MARCH 22, 2016 — Fortune has smiled on me twice in recent months, allowing me to sample a couple of the best long-haul business class cabins in the sky: Qatar Airways and Cathay Pacific Airways. Both are superb alternatives to the premium classes offered by the Big Three U.S. carriers (United, Delta, and American, in case you need reminding).
Why not compare Qatar or Cathay business class to the sharp end services of DL, UA, or AA? The better question is, Why bother? I won’t trash our homegrown carriers for their premium offerings, but a number of foreign carriers, including Qatar and Cathay Pacific, offer international business and first class services far superior to what’s available on made-in-America airlines.
The word to describe Qatar and Cathay business class is “sublime.” I will say up front (no pun intended) that it isn’t a matter of which is better because each has its merits. But the services are not identical in every respect, making the differences worth noting.
Airlines and hub airports
Cathay serves 190 destinations from its mega-hub in Hong Kong, while Qatar serves over 150 places around the globe from its mega-hub in Doha. The global reach of both, combined with a good connecting network to, and within, the USA, makes them competitive from the States to just about anywhere.
Both hub airports are eye-popping gorgeous, not to mention modern, sleek, and bright-shiny clean, the opposite of, say, dingy, shopworn JFK or ORD. Added to which, Hong Kong and Doha airports boast big and spectacular home airline business class lounges with all the services, food, and drink one could ask for.
I would be hard-pressed to say that either Cathay’s classy and luxurious business class lounges at HKG (four, or five if you count the Arrival Lounge) or Qatar’s single but mind-blowingly big business class lounge at DOH is better than the other. Both air carriers’ business class lounges offer five-star comestibles and libation, along with a full array of creature comforts and business accoutrements for ease of work. Experiencing the home airport lounges of both airlines is unforgettable.
Aircraft and time
I flew from Hong Kong to Chicago in Cathay’s business cabin on one of their standard 777-300 aircraft, about 15 hours.
On Qatar Airways I flew on a brand new A350 from Philly to Doha and back, about 12 hours going and 14 hours returning.
I also flew in business via Qatar A330s to and from Kilimanjaro Airport in Tanzania, but I will stick with the long-haul flights in this post.
All flights on both carriers were on time or early. Okay, that has nothing to do with business class since one class doesn’t arrive sooner than another. But what good is comfort and luxe if the basic operation stinks? Qatar and Cathay pay close attention to schedule-keeping and therefore achieve consistently reliable operations, which makes a discussion of class merits relevant.
Cabin look and feel
Cathay Pacific’s business class cabin is configured 1-2-1 in the Dilbert office cubicle style, which is to say, each business class unit is walled off from every other by tall partitions that emphasize privacy and solitude. Looking down the cabin at the lines of tall panels, one cannot easily tell which seats are occupied.
To me, the effect shouts: “Do not disturb!”—which isn’t a bad thing. About midway to Chicago, though, I wondered if anyone would even notice should a passenger cocooned in a business class pod die. I also felt occasionally claustrophobic amid the high walls and was glad to have access to a window seat.
I guess you can tell that I am no fan of the complete isolation generated by the cube farm design, but as many of my trusted frequent flyers have impressed upon me, this type of private cabin configuration is exactly what the majority of business travelers want these days. Thus Cathay is, as usual, ahead of the curve. I respect and applaud the airline emphatically responding to statistically valid data: My nits are negated by market research.
Cathay’s 777s are equipped with the newest mood lighting of different color variations for encouraging sleep and easy transitions through multiple time zones. The effect was not limited to business class, of course, but I perceived that the effect was somehow heightened within the walls of my cubicle and aided in sleeping.
Qatar’s spit-polished brand new A350 on the Philadelphia-Doha is, with the Boeing 787, the newest airplane technology flying. The interior looks and feels ultra-modern. PHL/DOH is a morning departure that flies east into darkness to the Middle East half a day later. The pink-orange mood lighting gave the cabin a sci-fi glow designed to begin the body’s transition to the abrupt time change. The weird hues took a few minutes to adjust to, after which they seemed strangely normal.
The Qatar 1-2-1 business class cabin on its newest aircraft contrasts sharply with Cathay in the absence of the cube farm dividers around seats. The medium high partitions give the fuselage cross-section a welcoming open sensation that appealed to me as I settled in, though research shows that I am in the minority. Most business class patrons want the higher wall seats that Cathay uses.
Business class on the Qatar A350 is divided into two sections by a boarding door. Between the sections is a kind of foyer with attractive low curving cabinets made to look like mahogany on which flowers and Champagne normally are placed. The curves and low cabinet design combine with the low seat dividers to effect a mood of spaciousness to the overall business cabin.
The A350 (and the 787) are designed to feel more natural in flight, maintaining, for instance, higher levels of humidity than older planes. I couldn’t discern the difference; I found both the Cathay 777 and the Qatar A350 to be equally comfortable. I suspect being in the lap of luxury of business class on both flights had something to do with my sense of ease and well-being.
Both Cathay and Qatar business class seats are marvelously comfortable, with infinite seat and recline positions, including lie-flat, and with all kinds of storage compartments and lights and privacy panels. Both have huge LCD screens fueled by muscular entertainment systems with more than 500 movies, TV, and other video choices. Qatar and Cathay Pacific both provide their own brand of noise-canceling headphones to use as well. I found the sets acceptable and comfortable enough not to dig out my own Bose headphones. I admit to watching a bunch of movies that I’d missed as theatrical releases, such as Mr. Holmes and Bridge of Spies. I have come to realize that on-demand entertainment airplane systems loaded with great content tied to a large hi-res screen and used with good noise-canceling headphones make the long hours fly by (pun intended). That and sleep, of course, which the business class lie-flat seats are designed to ensure.
Service on board
Cathay Pacific and Qatar excel equally in top-notch in-flight service as soon as one steps off the jetway all the way to opening the doors at destination: a bottomless glass of welcome Champagne (real French bubbly, not the cheap swill served by some carriers) followed by endless gifts of pillows, blankets, menus, amenity kits, hot towels, cold towels, chocolate, food, more food, even more food, more drink, pajamas, and on and on—and all offered with a genuine smile and eagerness I have not seen among U.S. cabin crews in a very long time.
Taken together with the splendid integrated entertainment systems provided by both Qatar and Cathay, the on-board service was, well, as I said, sublime! Overall, compared against forty-five years of experience on most global airlines’ very long routes in first, business, premium economy, and economy classes, I reconfirmed that I am better rested and much more alert leaving a long-haul business class experience than when flying in the back of the plane on ultra-long-haul flights, regardless of carrier.
Yes, again, please!
Flying business class on either Qatar or Cathay Pacific is an experience several pegs above the rest of the world’s pack of airlines, not just better than the U.S. carriers. Whenever I can afford it, I’ll be doing it again on very long-haul flights.