Zodiac Aerospace’s ongoing problems with production quality, particularly for the seats, surfaces and lavatories that it provides for the Airbus A350 family of aircraft, are well-documented, and have resulted in rejected deliveries from Qatar Airways and substantial delay to the A350 programme.
When Cathay Pacific’s first A350, B-LRA, arrived in Hong Kong at the end of May 2016, it was clear to early passengers that the seats were not up to snuff. “Zodiac Aerospace: unworthy seats on the A350” wrote French #PaxEx blogger Tyler Birth when he flew on -LRA in July 2016, and he wasn’t the only one.
It was with some relief, therefore, that Runway Girl Network noted the incoming aircraft for its recent Cathay A350 flight was B-LRE, the airline’s fifth A350, delivered in August 2016. We flew, unbeknownst to the airline, from Melbourne to Hong Kong in mid-March, using partner frequent flyer miles.
Business is the top offering on this and every other Australian Cathay Pacific flight, and the airline has 38 of the latest generation Zodiac Cirrus seat on board, an evolution of the 2010 seat that a previous head of product, Alex McGowan, heavily customised from the then-Sicma base model launched by the then-US Airways in 2009.
The cabin itself looks as attractive as previous generations, perhaps even slightly more so thanks to the increased bevelling of the privacy wings at eye level.
But on sitting down at the seat, it is immediately clear that the fit and finish of this product is unacceptable, especially for an aircraft in service for under seven months.
Looking straight ahead in the seat at the bulkhead, the green leather trim was coming away from the rest of the shroud: a clear fitting issue that should not be happening — and, in fairness, that Cathay should be fixing. That the leather was also notably torn and scuffed suggests a poor choice of materials. There are certainly harder wearing leathers than this.
To my left, the same leather trim piece also did not fit correctly underneath the monitor release button, and this issue seemed to be separate from the part coming away in front.
Above the leather, the cheap-looking, unconvincing wood-grain effect laminate was chipped and coming away at the cut line in thin ribbons. The ventilation holes for the Panasonic eX3 inflight entertainment system (which ran very hot throughout the flight, to the extent that the controller displayed messages that it was shutting down because of heat) were deformed, though not to the extent of Tyler Birth’s seat, which had centimetre-sized punctures in the grating.
Below and to the left, the aisle-side retracting armrest was in very poor shape. It is clear that these pieces do not fit together well, not least from the jagged edges of the thin plastic surrounding what is notionally a storage area. As is plain, the green layered decal is peeling at the edges, and the seat fabric does not fit the seat correctly.
Cathay has done well to provide a sizeable amount of storage in the box that reaches almost to the floor on the sidewall side of the seat, but it did not fit together well. The opening mechanism at my seat was broken, and would not stay up. The ragged edges at the bottom of the bin, which sits some distance off the floor, are also plain.
Underneath the box, there is a gap of approximately four inches, which RGN first discovered by catching a socked foot on it, and second by having to ferret underneath it to retrieve a pair of glasses, which had fallen off the side table.
Speaking of the side table, it too was in poor condition, with a very plasticky laminate peeling in several places. It looked and felt very cheaply made, and unsuitable for an airline like Cathay Pacific, with its premium procing.
— John Walton (@thatjohn) March 9, 2017
Equally problematic were the lavatory doors, which did not slide smoothly and, in all three cases, did not lock fully closed properly either.
The worst part of the experience, however, was when a large piece of shrouding fell onto the floor while adjusting the seat after a nap. The cabin crew were not able to identify the piece, nor where it came from, and removed it for safekeeping for the latter part of the flight.
It is astounding that Cathay Pacific would accept these seats for delivery in this kind of condition on its first aircraft, but even worse on its fifth. It appears that Zodiac’s ongoing delays are driving airlines to take delivery of substandard seats.
Indeed, a very unhappy United CEO Oscar Muñoz has staff stationed at Zodiac’s production lines to remedy the issue with its rollout of its new Polaris business class, based on Zodiac’s Skylounge family.
— Seth Miller (@WandrMe) March 15, 2017
But it is equally concerning that Cathay has not remedied the visible problems and obvious wear-and-tear damage to them, which seems very hard to miss.
The airline may well be distracted from its passenger experience by the process of integrating its China-market subsidiary Cathay Dragon as that brand transitions from Dragonair, and by a run of bad financials that are likely to require a cut in management by a third.
Nonetheless, both companies need to turn their attention to the passenger experience — and quickly.