CATHAY Pacific is rolling out a new business-class product and the verdict from the airline's regular flyers seems to be a resounding thumbs-up.
The former seating configuration was herringbone-style (Virgin Atlantic and Air New Zealand have similar zigzag seats) but now it's a format of one pod seat at each window and two in the centre, each with concealing wings and angled for privacy (making it rather hard to talk to the next-seat neighbour, if you are travelling together, without leaning forward) and all with direct aisle access.
I seem to be among the minority that loved the earlier configuration; it felt like being tucked into a filing-cabinet drawer and was utterly private.
But I concede that big-shouldered businessmen vetoed the slender seats (which were almost 5cm narrower than the new generation) and my spies tell me the cabin crew didn't care much for leaning in at awkward angles to serve passengers.
Now things feel very linear, there are fresh orchids, a calm colour palette of pewter blue and beige, and an airy spaciousness. The seats are terrific, much more intuitive to use than many business-class equivalents, with pod-side controls at head-height and everything clearly labelled. There's even a how-to manual in the pocket with the inflight magazine and duty-free catalogue.
If you are working during the flight, there's an expandable table and a multi-port connector for all known devices, and it's simple to recharge mobile phones.
Hooray, the entertainment system is a breeze to navigate as well, and while the offerings are not as comprehensive as, say, Emirates' bumper ICE system, there's a broad selection of television series, latest-release cinema and Asian and Bollywood hits, plus interactive arcade games, even that addictive Sudoku stuff at various levels of competence.
Little details have all been covered, from a shoe stowage cupboard, laptop storage and two levels of angled reading light brightness to replenished bottles of water and copious rounds of refresher towels. The headphones are permanently plugged in a side cabinet so there's no fooling around trying to fit the plugs into minuscule jacks; the cabinet also has a mirror, another business-class first for me.
The remote controller includes a read-out telling you how much time is left to landing; if you start watching, say, a feature film towards the end of the sector, a warning pops up that it won't be "fully viewed" before landing.
A light breakfast is served just after take-off (including a delicious pear, ginger and chamomile smoothie) and a four-course lunch follows midway through the journey.
There are no fancy chefs in charge of the menus on Cathay Pacific but the food always has a satisfying oriental twist -- congee with abalone and mushrooms for breakfast, for example, or roasted duck in noodle soup as an anytime snack. There's always a vegetarian main course as well; on this flight, it's goat's cheese tortellini with cherry tomato and basil ragout and parmesan.
Drinks? Champagne is by Deutz, there's a Mountadam Vineyard Eden Valley Riesling 2009 (said to go especially well with Asian cuisine), vintage port and Hine cognac, as well as other wine choices (Australian and French) and all the expected spirits and a jazzy-sounding Pacific Sunrise (sparkling wine, Drambuie, and lemon and orange zest).
Then it's time to test the flat-bed position, with a decent pillow and feather-light duvet. The retractable armrest goes down to increase the width of the seat and a further bed extension can be deployed across the end, from about knee-level.
Everything is push-button-smart and the bed feels comfortably bouncy.
Cathay Pacific's Agnes B amenities kits are themed for day or overnight flights so it's a refresher spritz for me before landing -- the captain has made up the time lost due to our late departure from Sydney and, way below, Hong Kong looks lightly bronzed with mid-afternoon sunshine as we descend to Chek Lap Kok.
Tip: Cathay Pacific's chief executive John Slosar has announced the airline will introduce a premium economy cabin in the second quarter of 2012.
The product will be fitted on long-haul routes and medium hauls such as Australia and the Middle East.
"It will be more like a regional business class," Slosar says. "We'll have great [seat] recline and plenty of leg space."
The new business-class cabin is available on 18 flights a week from Sydney to Hong Kong and is being progressively rolled out across the Cathay Pacific network.