Why we miss the good old days of Cathay

November 05, 2015 14:58
A Cathay Pacific Boeing 777-300ER with the new livery flies above Kennedy Town. Photo: Cathay Pacific

Next time you fly Cathay Pacific, you'll probably give its aircraft a second look. The Hong Kong flag carrier has just unveiled a new livery.

The subtle changes mainly involve the brushwing logo, a simplified color palette and a more prominent wordmark. 

So far the feedback from frequent flyers and aviation buffs is mostly negative, with some finding the new look “too simple and humdrum” and less intriguing compared to the previous version that had been around since 1994.

Cathay’s new paint job lacks compelling elements compared with that of rivals such as British Airways, Emirates, Qantas, Korean Air and Thai Airways.

Beauty lies in the eye of the beholder, as they say. But one possible explanation for the new look has something to do with costs.

The mainly white design of the fuselage can help trim the overall weight of the plane by roughly 200 kilograms, thus saving the airline up to HK$1.5 million per year in jet fuel expenses per aircraft, a Cathay engineer told an aviation forum.

Another change already underway is the accelerated retirement of its once beloved Boeing 747-400 jetliners, the hump-backed, two-deck icon of yesteryears endearingly called the Queen of the Skies.

Cathay currently has only three such planes left in service and it will bid farewell to the very last one of its most recognizable quad-engine model no later than 2017.

After that, Cathay, which once boasted one of the world’s largest Boeing 747-400 fleets, will have no superjumbos any more, something that may not sit well with its title as Asia’s largest international carrier by passenger turnover.

The new-generation superjumbo Airbus A380, the world's largest, has become the prestige model of civil aviation since its 2008 launch. It now carries the wordmarks of Emirates, British Airways, Lufthansa, Singapore Airlines and Qantas, among other major airlines.

However, Cathay appears to shy away from the new elite club of premium airlines as it opts for twin-jet types like Airbus A350 and Boeing 777 to replenish its fleet.

Cathay’s new leaner types feature higher fuel efficiency and cost-effectiveness, yet they may be less impressive and exciting to travelers who fancy the novelty of widebodies like A380 and the extra seat room and comfort bigger jets offer.

Some observers say since Ivan Chu Kwok-leung sat in the cockpit as CEO, Cathay has been run in a way reminiscent of budget airlines – from cutting benefits for loyal customers to chronicling industrial disputes – something apparently detrimental to its positioning as an upmarket carrier.

Rumor also has it that Cathay is looking at squeezing more seats into the economy class at the cost of existing seat width, and, very likely, its already shaky reputation.

Cathay has never been short of service complaints and minor accidents this year.

Earlier, it was bombarded by complaints from passengers who could not get enough blankets to keep themselves warm aboard its flights. A flight attendant said a passenger even asked for newspapers to wrap himself.

In July, cabin smoke forced a Los Angeles-bound flight to land on a remote Alaska island and in September another flight from Perth was diverted to Indonesia after an engine failed - passengers panicked as they saw flames streaming from a wing.

Also this summer, water from tanks on some of its flights proved unfit to drink and passengers were given bottled water instead.

So far the most dramatic incident happened at its home base when a flight to Chicago was canceled after the plane’s emergency evacuation slide inflated due to improper maintenance.

There have also been grave concerns over pilot fatigue due to a new roster system in which exhausted air crews are given more workloads.

As pilots and attendants described it in an open letter, it was “the worst situation in the company’s modern history”.

It slipped to fourth from third place in the latest ranking of the world’s best airlines, trailing Singapore Airlines, Emirates and Qatar Airways, according to US-based Travel + Leisure magazine.

Although still in the world’s top league, Cathay may find it hard to cope with the intensifying competition if it doesn't work hard enough to boost its lackluster services.

On regional, short haul routes, price-sensitive flyers are being lured by no-frills firms. For instance, Cathay charges over HK$6,500 for a ticket to Tokyo’s Narita Airport, one of its busiest routes, while an HK Express flight costs just HK$780.

On major intercontinental routes to Europe, Australia and North America, Cathay’s rivals like to use A380s to woo business travelers or offer attractive stopover incentives.

Besides its rebranding and unexciting new livery, we have yet to see any determined effort by our home carrier, which used to be a proud symbol of Hong Kong's aviation industry, to rise up to the challenge.

We feel nostalgic for the good old days of Cathay.

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Which do you prefer, Cathay's classic livery on a Boeing 747-400 (above) or the carrier's new look? Photos: Bloomberg, Cathay Pacific
Cathay's last long-haul 747-400 flight was from San Francisco to Hong Kong in August 2014. Photo: Cathay Pacific
Two Cathay Boeing 747-400s sit on the tarmac of the Hong Kong International Airport. Cathay has speeded up the retirement of the superjumbo. Photo: Wong Chi-lam
Cathay has developed a preference for leaner models in a bid to slash costs, yet its premium brand image is undermined by the absence of bigger jetliners. Photo: Cathay Pacific

EJ Insight writer