Catharsis Pacific

November 02, 2017 17:34
There was a time when Cathay Pacific was Hong Kong’s airline and we supported the home side. Photo: HKEJ

It is probably as unsportsmanlike as shooting animals in a game reserve but Cathay Pacific, like HSBC, Hong Kong’s other Aunt Sally icon, has an uncanny knack of inviting destructive criticism, an invitation I find irresistible.

You know how at the end of the flight, the Captain tells you how much they have enjoyed having you on board? Wouldn’t it be wonderful if, just once, he was brutally honest and announced that anyone travelling in anything less than Business Class is really only a bum on a seat that contributes to paying him his increasingly diminishing pay package?

The hollow appreciation from the cockpit is as sincere as those rictus smiles on the faces of the cabin attendants as they watch the parade of all sorts boarding the aircraft, especially the ones with seat numbers in the 70s who start checking the numbers in the teens.

Then you have Cathay’s current promotional garbage: “Explore the world with us.” What they really mean is if you travel Economy, you’re as welcome as an African asylum seeker in Hungary. Have you tried the in-flight chicken wrap? It has all the gastronomic appeal of dried Dodo wrapped in wet toilet paper.

Ask for a glass of water and you get a splendid sample of Shing Mun canal water.

Even getting attention from one of the attendants often demands desperate measures like sticking your foot out into the aisle.

If Cathay’s senior executives ever travelled incognito in steerage they would discover that the journey begins before you actually board the flight. Make a horrocks of that and the rest of the journey is soured beyond redemption.

I checked in online for our recent trip to Bali, something that the airline really encourages you to do because it gives them useful advance information for selecting the type of aircraft and distributing the load.

Scrolling down to seat selection, I noted that the configuration was 3:3:3. I really did not relish the idea of spending five hours seated next to a stranger with halitosis, over-generous eating habits or a proclivity for communicating in penetrating tones to fellow mainland travelers a few rows distant.

Examining the aircraft’s seating plan I found that at the very rear, you know where I mean, next to the toilets, there was a pair of seats available on either side. Being last off at one’s destination is a small price to pay for that measure of civilized travel.

We dropped our luggage at the City check-in a good three hours before departure time and were issued with fresh boarding passes. Then spent an hour in the lounge.

On arrival at the Gate, the young woman on duty mumbled something about seats and relieved us of our boarding passes. For one delirious moment I thought we were to be upgraded. Alas, 'twas not to be. Perhaps the reason for the incomprehensible mumble was that our seats had been changed and now we were in the last and middle row of three seats.

My carefully laid plans having been frustrated, I was in a less than cheerful frame of mind as we boarded the aircraft and I explained to the receiving lady the cause of my loss of equanimity. “I’ll speak to the senior attendant in your section,” she said. Whether or not she did, nothing ever came of it.

Once seated, the sprinkles were added to our discomfort. A solitary passenger was allocated to the pair of seats to our left that had, until moments before, been ours.

There is absolutely no profit in complaining once you are on board. First off it is not the cabin crew’s fault. Second, even if you did, they would attempt to fob you off with ludicrous pseudo-technical jargon about "loads".

Doubtless, some narrow-minded in-house CX lawyer will point to the website’s retention of the right to change your selection of seat "for operational reasons". However, it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that allowing us our seats and giving the single lady a seat in the middle row of 75 rows of seats would not even register on the loading scales.

Cathay could, of course, emulate Ryanair and charge an additional fee for selecting your seat but as the last row of seats in the bus is virtually unmarketable, that would go over like a lead balloon. Added to which Cathay’s prices are not remotely comparable to Ryanair’s in terms of competitiveness.

Have you noticed that we are still paying a fuel surcharge despite the price of oil falling by 50 percent?

There was a time, many moons ago, when Cathay was Hong Kong’s airline and we supported the home side. But when the Swire family released its grip on the company’s direction and it passed to a bean counter from outside the organisation, the downward spiral began. Ironically, this also marked the start of Cathay’s descent from its profitable highs.

Before this sea change, morale, particularly amongst cabin crew, was very high. Even the lowliest attendant knew that she could knock on the CEO’s door and be heard. The transfer of control signaled a new arrogance that sat uncomfortably with the concept of a service industry.

Now the dead hand of the accountants can be seen in the creeping influence over Dragonair. Previously, this very Hong Kong regional airline had its own distinctive characteristic. Quiet efficiency and genuinely friendly service were the hallmarks of the nascent carrier as it strove to make its own mark, creating a network across Asia where its name was a synonym for service.

But now we have "Cathay Dragon", an otiose description that plainly precedes the dragon being swallowed completely.

I have little doubt that the bean counters will be able to justify everything on the basis of economies of scale. Yet what is sacrificed in these financial manipulations is the spirit of enterprise and a sense of pride in an airline that once stood for all the good things about Hong Kong.

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