Flying with Air Asia
As Australians, we are used to flying long-haul. Without such flights, people like us all over the world would have had their travel adventures stymied. I can’t even begin to imagine having to travel as they did in bygone days, in a ship taking months on end to arrive at a destination. So too was my feeling about low-cost airlines. I’m the first to admit that flying anything other than a full-service airline on an international flight would not have been a consideration I ‘d be willing to make.
As I boarded my first ever flight aboard a low-cost carrier, the irony wasn’t lost on me. Not only was I doing something that I never considered I would, but I was actually looking forward to it. Flying with AirAsia, aboard their Airbus A330-300, from the Gold Coast (Australia) to Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia, provided me with an opportunity to get to know this airline a little better.
Operating in its current format since 2001, it’s hard to think of it as an emerging airline. However, it behaves like one, pushing through with innovations and entrepreneurial activities that have it making quite a name for itself. If nothing else, they are pushing the boundaries in the ultra-competitive airline industry and making customers think more deeply about who they are flying with and what they are paying.
Flying with AirAsia is also only part of the story. I’ve become a fan but not just because of the flying. In a world where airlines really do cop a lot of flak, for any manner of things, AirAsia is doing its best to improve its core business of flying. However, it’s the back story of corporate strategies, people leadership, wellbeing and social responsibilities that had me feeling better about AirAsia at every turn. More on all of that in a later article! For now, let’s take a look at what it is like to fly with the low-cost carrier that is AirAsia.
AirAsia – a flight review
As I walked into the Gold Coast International Airport late in the day, the first thing that struck me was the lack of people. As the smaller airport outside Queensland’s capital of Brisbane, several low-cost carriers like AirAsia have made their home here. Whilst the lower costs of operating out of such an airport serves their business model perfectly, it’s also a refreshing change from the larger airports.
Approaching the AirAsia counters, I couldn’t help but notice their Premium Flatbed signage. With a number for a seat down the rear of the plane printed on my ticket, it was wishful thinking on my behalf. Checking in is a simple process and AirAsia offers several options to do so. The simplest is checking in online, either via the website or a mobile app. Both may be done ahead of time and before arriving at the airport, streamlining the process once you are there. If you are unable to do so, mobile self-check-in kiosks are available for use near the counters.
Note – in some countries, like Malaysia, passes printed by the kiosks are not boarding passes and may require further validation at an official documents counter. Check your printed ticket as it will be disclosed on it. This will save you queuing for security (like me) and then having to go and stand in another queue. All of this is quite time consuming so it’s best to be prepared.
Baggage and bag drop
Once you have your boarding pass, you can then proceed to the bag drop counters to send your luggage on its way. Here’s where you get the biggest tip of all. AirAsia has weight limits and they can be heavily enforced. AirAsia’s business model is predicated on giving its customers the cheapest possible fare, without having to charge everyone for add-ons they don’t want. Baggage is one such add-on.
If you don’t have it, you don’t pay for it. However, passengers seem to want to push the envelope at every stage, stuffing their bags with as much as they can and hoping that the weight will go unnoticed. Personally, this is one of my big bugbears. Not for those who have a few hundred grams or the odd kilogram over. No, my pet peeve is aimed at those who seem to think that bringing their entire life onboard is acceptable. AirAsia won’t put up with this, and if you try, you’ll be one of those people constantly seen on the floor of an airport, bags open, contents scattered everywhere and a look of mild panic on their faces.
International flights attract a standard 25kg limit, whilst short haul flights (even international) have 20kg. If you are flying premium, you get a hefty 40kg allowance. There are standard baggage allowances for economy and premium and additional baggage may also be purchased at the time of buying your ticket. Cabin bags may consist of two items up to seven kg. If you get picked up with excess luggage, you will need to pay at the counter prior to being allowed on the aircraft.
Check for an upgrade
It is also at the counter where you can attempt to secure an “airport upgrade”. As Melanie Slater,” AirAsia Duty Executive at the Gold Coast Airport explained to me, “the AirAsia upgrade model works a little differently.” “Customers can pick up low-cost airfares for $100 one way, and then upgrade at the airport for an additional $400″. This way they are getting premium flatbeds at a fraction of the cost than if they were to purchase upfront”.
Of course, there’s an inherent risk in this. Upgrades of this nature are only possible if there are seats left, meaning the only true way of ensuring a flatbed is to pay for it when you book initially. Still, it’s not a bad option if you have the extra cash, but are ultimately prepared to sit in economy should the strategy not pay off.
With a spring in my step and my boarding pass clearly shouting out 1A, I couldn’t wait to walk across the tarmac and find my bed for the night. The flight from the Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpur is the last one for AirAsia for the evening, and it’s the perfect chance to test out the Premium Flatbeds. Having a premium seat also secures you priority boarding and priority luggage.
There are only 12 Premium Flatbeds on the A330-300s, meaning the front of the cabin has an intimate feel about it. There will be no glass of champagne before we take off, nor will there be food carrying the signature of a well-known chef. The pretty toiletries won’t make an appearance, nor will the pyjamas. For this is still a low-cost airline. It does, however, open up access to a more comfortable way of travelling and a chance to get out of the standard economy seats, for a fraction of the usual business class flights. This is affordable luxury at its best and it is a wonderful litmus test of what it really is that we covet when we fly.
The first row of the premium zone is the pick of the seats in my opinion. Located immediately behind the bulkhead, there is a significant amount of space. This of course only really matters if you have really long legs and if you are planning on sitting up during the flight. Otherwise, the flatbed has more than got you covered. Having a seat in any of the other beds still provides more than adequate room, even if you are seated next to someone you don’t know.
The flatbeds are controlled via a device in the armrest, allowing for the bed to be extended up and down and the leg rests to be elongated or retracted. It may also be operated from buttons located near the headrest.
The overhead lights may be used, but when one is lounging here, the most convenient option is to use the small LED light fixed near the headrest. This also offers more directional lighting for reading. There’s also a small area to place a few small things like glasses, earphones, iPhones or a book inside the armrest.
I felt totally relaxed onboard, having made my way through the efficient screening process at the Gold Coast Airport, and having a sneaky glass of bubbles before the time came to board. With myself now firmly ensconced in my seat, it was time to kick back and enjoy the flight. Flight DJ207 took off on time, a further testament to AirAsia’s stance as the world’s best low-cost airline for 10 years in a row.
The flatbeds recline back, without getting in the way of the passengers behind you, reclining almost flat. The Premium Flatbeds are seats, not fluffy beds, but the ability to be able to lie almost horizontally is manna from heaven on long flights. I’m not a sleeper on aircraft, however, I slept for about seven hours of the eight-hour flight to Kuala Lumpur.
Other benefits of Premium Flatbed tickets include unlimited changes to flights up to two hours before your original flight and access to the AirAsia Premium Red Lounge for up to three hours. This lounge reflects the low-cost model of AirAsia but offers an opportunity to relax away from the general public, plus get access to snacks, drinks, wifi and bathrooms.
Having flown from Australia to Malaysia in complete comfort, I was then able to test out the economy flight from Malaysia to Vietnam. Whilst a short-haul flight, it is still an international one, so it was good to be able to compare the two experiences. Perhaps the only significant difference, apart from the flatbed, was the staff on the ground. At some airports, like the Gold Coast, AirAsia staff are part of the operational team on the ground.
In other locations, the staff are outsourced and this is where the difference is most obvious. In another article, I will talk more about the people of AirAsia, as it is such a good story to tell. It’s what sets them apart from many other airlines. Unfortunately, outsourcing of staff comes with its commercial benefits, especially where cost is concerned, but has many downsides on the cultural and customer service side. This was evident as we were processed in Vietnam.
The economy flight is exactly that. No frills, bells or whistles. A standard seat, in a 3-3 configuration sees the passengers sitting snugly. The tip is to try and book a window or an aisle and to get your legs and arms in place so that anyone who wants to sit in the middle and spread themselves wider than necessary is thwarted from doing so. It’s no different than flying economy elsewhere though and at least the aircraft are new with nice leather seats. With a flying time of just over two hours, sitting in economy is not an issue at all. Once again, all add-ons apply to these flights as well.
The AirAsia model for inclusions is simple. In economy, this means you are paying for a seat. Everything else is an optional add-on which is what customers of AirAsia love. A base price seat, void of any additional commercial margin, overheads or any other charge airlines like to use to inflate the cost of a ticket. Here the pricing is transparent. If you want baggage, food, music, movies, even pillows and blankets, they are all available at an additional cost.
Seating allocation, even standard seating, is also a service that must be paid for unless you are happy with a random seat allocation. With seating allocations, you can choose seats in the Quiet Zone, in bulkheads or exit aisles for an additional fee. If you wish to change your pre-allocated seat at check-in, this too will attract a small fee.
Types of seating
The Quiet Zone
Not keen on travelling in general economy where it can get quite rowdy? The Quiet Zone is a perfect choice for those who prefer to fly with a little less distraction. Exclusive access to the Quiet Zone is given if you choose this when doing your seating allocation and I think it’s a fabulous idea. Immediately behind the Premium Zone on long-haul flights, rows 7-14 are set aside to allow for minimal disturbance and speedy exit off the aircraft at your destination.
The lighting here is different from the main economy cabin and an early food service is also deployed, allowing you to relax more quickly. Actually, this is one of the things I loved the most about AirAsia. These days on full-service airlines, it seems to take forever for meals to be served, then drinks, then recovery of the trays. If you are flying on a late night flight for example, having to wait an hour or more for this process to be completed eats into valuable rest time. On the AirAsia flights, the meal is served in a foil dish meaning clean up is simple. Even in Premium where a tray is provided, it’s still a quick turnaround.
On my return from Malaysia to Australia, I sat in the Quiet Zone so can attest to the peace and quiet of the cabin. The area is curtained off from the main economy cabin so general economy passengers don’t feel the need to walk around in here as they are stretching their legs. There’s also no toilet here which further reduces traffic. Passengers in the Quiet Zone must still use the facilities in the economy section, leaving the toilet in Premium, quite rightly, just for those passengers.
I loved the term given to special seats in the economy cabin, considered to be the best in the house outside of Premium Flatbeds. These seats are also usually more likely to be found in the forward part of the cabin and most often have extra legroom.
Airline food has a reputation, there’s no denying the fact. It doesn’t matter how airlines talk up the chef, most of it is barely edible. Of course, sitting up the pointy end of the aircraft and eating full-service airline food is nothing to be sneezed at. It’s usually pretty good. But just how much of a premium are you paying for that smoked salmon or wagyu beef? For the cost of the ticket, you could have many glorious fine-dining meals at your destination complete with French champagne, and it would still be cheaper than paying for the business class ticket. Once again, this is all about personal customer preference and the markets for these products are entirely different.
All food served on AirAsia flights comes from the one vendor, ensuring consistency and quality control. I’m not joking when I say that the meal was excellent. Spicy, flavoursome and all entirely edible. It’s been a while since I’ve been able to say that. A fellow traveller mentioned to me that “AirAsia food is the best airline food in the world”. That’s a big call but I understand her sentiment. For those adding this to their seat, the cost is minimal, at just over $AUD 6 for one hot meal.
Most people these days have their own devices and have access to a wide array of downloaded video and music content. AirAsia provides entertainment via Huawei tablets and soft bud earphones to those who have paid for them at time of booking their ticket.
This is always the part that makes or breaks the experience. Having been welcomed warmly at most touchpoints along both international flights (Australia- Malaysia – Vietnam), the underlying culture of AirAsia became evident. Onboard the aircraft, service is efficient and bright. It has to be on a low-cost carrier. At the beginning of the flights, the staff are introduced and we are advised of the languages they speak. At the end of the flight from Australia to Malaysia the crew were once again announced and they thanked us for flying with them. Imagine that. Gratitude to a paying customer.
As I reflected on the obvious morale of the people I had come in contact with, I couldn’t help but think of a recent flight I took where I felt the cabin crew thought I was doing them a favour by being there. Not so on board the AirAsia flights, where I watched all of their interactions with customers, all of which were handled with the same warmth and positivity that you would expect in such a role.
Top tips for making the most of your AirAsia flight
Pre-order the add-ons
It’s always best to pre-order your add-ons to ensure that they are available for your flight. AirAsia doesn’t carry excessive amounts of food, comfort packs and entertainment devices. Whilst there is the option of being able to buy some things on board, it is easier to reduce the risk and pre-order. That way, AirAsia will ensure that there is enough for those who have ordered. Spontaneous requests for food, especially specific dietary requirements, unfortunately, might not be able to be fulfilled.
Eat well before you go
If you are flying later in the evening especially, have dinner before you board. This way you can try and get some sleep as soon as possible. It is not permissible for you to take your own meals or hot drinks onboard these AirAsia flights. Small snacks are ok but meals that are hot or require heating are not.
Do your seating allocation at the time of booking
Unless you truly don’t care where you sit, it’s best to at least make a standard seat booking at the time of purchase, especially if you are travelling with others. Otherwise, the seating allocation is truly quite random and you and your travelling party could end up all over the place. Or worse, you’ll end up in that dreaded middle seat! As noted above, if I was flying economy again, I’d be definitely locking in a seat in the Quiet Zone.
If you have purchased an economy seat but would like to upgrade, get to the airport as early as possible to try and secure your upgrade. Note, this is not a free upgrade, but a purchased one, albeit much cheaper usually than if you had purchased Premium Flatbeds in the first instance.
Buy a value pack
Value packs are bundles of add-ons packaged together for purchase at the time of buying your ticket. For example, a simple Value Pack includes standard seating allocation, 20kg checked in luggage and a meal. They are offered at a discounted rate at the time of pre-purchase. Premium Flex Packs, include even more extras such as priority baggage and boarding.
Pack as lightly as possible
The baggage limits are tightly enforced so it’s best to stay under where possible to avoid excess fees. I always carry a set of digital scales with me to assist with my luggage weight. Unlike my husband, I’m not one of these people that can pick up a bag and boldly declare the weight. If you can manage it, pack a pillow, light blanket or wrap.
Take your entertainment
At the moment, AirAsia doesn’t have credit card facilities for purchasing anything other than duty-free. Whilst this will change in the future, for now, cash is still the best option. If you pay in your local currency, you’ll be given change in the currency of your destination, which could be useful if you are planning on staying there and not just passing through.
Be on time
Make sure you know exactly when the check-in, bag drop and gates close for your flight.
Would I fly AirAsia again?
Having had the opportunity to fly both in both the Premium Flatbed and economy classes, over distances of eight and two hours respectively, the answer is a resounding yes. With a strong focus on improving the flying experience and keeping the costs real without unnecessary cost for things I don’t need, this is definitely an airline that I would fly with again. Without a doubt, the flatbeds are of particular interest and are a fantastic option for a fraction of the usual price of business class seats. With aircraft flying to 130 destinations in 28 countries, it is the largest low-cost airline in the world.
According to Kris Taute, PR and Communications Manager Australia and New Zealand, there are 242 AirAsia aircraft in the sky at any one point in time. In that case, it’s highly likely that you’ll see me on one of those in the future.
More reading: The culture of Air Asia: a review of the Air Asia headquarters in Kuala Lumpur