be travelling in economy.
Cathay has priced its premium economy tickets at about 50% above economy prices.
The cost of a Sydney-Hong Kong return flight in mid-April averages $2,300 for premium economy, compared to economy rates hovering around the $1,500 mark for the same period.
(Depending on the dates of travel, the lowest premium economy return fare is $2,176 while economy sits just shy of $1,200.)
Our first impressions of Cathay Pacific’s premium economy seat are very positive.
Anything which boosts competition in business travel is A Good Thing, and Cathay Pacific is now the third airline offering premium economy between Sydney and Hong Kong, alongside Qantas and Virgin Atlantic.
Premium economy gives companies a viable option between the low cost but uncomfortable and unproductive world of economy and business class, which offers plenty of creature comforts but at a very high price.
We’ll put the whole premium economy experience to a full test later this week, on the first premium economy-equipped CX100 flight from Sydney to Hong Kong.
More AusBT stories on Cathay Pacific
- Cathay Pacific to begin trials of inflight Internet mid-year
- Cathay to begin The Wing First Class Lounge renovations in March
- Cathay Pacific re-opens Wing Business Lounge at Hong Kong Airport
- Lounge Review: Cathay Pacific's The Cabin, Hong Kong Airport
- Review: Cathay Pacific’s new business class seats
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.