For decades now Cathay Pacific has been highly acclaimed for its “Cathay Service”. The following is an in-depth look at operations from the customer perspective, where I experienced a flight in Cathay’s latest 777-300ER Business Class Cabin taking me from Paris CDG to Hong Kong and back. The following are impressions on how well Cathay meets today’s savvy Business Class customer expectations from “pre-process” (what happens in the phase leading up to the core service), “process” (from online check-in through in-flight service to departure) and “post-process” (post-departure customer recognition) of their premium paying customer segment. Along the narrative, I will challenge the airlines reputed “Cathay Service” and encourage the reader to actively participate in a productive point-of-view exchange forum following the report.
The Pre-Process – The Cathay Website – off to a rough start
As I get excited for my flight, I log on to the Cathay Pacific website. The first impression I get is that it looks pretty professional. It has a good corporate feel albeit ‘innovative’ is not the term I would employ when browsing their site – I would rather call it standardized and functional, i.e. it’s what you’d expect. I have a look around to see if I can find the seating chart as I am curious to know what seat my travel agent had reserved for me. I just really want to make sure that I have my say about where I sit on the 12-hour day-time flight to Hong Kong and I would imaging many others doing similar.
After I enter my details under the “Manage my booking” tab, the page loading my details takes a whopping 20 seconds to display my itinerary. Now that’s quite a wait in this day and age, especially as I am surfing on a high speed 100 Mbit connection. Just to make sure I was not mistaking, I load the page again going through the same process, yet again, another 20 second wait for the page to pop up…hmm. I decide to conduct a website speed test with Pindgom (Figure 1 below) just to confirm my suspicion that this was not normal. I also double checked with Google’s Page Speed Insight that confirmed the issue.
I eventually see my reservations bookings popping up on the screen, but clearly there is room for improvement on Cathay’s website when wanting to pull up the flight itinerary and details:
Finding out how and where to access the seating chart also turned out to be quite cumbersome, but I eventually managed. As I dread sitting in the middle of the plane, over the wing portions or close to the alleys, I settle for seat 20A for my first leg and decided to wait for the online check-in 48-hours prior to departure to see if I could move up to the more private front cabin just behind First Class – rows 11 and 12.
Preparing for Travel (transitioning from the pre-process to the process stage)
Traveling is fun, it gets you out of your routine, makes you explore places you have perhaps never been before and makes you engage with new food and cultures. In today’s world, which is ever so dominated by a fast pace restlessness where we are literally glued to screens and are in permanent conflict with the mass of information that hits us and ever so often makes us loose that focus to decide on what really counts, the notion of time gains in importance. That said, we want to maximize our pleasure with the time available we have to ourselves. Traveling, if either on business or leisure, is part of such valuable time slots where we generally accept that travel time is not work time, due to the disruption transferring to and from the means of transport we use (if the reader is one of those workaholics I might have offended you here as down time might not be part of your common vocabulary, nor the vocabulary you would want your employees to use too casually…but you should consider this blog as an exchange platform on challenging the premium carriers on their current offering to make your life easier).
Fact is, old world premium carriers are far too often stuck in the past and resting on their laurels of their long standing reputation. True customer service, however, has suffered. Cathay Pacific, being on the more qualitative end of the spectrum is most probably pretty much aware of who their competitors are and what they are doing (just in case I am not clear here, I am talking about the need to listen to your customers…).
You never get a second chance for a first impression
Leaving a positive good first impression is key, and Cathay has a great opportunity to better connect with their premium passenger segment in the pre-process stages of travel, i.e. getting to know their customer’s needs and wants, and this before the plane leaves the gate. Similar to high end luxury hotels that reach out to you around 72 to 48-hours prior to your arrival, providing you with the opportunity to get in touch and to customize your stay. They might provide other simply things such as the expected weather conditions during your stay, any events happening or local news allowing you to tune you in to your destination. In brief, there is always an opportunity to connect and actively ENGAGE with your customer. It beats me why, in times where social media is thriving and customer feedback has a major impact on our “e-reputation” score, large organizations still not feel the need or capitalize on the opportunities evidently outline to them to create a competitive advantage. Here’s what Cathay Pacific does: Nothing.
And so, here’s my take on managing the pre-process stage of customer engagement:
We need to think about how our customer first reaches out to our brands and look at the issue from a customer experience point of view, i.e. we might know and be well aware that there is a 20 second wait for the site to pop up in this example, but did anybody ever wonder what the customer is actually experiencing? I can tell you that every second above and beyond the expected wait time is detrimental to the overall experience and might haunt you down when things go wrong from that point onward. And on a side note, statistics tell that it takes 12 positive experiences to make up for one poor one, we therefore need to identify the pitfalls where perceptions risk being altered and try to improve those initial contact stages.
If I had to rate my overall impression of the website experience and performance (compared to what is practiced with today’s technological advancements), i.e. the sites speed and design, I would rate it a 7 out of 10 (as in the end I did manage to access the information and the site did allow me to change my seat). But again, no WOW.
Cathay Pacific’s Online Check-In (Process Mode):
Cathay’s Online check in seating chart. A lot of room for improvement to provide a more playful experience. Even Cathay Pacific’s app provides a better visual than their main website.
Cathay’s site gets a 7 out of a 10 rating from me for its online-check in, mainly for functionality, not for design.
At the Airport (Process Mode)
the Cathay Pacific Paris Lounge
I will spare you the delight of walking through CDG’s outdated terminals and get straight to the point: The Cathay Pacific Paris Lounge. No frills and pretty standard. You do have a nice view onto the tarmac with some nice individual pods to work in private and make your calls. The room layout is quite odd and creating some unique different zones could help. They tried to do this but it doesn’t really work. Their famous noodle bar is kind of crammed in to a corner loo
king like a street food station (but maybe this was the intention!). Overall this space kind of reflects the poor CDG airport planning which does not compare at all with the standards that have been set by other major hubs such as Doha, Dubai, Singapore’s Changi airport, just to name but a few and where the customer satisfaction and delight lie at the core of any design.
Standard beverage selections, nothing high end with some very basic wines.
Cathay’s legendary noodle bar – a nice feature prior to the long haul departure.
My Lounge Rating (featuring the bare necessities and a noodle stand): 6 out of 10
Cathay Pacific’s 777-300ER Inflight Service (Process mode)
Following the flight boarding call, I find to my seat. These Business Class seats, or rather pods, have been designed in a 1-2-1 configuration and in a way for maximum privacy and functionality. That way you can stretch out and transform the seat into a 180 degree flatbed. Their disadvantage: You don’t have a great view outside the window as you are just too far away, so that it doesn’t really matter if you are seated in the center or at the window side of the plane.
Prior to take off a hot towel and a glass of champagne are served as you would expect. Staff seem to be preoccupied with pre-flight arrangements and I had always wondered why on all the planes they are always whizzing around so much prior to departure. Shouldn’t a lot of whatever the cabin attendants need to do be done prior to welcoming the guests so that we can really pay attention to the customers? Isn’t there an opportunity here to strive to create a more relaxing atmosphere?
Nice touch to start off the lunch service with a nice glass of wine and some nuts after takeoff.
The Paper menu in heavy stock is really a nice touch. It’s something I like to keep close on hand as I browse the food and wine selection which I always look forward to on flights.
The wine and spirits selection is sub standard for a business class flights. Other carriers feature more prestigious champagne and wine options, such as Qatar Airways, which proposes a rosé and white champagne option and offers Grand Cru Classé wines from Bordeaux or Premier Cru wines from the Burgundy region as a sign of appreciation for the business class customer business.
The overall meal was served at the right temperature although the cold appetizers are always served almost ice cold. Yet still, it’s just what you would expect with no further special attention to the individual passengers. I can think of a couple of ideas to create a difference here:
Offering a wine tasting among the different wines they feature or recommending a wine pairing with the food, or what about a unique and mouth watering cocktail trolley for an aperitif that would entice the passengers to go for the signature cocktail presented on the menu (more visual effects), a casual conversation with the head purser or the cabin manager to show the engagement.
Staff make an effort of introducing themselves to you at the beginning of the service using your name…once, throughout the flight – not sure if this adds to the customer recognition program they seem to have. This is probably the greatest opportunity has to customize the experience to leave a lasting impression. So, in the end, will you remember the human touch and unique service elements or the food you had on a plane. I truly believe its the human touch.
And so my overall impression of the inflight service (some nice touches, lack of “real” recognition, albeit some sincere elements, yet overall highly standardized leading to a lack of uniqueness) is a rating of 7 out of 10.
Return flight at Hong Kong Airport (HKG) – Cathay Pacific’s The Pier Business Class Lounge
Now this is a fun lounge and my return trip kicks off on a good note. A real bar with a real bartender behind the counter. Unique areas with different atmospheres throughout the lounge, a restaurant style lounge, Cathay Pacific’s noodle stall, relaxation and meeting areas and zones and nice interior design. I wish I could have started here as this amazing lounge sets a new standard.
On a sour note, as a first impression when I arrived at the lounge check in I saw about 7 employees standing there for a lounge that was pretty empty, yet no other employees throughout the lounge except for one bartender. Couldn’t one of the staff have done a walk-through to check the flight details with the customers to provide them updated information or engage with them in another way. And so I stand strong on my opinion that creating lasting impressions and memories is all about people…
The lounge gets a 8 out of 10 rating for their great features and design, but the human touch was missing.
Getting off the flight and Post-Process engagement
Cathay Pacific got us to Paris ahead of time and although I have a hard time sleeping on planes (even with a 180 degree recline and some wine in me), I felt that I had a good flight. As we taxi to the gate, the final announcements are made. Upon debarking, a final thank you is expressed and – that’s it. No further personalized service or offer of assistance, and it is here where organizations can make a real difference. Ensuring that the experience carries all the way through to your final destination, as in hotel, home or meeting place.
Further there had not been any follow up email or engagement efforts, questionnaires, personalized thank you notes from the cabin crew (a nice personal touch). Once you step off that plane the service is done, over, good-bye and lets get ready for the new passengers… But it shouldn’t and I challenge Cathay to get it right here (Some carriers offer a limousine service included in the business class travel price)!
Finally, following my travels I have ever since been trying to convince Cathay to credit me with the Asiamiles, as there had been a minor surname spelling mistake – not a good way to part…
I will rate the last impression – the customer departure, with a 6 out of 10 – simply standard and no where near unique.
And so based on my personal impressions and experiences traveling on Cathay, my final Rating hovers around a 7 out of a 10, knowing that other carriers truly strive to add emotions and sensations where Cathay struggles to think outside of the box.
Cathay Pacific’s Business Cabin
The Cabin feels nice and has a clean look and I really enjoy traveling on the 777’s as I personally think these aircraft provide for the most room, or at least they provide the traveler with a unique sensation of spaciousness in the air. Yet whilst layout is a key factor, optimization of seat layout remains to be mastered at Cathay Pacific. In their triple seven 1 – 2 – 1 seat herringbone configuration (i.e. for each row there is 1 seat at each window side and 2 seats in the center of the plane), there just seems to be too much space wasted as too much room is used up on a horizontal, or seating level. A lot of unused space left available hovers above your heads and to your left and right. For example, how many people use the little cabinet where your headphones a nicely hung up or how many people use the full side table space when, after all, you have to keep that space clear during take off and landing?
Closing Comments for Cathay’s Business Class Service
Cathay Pacific still prides itself with its “Legendary Cathay Service”, but its competitors are catching up quickly. In order to remain competitive in this ever changing travel market, airlines need to analyze and assess on how they can make a difference.
Excellence and perfection can be achieved but have to be designed strategically in order to create that Ultimate Customer Experience. That said, premium carriers understanding the impact that Pre-Process (all elements preceding THE experience), Process (THE Experience) and Post-Process (post departure follow up) have, strategically analyzing on how to better serve their customers and focusing on non compromising service will prevail over the long haul.
After all, customer satisfaction should lie at the heart of any hospitality operation.
And so it’s not that much anymore about doing the right things but rather doing the things right. Doing the things that make a difference. Beyond that it’s also about gaining a competitive edge against the competition and listening to what the customer really wants.
And hence my impression is that Cathay Pacific still seems to be taking advantage of their market leader position but should be mindful that it really needs to build on the customer experience by asking themselves what their passengers are actually really experiencing throughout their interaction with the carrier. There is a lot of low hanging fruit and easy wins out there. Time will tell if such large carriers, often stuck up in red tape, will understand that it’s time to make a difference as customer choice is ever increasing and passengers are becoming increasingly aware by voting with their wallets.
Finally, you might have realized, my travel was on February the 14th – another easy winner to offer a pink champagne or to tie in Valentine’s day into the dessert selection, or, at the minimum, have the captain simple wish everyone a Happy Valentine’s Day, yet looking for such thoughtfulness might just be pushing the envelope too far…