TheDesignAir Exclusive Interview With Cathay’s Toby Smith

HONG KONG CATHAY PACIFIC AIRWAYS

We’re sat in the busy ‘Bridge’ lounge in Hong Kong airport, surrounded by the hustle & bustle of the café area and the sound of Illy espressos being perfectly ground and poured by barista staff. The Bridge is one of six lounges in Hong Kong International Airport, and is one of the latest in the armada of designer airport refuges that Cathay Pacific has created for its elite passenger base.

Just as we are handed an espresso to perk us up from our inbound flight from London, a tall man appears, shaking our hand with a warm smile. It’s Toby Smith, the general manager of product for Cathay Pacific. He has a hugely important role and while relatively new to the position, is charged with ensuring the passenger experience from a design point, is faultless.

With his family safely travelling around Australia, he generously takes time over the Easter bank holiday, to talk to us about his latest project, Cathay’s Tokyo Haneda lounge, before we excitedly head over to Japan to experience it for ourselves.

Toby has had a long lasting relationship with Cathay, taking him all around the world, originally basing himself in Paris. Having worked with the parent Swire Group for nearly 24 years, his role has been varied to say the least, with over half of his career working in the slightly less passenger-focused shipping industry. Being taken up through the ranks with Swire as part of a classic general management program, Toby now finds himself at the cutting edge of the passenger experience.

But did Toby have a design background to support him in his new role? “No, not at all. I have a degree in French Literature. I am more of a generalist and for that reason; the department I head up is full of specialists. We heavily rely on design agency expertise that has an eye for the passenger experience. For me the role is more about project management. Particularly for the seats, whereby you are dealing with timelines from Airbus and Boeing.”

This isn’t unusual in the airline industry, with a whole host of design teams working alongside each other to forge the wide array of passenger experiences found in aviation. The employment of these specialists mean that the passenger experiences are becoming more varied, and whilst there are just a handful of seat manufacturers, it is the design studios that really work their magic and adapt a base product.

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Toby continues “Foster and Partners created our latest First Class seats for example. Zodiac France manufactures the core business-class seats, but London-based design studio JPA added their design touches to it. The removal of just a small part of trim around the knee area made a key difference to the product.” This was suggested through the research from their very top Marco Polo frequent-flier members, which are a strong sounding board for the passenger experience for Cathay.

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It’s these small differences that can get the airline awarded ‘Best Airline In The World’ by SkyTrax (for the fourth time). But how does the design element of the passenger experience affect these rankings? “It’s a very important part, but it’s a combination. The hard product can always be copied and the seat we have is already on other aircraft with slightly different skins and different iterations. So for Cathay it’s a combination of hard product and service, which is harder to copy. However, we continue to invest in very top quality product, both onboard and the lounges.” Toby suggests.

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It can be very difficult to deliver on passenger’s increasing expectations. With the rise of the deep-pocketed Middle Eastern carriers, investing heavily into the very latest cabin and lounge products, competition is increasingly tough. With approximately half of passengers using Hong Kong as a transit hub, the airline attracts its fair share of ‘premium’ International travellers, who are a little more savvy of the competition on the market. Cathay indirectly competes with the Middle Eastern carriers on a variety of one-stop routes.

However, Cathay has taken a refreshingly simple stance on their opulent competition. Why offer an onboard bar when a majority of their flights are overnight? “It’s all about the bed on these flights and it’s all about seat comfort. If you are sleeping for a majority of your flight, it’s less about the interaction with the crew or an onboard bar. If it is a day flight, it’s more about the food and the IFE, but you have to get both right.” The airline consistently looks at the feedback from their frequent fliers, and it is this feedback that has meant there are no plans to introduce showers or a bar onboard. This can actually be a good thing for passengers, as the airline can allow for more seats onboard and weight down, thus keeping its prices a little lower.

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As for lounges, it’s the new Haneda lounge that signals a significant shift for the carrier’s brand position. “The Haneda lounge is an extension of the The Bridge, where you are sat now. It is quite different from The Wing or The Pier. Obviously we ask our passengers what they are feeling about our products constantly and there was a feeling that the current lounges were a little cold, and they wanted something a little more relaxed and residential to make them feel at ease. The Bridge was the start of this new wave of lounges. So with the new [Haneda] design, we have taken this to another level.” Toby proudly boasts. “It’s very warm, there is a lot of timber, cherry wood, bronze and grass finishes along with very comfortable furniture. We are no longer fussed about having an iconic chair.”

The Cathay Solus Workstation seats by Foster + Partners which became synonymous with the previous incarnation of the Cathay lounge, won’t be found in the new wave of lounges, however Toby hinted at something similar for the individual traveller arriving in a few months time. “They were very popular with our travellers, they offer a great amount of privacy.”

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The Haneda lounge is just the first in a series of lounges, including Manila, Bangkok and the new First Class lounge soon to be opened in Hong Kong. Instead of embracing local design touches for each outstation, Cathay is opting for a ‘home away from home’ design aesthetic. The local touch found instead in the local delicacies found in their lounge’s noodle bars. London Heathrow’s offering, which feels a little stark in comparison to The Bridge, is need of renovation. Especially considering it plays host to five flights a day. “It’s definitely going to happen, that lounge is two generations old now.” Says Toby.

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The airline has adopted four design pillars to steer the company in the near future. Dubbed “Contemporary Asia, heart-felt warmth, considered simplicity and joy of discovery.” The Joy of Discovery has been the hardest element to really master “However, we are doing a great job in our lounges of speaking to this, especially with our famous noodle bars. We are moving away from it just being a hatch in the wall, and being more of an open kitchen. You can now sit at the bar and watch the chefs at work.”

Toby continues to talk about how things are changing at Cathay to improve the passenger’s journey, “we are trying to remove the clutter in our airport signage, and make the passenger experience better. This will happen over the next few months as part of our new brand.” It’s not just the airport signage that will change, as the new ‘Brushwing’ design means that passengers are gradually going to be treated to a wave of new elements. Trying to remain cost effective, and with such a subtle brand change, the elements such as cutlery and table-wear will be brought in as the natural life cycle of each product comes to an end.

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This ‘gradual’ shift won’t be so noticeable on the new fleet that will enter service with Cathay Pacific who will boast new business class seat designs. “Consistency is key for us. We don’t want passengers to get off one flight and onto another and experience a totally different passenger experience.” (Something that Cathay is addressing with the phase out of its 747s and older generation business class seats) “As and when a refresh cycle comes up we want to bring in the new business class seat that will be on the A350s and replace the existing ones.” As the newer seats that will be rolled out soon are just an evolution of the existing seat, this rollout is fairly straightforward and won’t dramatically change the passenger experience.

While there is no need for a new first class seat just yet, as the first 22 A350-900s will only offer a three-class configuration, the carrier hasn’t ruled them out for their A350-1000s and their 777-9Xs. As for Premium Economy, it’s around to stay. There has been a great uptake on this product on Cathay’s long haul routes. In economy, Toby hints that we won’t be seeing the 10-abreadst seating found on similar airframes flown by competitors.

Being a premium carrier does have its unique difficulties, seen worldwide by a host of carriers. Etihad and Emirates offer well over 70 business class seats on their A380s. Cathay also boast some 777-300ers in a four class configuration with a very ‘heavy’ front end, with a sea of six first class seats and 53 business class seats. “There are conversations to break up these cabins in future aircraft with the use of slim partitions” Toby mentions on the introduction of the A350s.

Whilst passenger expectations continue to grow, due to the wealth of luxurious cabin amenities, has the passenger experience come to a design plateau in the business class cabin though? “Seats aren’t going to get wider or longer, the Cathay seat is already 82 inches long. There will be developments in IFE though. Our next generation screens will be larger and in high definition, and feature a handset with a secondary screen.” Whilst seats are long enough and comfortable enough, the biggest change however will emerge in manufacturing, with newer lightweight materials constantly entering the market. Weight is still a big factor in the design process.

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But with competition constantly nipping at the toes of the leading carriers, for Toby the future holds a wealth of challenges. “For example, mainland Chinese carriers are investing into their product, and Qantas is bringing out new seats, meaning that competition is becoming tough. Whilst we can’t invest into a new seat every two years, we have to make sure that we maximize our investment and what we can do to take the passenger experience up a notch. It’s also about thinking what can we do every few years to upgrade what already exists rather than changing the whole product.”

From soft furnishings and IFE to storage every element is constantly looked at within Cathay Pacific to gradually improve their product based on passenger demands. It is this flexibility and adaptability that is keeping Cathay Pacific ahead of the curve and a real contender for the host of awards it continues to receive.

With a greeting of heart-felt warmth, we settle into our flight on to Tokyo, to see what all the fuss is really about. Stay tuned for our next instalment of the Cathay story.

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