Damaged, substandard Zodiac seats hit Cathay Pacific image

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.

Multiple mouldings didn’t line up with other parts of the seat correctly. Image: John Walton

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.

This peeling, flaking laminate doesn’t even look particularly premium. Image: John Walton

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.

Sharp plastic edges were a hazard and the poorly fitting arm was hard to raise and lower. Image: John Walton

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.

While this side storage box was useful, it wouldn’t stay open. Apologies for the photo quality. Image: John Walton

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.

Beneath this sharp edged unfinished plastic edge is a four inch gap to the floor… Image: John Walton

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.

Flaking side table laminate is pretty inexcusable. Image: John Walton

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.

Equally problematic were the lavatory doors, which did not slide smoothly and, in all three cases, did not lock fully closed properly either.

I’m not entirely certain what this piece is but it fell off as I was converting the seat. Image: John Walton

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.

Large parts of the seat shouldn’t simply fall off. Image: John Walton

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.

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.

Not a good first impressions when you sit down. Image: John Walton

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  1. Thomas W Rhea

    To this day, the most destructive forces I have seen in a company is that of uncontrolled growth. Couple that with commitment to unattainable schedules you have the recipe for disastrous results. Resources stretched thin, talent level highly diminished, dated manufacturing technologies, cost savings realized by Draconian measures of “work force reductions”!?!
    Zodiac has obviously promised the moon. (Last checked, there were no earth residents residing there.)
    The real question is “Does Zodiac have the expertise coupled with resources to deliver the quality promised?”
    Now that Safran is involved, it will be interesting what an experience performer deduces from the from the fray.

  2. Indranil Chakrabarty

    You dont stay on top forever. The Gulf 3 plus TK will face similar issues in the future. CX will soon be out if the 5 star league sooner rather than later. Standards are slipping. SQ and CX have seen their best days.

  3. Mser

    I’m baffled at how difficult it seems to be to produce a decent seat. Way too much time is spent on useless junk like IFE (what Biz or F flyer does’t have a tablet with favorite content already loaded? – and if not shame on them!)

    Make the seats private. Maximize room – get rid of the silly unnecessary curves and do-dads that rob space. Infuriating how terrible so many seats are – what special type of moron decides to design, let alone purchase these seats? Institutionalized incompetence seems o be the rule, not the exception. Surely there are companies capable of designing a decent seat at a decent price? And management with enough brain cells to know tbe difference?

  4. Jonathan Carrier

    You should go read the CX flyertalk forum, specifically the general A350 thread. If you want anecdotes they are loaded there. You guys just got a little taste of how bad the CX A350 finishes and durability is, particularly in J. That’s the best resource for this.

  5. Dear Mr. Walton,

    The points that you make in your article are valid and we have had similar feedback and comments from other Business Class travellers on our new A350-900s. We are sorry that the Business Class experience has not measured up to the experience that we had designed for our customers. This article highlights issues that we are aware of and that we are working hard to fix.

    We have been pleased with the response we’ve received to the Economy and Premium Economy experience but the standard of our Business Class seats is not up to expectations. Seat and surface finishing defects have been observed by our customers and it is a priority that we correct these issues as soon as possible.

    Our Business Class seat manufacturer, Zodiac Aerospace, has agreed to replace the full set of Business Class seats on those affected aircraft where the defects are most acute. For the remainder of the fleet, we are working with Zodiac Aerospace on quality improvement and we are seeing results from this work. Our teams are working on fixing the issues as soon as possible.

    Your sincerely,
    James Evans

    General Manager Product
    Cathay Pacific Airways

  6. RaflW

    This level of poor quality causes one to wonder if a line-fit Zodiac business seat would meet certification requirements? If the manufacturer cut corners on fit, finish and execution, what substandard elements might be lurking unseen? Maybe I’m being alarmist, but it would seem a fair question for regulators to be asking. Since CX management says Zodiac is removing and replacing the poorest quality seats, an opportunity for testing appears open.

  7. matt weber

    You always have to wonder about the things you cannot see, when there are so many problems with the things you can see. I know years ago I simply stopped flying TWA and Eastern Airlines because there were so many obvious maintenance issues in the things I could see, that I became very concerned about the things I could not see, and decided discretion was the better part of valor. Ultimately the upgrade the F at no charge was of little value if the choice might cost me far more than the upgrade was worth.

  8. Mazel

    I dont think zodiac seats quality will pass such an obvious defects… surely all seats are thoroughly inspected per specs and standard. And this problem need further investigation, more so there are other factors we need to consider before we point finger.

    • Chandler

      You are so right for these seats that are built and zodiac us seats are fully inspected not only by quality at zodiac but also by the airlines buying the seats. Each seat one by one is inspected not just once but several times over and then the airlines inspect each seat before it ever goes out so if there are problems as you say it would be very obvious to the naked eye for what is being said here and would have been corrected at first sight. Everything is not always what it seems and another thing these seats are sent out and great big crates and they go off into an airplane from an 18 wheeler and go wherever they go and then they’re unloaded again and then someone has to place them in the plane, so therefore there are many many stops from where the seats were originated or built before they are ever placed in the plane. It is easy to blame someone and the blame always seems to be the manufacturer of an item when there are so many times we all do not see what we think we see, but we are guilty of pointing a finger at where the item originated instead of looking into all aspects of the item from where it began to where it ended. I personally work for zodiac us seats for three years and I was an electrical tester on the lines for the seats twice in three years. I was able to see first hand how hard the employees work to make each seat to perfection and how it began from the moment we got the shell to when the seat was finally finished. There are numerous numerous steps to making a seat to perfection but in the end quality is the last to check and then it goes to the airlines to check of who’s buying the seat. Zodiac takes pride in the workmanship of their seats and strives daily to be the best in what they do in making seats. That I do not plan on working there forever I am proud to be a part of zodiac us seats and believe strongly in their seats and the workmanship that goes into the seats and would be proud to fly on airlines that carried zodiac seats because I know what kind of work from the Start to the Finish goes into making those seats each and every day. One should not cast stones when looking at something blindly, before studying and knowing every aspect of the product.

  9. K

    Have you ever thought that the airbus people are the ones who approve these seats to leave our plant.. Every seat has to be inspected by their very own employees.. If you don’t like them, talk to the airbus employees not zodiac.. We build to the specifications that airbus wants not more or less..

  10. Badboykilla

    K is full of crap. I worked at the seat shells plant in Santa Maria for over 4 years. The internal quality control is non-existent. Here are some real facts that need to be known.

    For 3 straight years starting in 2013 zodiac seat shells was in danger of losing its FAA certification for failure to pass audits. The majority of the failures came from zodiac poor results of complying with it’s own internal controls regarding work order control, quality checks and internal processes. As a result, zodiac seat shells paid $100k’s to auditors to let them continue to produce their product with a future audit. All they did was take small sample sizes of their failures and manage them to pacify auditors. Again, in 2014, 2015 and 2016 they were in violation of the same controls. They repeated the process and paid the fines. What this means is that zodiac cannot control their process and quality controls.

    Now we can get into the problems surrounding failed and returned seats. It is a fact that from 2013 to 2016 that 100’s of zodiac seats for UAE had to be reworked due to poor paint, seams, electrical and other issues that came from the Santa Maria plant. Also, in 2015 an entire ship set of Finnair A350 seats were rejected at the dock in LA because zodiac sent out the seats without getting Airbus approval. The shells were sent back to the zodiac plant. Why did this happen, because zodiac was concerned about hitting their delivery schedules and would ship anything so to pacify the customer and corporate management.

    Why has the executive management turned over 6 times in 3 years? Why did they lose American B777 and B787 contracts only 10’shipsets in the production cycle? Why did zodiac pay $30 million to Boeing and $20 million to Airbus in penalties in 2015 and 2016? Why did they pay over $3 million to American in 2015 to cover quality and production issues?

    When you have 2/3 of your production staff that are temporary workers from staffing agencies making more than your permanent employees, when you have management turnover exceeding 400% a year, when you poorly design a product that cannot be manufactured and needs constant redesign, thus restarting the supply chain cycle and when you have no industrialization management to plan and build the product this is what you get.

    Same problems for Air France production, Finnair and Cathay. This is why zodiac moved all of the final assembly of the A350 to France. Santa Marian only produces the composite shells. Mexico handles the subassemblies and France and U.K. plants assembly the finished units.

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