26 March 2019
A first-class breakfast: Many Cathay customers complain about paying premium for mediocre service. Photo: Bloomberg
A first-class breakfast: Many Cathay customers complain about paying premium for mediocre service. Photo: Bloomberg

Cathay must win back customers in bad times

When it comes to Cathay Pacific and its Marco Polo Club, many people have a lot to say.

There are roughly two groups – the die-hard fans and the complainers. There’s third group: I want to call them the die-hard complainers.

Those belonging to this group make very fine points about how to improve airline service, but they often get frustrated because nobody listens to them, but still they religiously take Cathay flights.

It is because of such loyalty that I got to experience my first-ever first-class breakfast treat at Cathay.

My friend, who became a member of the Diamond Club after having taken Cathay on his 50 trips to mainland China last year, insisted to bring me there for my experience.

When he invited me last year, he warned that I might never have the privilege again, which is correct because I will never fly first-class on my own, but the real reason is that he will be downgraded starting June 1st and will no longer be able to bring guests to enjoy the treat.

Needless to say, the downgrade my friend suffered was part of the cost-cutting measures taken by the Marco Polo Club to reward the airline’s high-spending customers at the expense of the loyalty of frequent but short-haul passengers like my friend.

My friend has no complaints, however. He has been treated like a king at the first-class lounge.

During his most recent trip, which was when we met, he went there at 8 a.m. and took a long, unhurried and delicious breakfast before catching his noontime flight, which was delayed, giving him a reason to also take his lunch at the lounge that day.

So there I was having my breakfast at the capacious lounge, which was only about 30 percent occupied, enjoying my delicious cheung fan with fresh carrot juice and spending the next hour learning a little bit more about the Hong Kong flag carrier.

Perhaps I can sum up the old Cathay Pacific in three “S” words – superior, service and safe – especially the latter which is what really matters.

Unfortunately, the current Cathay Pacific appears to be having difficulties living up to its old reputation. Yes, it is there among the top league but its ranking is falling and its service is deteriorating.

A popular local paper used to regularly ridicule Cathay Pacific as the airline whose international standing fell because of poor management.

The two-year curse has turned into reality this year when parent Swire Pacific decided to change the head of the airline, and announced a massive layoff of some 600 non-service staff last week, in a restructuring not seen in 20 years.

Although it blamed its poor oil hedges for its troubles, the homegrown airline has actually suffered more from competition with low-cost carriers, especially Hong Kong Express.

The HNA Group-backed airline saw the transfer of many Cathay customers who complained about paying premium for mediocre service.

That is where loyalty becomes of paramount importance. Think how those customers, who spent a lot to earn their mileage points, feel when earning a free ticket becomes harder because of rising benchmarks or simply because it has become unavailable.

Think of the 30 minutes, or even a full hour, that one is made to wait on the phone before being accommodated by a representative of the prestigious Marco Polo Club.

I do not have a solution for this, but I must say that I am also a loyal shareholder.

Sitting in the first-class lounge, I only have one little idea: Why don’t they delight loyal customers by offering them coupons that they can redeem for a treat to the spacious but lonely airport lounge?

We all need a little bit more, not less, incentive to stay loyal, right?

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EJ Insight writer

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