Chris Barnett on Business Travel
Cathay's New Angle on Business Class
September 1, 2011 -- Once a month, Matthieu Rafferstin settles into a business-class seat from San Francisco that morphs into a combo bed, office and personal entertainment center.

His choice of business-class passage? Cathay Pacific Airways. "The bed is really flat and the duvet is really soft," explains the senior executive with a Paris-based wholesaler of electrical products.

Comfort may count, but so does convenience and productivity, he says. Over breakfast on a recent nonstop Boeing 747 flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco, Rafferstin says "I just got 10 hours sleep so now I won't get jet lag. However, there is one drawback. If I'm traveling with a colleague, we can't talk because the privacy partition between the seats is too high."

No longer. Cathay Pacific has a new angle on business-class air travel and it is rolling out a new cabin configuration. It's much more than an upgrade of the seat it first introduced four years ago. It's a radical revision of the original concept with more personal and work space.

I experienced Cathay Pacific's new business class during a recent delivery flight of a fresh-off-the-assembly-line Boeing 777-300ER. On the flight to Hong Kong from Boeing's manufacturing plant in Everett, Washington, I had a window seat and it gave me a feeling of total privacy without a door.

The 1x2x1 configuration places the single seats at a 45 degree angle to the cabin wall and you see no one. You don't even see other passengers walking in the aisles. The "middle seats" in the 1x2x1 configuration are now angled toward each other. That allows two flyers travelling together to virtually face one another and have a conversation.

The cabin interiors are visually soothing. The color scheme mixes soft green, brown and Champagne shades. There is art on the wall and several live orchids are in view. If there weren't wings and engines outside the windows and exotic-looking and exceptionally friendly flight attendants moving through the aisles, you might just think the cabin is an office with 18 creatively designed cubicles.

Apart from repositioning the seats for more privacy and convenience, Cathay's redesign adds plenty of space and lots of clever storage ideas.

The seat itself feels a lot wider, no surprise since it is 21 inches across compared to the former 18.5 inches. The seat also has "wings" and an ottoman.

As a lie-flat bed, the new Cathay product is 82 inches, an inch longer than the prior bed. The "usable" length is 75 inches, four inches more than before. When the seat is converted to a bed, it has an extension and the armrests retract, which makes it 29.5 inches wide. That's six inches wider than the previous version.

The roomier bed makes a whopping difference in comfort, especially if you normally flip around while you're asleep, like I do. It was probably the deepest, soundest sleep I've had on a plane in years.

The increased storage is in response to a survey of Cathay's Marco Polo Club loyalty program. Members were asked what they wanted in a new business class and, apparently, they thundered the word "storage." The new seating compartment is festooned with nifty nooks, bins, cubbies and spaces to hide things that get in your way on a flight.

You can easily slide your laptop, handbag, briefcase or large flat things into a side storage unit. There is a shoe locker and a side cabinet with a door for storing all the things you'd normally carry in your pocket or purse. The cabinet door has a small vanity mirror, too. That's handy when you wake up and want to see how disheveled you look before you walk to the lav. The side cabinet can also be switched around to become a privacy screen. The retractable armrest doubles as a privacy screen.

The space planning is imaginative. Bose noise-suppressing earphones are stowed in a small cabinet that also holds a universal power supply. The power supply has USB ports and other connectors that allow you to couple your personal media devices to a swing-out, 15-inch monitor. The monitor fronts an in-flight entertainment system stocked with 100 movies, 350 television programs, 22 radio channels and more than 800 music CDs.

There's no end of bright ideas built into the seat-bed cubicles. Push a button and an oversize tray table that doubles as a desk slides out. A small "return" gives you two places to work at your laptop or spread out other equipment or paperwork. There's an area for stowing newspapers and magazines and a hook for jackets or coats. The two seats in the middle have a cocktail table that works with a main table and creates the equivalent of a two-person conference table. There are plenty of lighting options for reading and working.

Cathay Pacific has a reputation for quality in-flight fare and doesn't disappoint in the new business class. The presentation has lots of flair, too. Suppers, light meals, snacks and brunch run the gamut of delicious dishes: a thick "rose" fashioned from smoked salmon; dim sum; lobster; scallops; Kung Pao chicken; and lamb. My personal favorite: prawn and wood fungus shui gow dumplings in a noodle soup. The flight attendants, balancing six full-size bottles of premium liquor on silver trays, make frequent visits to each passenger's cubicle.

Six 777-300ERs with the second-generation business class should be in the air by today. Cathay says the new business class is now available on some flights from New York. The Chicago flights launching today will also have the new business class. A Cathay spokesperson says Los Angeles is probably the next city to receive the upgraded cabin. The Hong Kong-Sydney run also has two Airbus A330-330s equipped with the new business class.

Overall, Cathay has 26 B777-300ERs and 15 A330-300s on order. The carrier's 24 Boeing 777s and current A330s will be retrofitted with the new business class. The airline's Boeing 747-400s won't get the new business class because Cathay is phasing out that aircraft.

One other clever twist. Cathay has found a new source of revenue and it's not pick-pocketing your wallet. Click on a movie and you have to sit through six or seven commercials. That's fine by me. Let Bank of America and Mercedes pay to pitch me rather than Cathay imposing a fee for in-flight entertainment.

I actually enjoyed screening the commercials. The spots carried on Cathay flights are produced for international markets. Those overseas commercials are a lot catchier and much more entertaining than the drivel we see on our home TV screens.

Cathay's business class received another facelift when it launched the Airbus A350 aircraft in 2016, the same year it retired its last Boeing 747s. The A350s (pictured above) are notable because they do not have a first class cabin. Cathay's current passenger fleet includes variations of the A350, Boeing 777s and Airbus A330s.

This column is Copyright 2011 by Chris Barnett. is Copyright 2019 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property and responsibility of Chris Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without his express written permission.