Thursday, September 10, 2009

Flying to Cathay...with Cathay

Cathay is of course, a charming, nostalgia-drenched name for China. More than that, it's the name of a thoroughly modern airline, Cathay Pacific Airways, which I have just flown to Hong Kong, to kick-off a 17-day trip in Asia.

As a person who flies a lot, in nearly every region of the planet, I can attest to this Hong Kong carrier's quality. It's easily one of the world's top 10 airlines for customer care and efficiency - and may well be one of the top 5. Of course, it helps, on any airline, to fly in the front of the plane, which I did. I was originally booked into business class, which would have been just fine, but was upgraded to first class when I arrived at San Francisco International Airport for my departure. I didn't argue.

First class is called first class for a reason. You get the best food, the best wine, the most comfy seats, the most personal attention from the cabin crew. All this was much in evidence. Cathay Pacific's first class amenities include a soft, roomy set of pajamas made for the airline by Shanghai Tang, the trendy Hong Kong retailer. As for overhead bins, perish the thought; the front of the plane includes a small passenger closet, complete with hangers for your jacket, built into the hard shell that surrounds the seat. The seat itself, a new type just now being installed across Cathay's fleet, converts into a perfect flatbed when the cabin lights go down. I took a 13.5 hour, all-night flight to Hong Kong, so that re-engineered seat helped a lot. I still feel the movable segments in airplane seats, though, and - perhaps perversely - spend as much time in a semi-reclining position as in a full flatbed on long-haul flights. It seems to me like an old overstuffed reclining armchair that way - something like a Lay-Z-Boy in the sky.

Oh, the 888 music CDs in the newly expanded in-flight entertainment system help long flights go by quickly, too. My flight even departed and arrived on time - something that's become increasingly rare in U.S. domestic air travel and a problem I - like many of you - encountered during the peak summer travel season this year. If only all flights could be like this one.

Cathay has managed to keep its high service standards in spite of being hammered, like so many airlines, in today's difficult business environment. Long-haul business travel is a mainstay for Cathay, which flies only international routes from its base in compact Hong Kong. Cathay employees told me that the company, which has lost money in recent quarters, has had employees take unpaid days off, but that no one has yet lost their job. This, too, is in contrast to many airlines, where layoffs have been counted in the thousands during the Great Recession - one cntributing factor to spotty service.

I don't mean to imply that this is a perfect airline; it's not. There is no such airline. But dedication to quality shows. I have flown Cathay's economy class, too, and, no, it's not the equal of business or first, but it's good. Cathay Pacific gets it right nearly all the time, making it a carrier I actually look forward to flying.

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