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From mattresses to dining on demand, Cathay Pacific joins airline race to up business-class perks

By Danny Lee | South China Morning Post | 19 November 2017
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Strong competition and financial pressures mean carriers have to outthink and outdo each other for premium customers.

Business-class perks across some of the world’s leading airlines are set to reach new heights, as the expectations of travellers grow.

Seats that recline fully, direct aisle access, fine dining, a luxury amenity bag, and a premium selection of in-flight movies are just some of the basic amenities expected by business-class passengers.

In Hong Kong, flagship carrier Cathay Pacific Airways is responding with more immediate upgrades to sleeping facilities, meals and in-flight internet connection. This follows more costly investments by Qatar Airways, which is offering a new seat designed like a first-class suite, and Singapore Airlines, which unveiled a double-bed business-class seat.

The targeted improvements in premium seats by Hong Kong’s flagship airline are a critical part of keeping its business-class offering competitive and profitable as well as enable it to justify higher prices.

Strong demand in the front of the cabin in recent months signalled improved business, Cathay Pacific said. The company aims to claw back from a HK$2.05 billion loss in the first half of the year by restructuring its business and cutting jobs, among other cost-saving measures.

Ben Schlappig, who runs the One Mile at a Time travel review website, said deluxe perks had not yet been demanded by most travellers but were “increasingly becoming the norm rather than the exception”.

Among the top airlines, variations on the amenities exist. Qatar Airways, for example, is one of the few carriers offering pyjamas in business class, while Singapore Airlines does not offer amenity bags to business-class customers despite its reputation as one of the world’s best carriers.

The latest trend of gimmicks and innovations, however, has been a boon to for passengers, Schlappig says, especially because the price of business-class tickets has fallen over the years.

Competition is also back among the big three US airlines: American Airlines, Delta and United Airlines. All three are now hugely profitable and willing to splurge in the global air race on radical improvements to business-class offerings in the air and at airports.

The most innovative and creative concepts have emerged in recent years from the likes of Singapore Airlines,Cathay Pacific, Etihad, Emirates and Qatar Airways, which have all faced financial pressures.

Raymond Kollau from aviation consultancy Airline Trends believed the airlines would “continue to invest in their premium cabins because they want to remain the preferred choice for business travellers as these frequently flying passengers are bringing in the most profits for airlines”.

Cathay Pacific, which in the past won a string of industry awards, including one for the “world’s best business-class seat”, has introduced a trial use of mattresses on some long-haul flights to help travellers sleep better.

It said it would test a “luxurious new mattress pad” on its London Gatwick to Chicago routes for the next two months. The airline hinted at rolling out mattresses for short-haul flights in the face of intense competition from premium and budget carriers in the Asian market.

“This trial is part of a further review of our sleep proposition that includes new services, dining and product concepts to help our customers sleep better, even on shorter flights,” a Cathay Pacific spokeswoman said.

The airline is also planning a gradual roll-out of an upgraded business-class dining menu with an “eat what you want, when you want” concept after a successful trial earlier this summer.

In economy class, pre-booked meals and separately bought higher quality meals are also being explored as Cathay Pacific moves to meet changing customer expectations.

High-speed Wi-fi will be installed across the entire fleet of Cathay Pacific and Cathay Dragon twin-aisle aircraft by 2020, the company announced last week.

Travel review website operator Schlappig believed the availability of mattress pads and dining on demand “would be hugely helpful in allowing Cathay Pacific to compete against Middle Eastern airlines”.

“Business class is all about maximising rest, and both of these features help with that,” he said. “A mattress pad makes for a more comfortable night of sleep, while dining on demand lets passengers sleep when they want to, rather than having to stay up for a meal service.”

But when it comes to other new features, Cathay Pacific is keeping its cards close to its chest. It said it was “listening” to customer feedback about the quality of sleep they are getting as it was reviewing the “overall satisfaction” of new products.

Kollau of Airline Trends said the “next frontier” for business class was enabling customers to create a more personalised environment around them. He cited Emirates’ new first-class suite that allows passengers to adjust the temperature and lighting according to their preferences.