Private Space: Travel’s New Guilty Pleasure?

The "coffin" seat on a Cathay Pacific 747

The “coffin” seat on a Cathay Pacific 747

I slept with a man who wasn’t my husband. Before you jump to the wrong conclusion, I’ll add that it was on an international flight and we never touched.

Am I the only one who feels a little exposed when I’ve had a lovely, prolonged chat with my seatmate for the first couple of hours on a flight in business class, then stretch out to sleep a few inches from him? While I do enjoy the opportunity for conversation, I much prefer what my friend calls the coffin, a walled seat in a herringbone configuration, where I cannot view more than a fellow passenger’s feet.

It’s said that time is the new luxury (a thought I agree with). But now, move over time, you have company: Private space is a luxury, too. This is according to Dr. Dieter Zetsche, chairman of the board, Daimler AG and head of Mercedes-Benz Cars, who said during his CES keynote last week: “Quality time and private space will be the true luxury items of the future.” These two commodities wouldn’t be considered luxuries unless they were in short supply.

Nowhere is private space more rare–and coveted–than in air travel. Certainly, economy passengers have no refuge from the masses (except perhaps a moment in the lav). And while the landscape is better for premium passengers, finding pockets of privacy for these travelers can take some effort, too. And often, some funds.

For me, one of the most important aspects of private space is the option for quiet–of not hearing someone else and of not being being heard. I don’t care to listen to others’ cell phone conversations, nor do I wish others to eavesdrop on mine. Uninvited phone conversations floating through the air are like pollution, and airport gates are heavily polluted.

Lounges, while offering the promise of private space, are often crowded and don’t live up to that promise.  A friend of mine once discussed her new job on a cell phone in an airport lounge. When she hung up, a gentleman several chairs away introduced himself and said he was the one she had replaced. Ouch.

Gradually, privacy has been taken away from us, a reality as uncomfortable as sleep deprivation. And when we travel, we experience both!

You’re the only one who knows when and for how long you need private space. But it’s nice to have the option, and the more private space options that can be built into travel, the better.

Maybe you’re lucky enough to be an extrovert and never care about this. But I do. Nothing against you, fellow passenger, but sometimes I just need a little time to myself.

Cool Stuff: Behind the Scenes at Cathay Pacific

Nothing is more fun than going behind the curtain at an airline, airport or hotel, to see how things really work. Luckily, travel writers get to do just that every now and then.

So begins my recent post for The Bay Area Traveler ( about the day I spent behind the scenes at Cathay Pacific in Hong Kong. Jump on over and take a look, to see the 10 things I thought were cool on my tour.

I’d Love to Start my Work Day with this Leader

Extraordinary inflight service: Every airline aspires to it, but few pull it off. I’ve written and read a number of articles about how Asian carriers are able to offer a superior soft inflight product. Much is attributed to hiring practices. But that can’t be the whole story, because the grueling lifestyle of a flight attendant could quickly wear down even the youngest, sweetest person.

Last week I had the opportunity to go behind the scenes at Cathay Pacific’s Hong Kong operation. On this visit, I met the airline’s secret weapon, an inflight service manager named Crystal. Here’s how she (and others like her) prepares cabin crews to deliver what they call “service straight from the heart.”

After checking in and gathering the paperwork, the crew meets in a conference room to get acquainted. Sometimes the group is quiet, and she has the next 20 minutes to excite them. Conversely, sometimes there’s a hyper individual or two, and she works to calm them or share their energy amidst the full group.

More measurable tasks follow. She checks the languages spoken—crews are assigned to ensure at least one flight attendant on the flight can speak every language represented on the passenger list. She also checks the experience level of every flight attendant, so she knows who will still be learning and may need special mentoring.

Then she’ll ask a safety question: How are oven fires handled? How do we treat nosebleeds? Each flight attendant feels a great deal of pressure when called on to answer correctly, and after they answer, sometimes Crystal will add an anecdote about an actual experience she’s had, to follow up and add more context.

Then, it’s off to customs and the airplane. CX in Hong Kong has a customs/security facility within its operations center, so crews are bussed straight from Cathay City to the aircraft. (Some airlines actually prefer to have their crews seen walking through the airport.)

During the flight, Crystal keeps an eye on things. She says, “Being the best is not doing everything perfectly. We all make mistakes. We help each other fix problems and learn something.” The inflight service manager gives marks to every flight attendant for his/her performance on the flight, and prizes are awarded for those who score well on this and other feedback like customer compliments.

I have to say, I was totally impressed by Crystal. I would love to start my work day under the leadership of an individual like this. And there’s no doubt in my mind that she is able to evoke “service straight from the heart:” from all who fly with her. Well done, Cathay Pacific and Crystal. Now, if only some of the American legacy carriers could pull this off….