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I'm an Aussie who likes wandering all over the world but keeps coming back home to paradise and my family. If you are reading this on one of my travel blogs, I hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed creating them. If you are reading the Diabetes and weight loss blog - I hope it helps in your battle with the beast. Cheers, Alan

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Flying AirAsia and AirAsiaX

I flew six AirAsia legs on my recent trip; four on AirAsiaX and two on AirAsia. The flights and durations were:

Coolangatta, Australia to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 8: 20

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Kochi, India, 4:00

Kochi, India to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 4:00

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Stansted (London), England, 13:30

Stansted (London), England to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, 13:30

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia to Coolangatta, Australia 8:00

Some of the comments which follow are less than complimentary. For that reason I will make it very clear that I accept that you get what you pay for in life. Despite some of the negatives an overwhelming positive is that I used AirAsiaX and AirAsia to travel from Australia to Europe, via India, return for less than AU$1000 total. That is less than half the price of competing airlines “special” fares for that combined route.

I knew I would be travelling on a budget airline, so I did not expect Qantas service. The comments are not complaints but realistic statements of the service received, intended to help others who might consider using the airline. Despite that, I think the company could improve a few things especially in the areas of food and seat allocations.

The AirAsiaX flight from Coolangatta was less stressful than I expected. The seat pitch was a little tight for a six-footer, but I was lucky to have a vacant seat beside me giving me a bit of room to spread. I needed it, because the seat recline was very limited. That vacant seat was the difference between being fairly cramped and comfort.

The pre-paid meal (Nasi Lemak) was very forgettable and bore little similarity to the versions I ate later in Kuala Lumpur. I was glad I ignored their ban on bringing food on board. As an experienced long-haul flyer and type 2 diabetic I was not going to take any chances on the lack of suitable catering so I smuggled some home-made sandwiches on board. I ate a little at a time during the trip; like a naughty school-boy eating in class. Later I noticed that I was not alone, with several others eating their own sandwiches and salads. The stewards never commented. Eventually I did this, with discretion, on all of the long flights. I don't know what would happen if they decided to enforce the rules; confiscation perhaps?

The cabin staff were excellent and very attentive during the first four hours but their attention waned after that. My stewardess call light remained unanswered for about thirty minutes at one stage. Apart from that they provided a fairly good service.

I wrote earlier that you get what you pay for. On AirAsia that applies absolutely: everything has a price. For example: In-flight services

That includes many things that are part of the service on other airlines, including everything from a bottle of water or wine (not available on the India flights) or a blanket, eyeshade and inflatable pillow. The price on that first flight could be paid in Malaysian Ringgits or Australian dollars; I later found accepted currencies are ringgits or the currency of the departure or destination airport. I also found that the most economical way to pay was to estimate my needs for the flight and convert that amount in non-Malaysian currency to ringgits. The exchange rate for cash was much better than the quick conversion by the steward for individual items.

While in Kuala Lumpur I put aside some ringgits specifically for use on board on later flights.

The aircraft (A330) on that leg was reasonably new and seemed in excellent condition; we had no flight or landing problems. I was surprised to find no air-bridge at Kuala Lumpur LCCT. We descended steps to the tarmac and walked quite a long way to the immigration and baggage areas.

AirAsia does not use the Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA ) terminal. Instead they use LCCT (The Low Cost Carrier Terminal); which appears to be co-located, sharing some facilities, but on the opposite side of the airstrip. The road journey between the two terminals is about 20km and takes about half an hour. Before I discovered that I originally booked at the Pan-Pacific Hotel at KLIA for the overnight stay before my flight to London. I had to cancel that booking because of the distance and timing (the shuttle stops operating mid-evening) and booked at the Tune Hotel at LCCT. Tune is the only hotel at LCCT; it is a low-cost budget hotel associated with AirAsia. Again, you get what you pay for: a reasonable bed that only just manages to fit in the tiny room. Extras, like air-conditioning, towels and soap all must be paid for. But despite that the price is still cheap. I paid less than AU$40 including the extras and the one ringgit each way shuttle to the terminal.

The flights to and from India were without air safety incidents, although there were some very odd loud electro-hydraulic sounds from under my seat (over the wing) just before touch-down in Kochi. An unfortunate legacy of being a retired avionics engineer is that I usually have a pretty good idea what the different noises mean even when I would prefer not to know. However, nobody seemed concerned and we landed quite safely.

On the flight to Kochi on an A320 I was asked to move from my reserved seat 3A to the escape row because there were children booked in the escape row seats. I didn't object, but I was very annoyed on the return flight when I was in the reverse situation. I found three large gentlemen, including myself, were side by side and the stewards refused to let one of us move to a vacant seat to allow all of us a little extra room. The steward claimed that only “hot seats” were available and we could not pay to upgrade after the flight had left the terminal. Even if payment had been available, none of us would have been happy to pay extra to move in the circumstances. Eventually, after a frustrating discussion, I gave up. Next time the steward passed I asked for his name. When he asked why I informed him that I needed to include it in my official written complaint. He gave his name courteously. I wrote my notes and tried to get comfortable. About an hour later, with two more hours of flight time to go, the senior steward appeared and offered me a vacant seat, one of two, in the escape row. I decided not to send the complaint. But it was still very annoying.

On return to LCCT the walk from the aircraft to the terminal building was very, very long. I recommend that type 2 diabetics get at least 30 minutes of exercise daily, but I didn't expect to get mine between the aircraft steps and immigration. At immigration the wait was long. There were four staff attending to the 10% of passengers with Malaysian passports and four attending to the rest of us. The four staff for the Malaysians left the room as soon as they had processed their nationals while we spent nearly an hour queuing patiently to be processed by the remaining four. The process was very similar when I returned from London, except that the queue was longer.

The 14 hour flight to London was on an A340. In this case when I asked to be moved to a vacant seat there was no difficulty at all. However, it was still a very long and mainly sleepless flight. The vacant seat helped with extra space, but it did not overcome the very limited seat recline. Long-haul flights are one of the few times I regret being six feet tall; one of the others is when I bang my head on low lintels in old houses. Later, on the return from London I managed to get a trio of seats in the centre; much more comfortable.

I had learned from my earlier experience and smuggled food on board, despite having pre-paid for two “International” meals on the flight. I was very pleased I did; the roast chicken was thickly and inedibly coated in a heavy sugared sauce; all of the other choices on the in-flight sales menu were sky high in carbohydrates. For a diabetic they were a disaster. However, at 18 ringgits the good Aussie wine was not too over-priced so I found some compensation in that.

There were a couple of annoying problems on that flight. The most obvious was the blockage of five of the six toilets within a few hours of departure. When I mentioned it to the stewards they appeared to be totally unconcerned and made it clear that they were unable to unblock them. I got the impression that they would not have performed the task even if they had the expertise.

Another problem was the layout. The premium bed-seats are just forward of the centre of the A340, between the forward and rear economy sections. To prevent DVT I take regular walks along the aisles on long flights. On the AirAsia A340 the stewards were not happy about me passing through the premium seating section on those walks. However, after the toilets became blocked they stopped objecting; presumably because the only working toilet left was in the rear compartment.

All checked baggage has a price with AirAsia. You select the weight limit during the purchase process and pay accordingly. For carry-on luggage AirAsia specify quite strict carry-on bag limits:

  • Unchecked Baggage: Passengers (except infants) are allowed two (2) items of baggage to be carried on board. The items of baggage may be a combination of any two of the following: cabin bag or a laptop bag or a handbag. The cabin bag shall not exceed the dimensions of 56cm X 36cm X 23cm and must not weigh more than 7kg. Such baggage must fit under the seat in front of you or in an enclosed storage compartment in the cabin. Items determined by us to be of excessive weight or size or of an offensive nature will not be permitted on board.

When I flew I was told I could only take one carry-on bag, so those rules appear to be a little more lenient now. Or possibly I was badly advised. Whether an AirAsia passenger will have a problem with oversize or overweight bags seems to vary by airport. When I departed Coolangatta I noticed several quite large bags being put in the overhead lockers that I am sure were over their size limits. I did not see anyone's carry-on bags weighed at check-in. At LCCT the unusual double security check system made it difficult to tell whether people were refused, but I did not see anyone board with large carry-ons, nor did many of the women have large handbags as well as carry-ons. Kochi India, was almost open slather. There were several Indian ladies boarding who seemed to be carrying half their household goods. Nobody seemed to be objecting. On the other hand, at Stansted, London the check-in staff were very strict. I saw a bag being measured; it passed OK. The carry-on bag for the guy in front of me weighed 9.7KG (the limit for my flight was 7Kg) and he appeared to be charged extra. I don't know how much, but he wasn't very happy.

I wouldn't recommend taking the chance if debating whether to take extra on board. You may get away with it but you only need one check-in person who is having a bad day to ruin yours.

Booking via the web with AirAsia also has its interesting moments. It appears that in certain departure countries not all credit cards, regardless of the country of issue, are accepted despite buying through the same web-site. For example, my Amex card was accepted for flights departing Australia, the UK and Malaysia but not for the flight departing India. For that flight I had to use Visa. There were no warnings, just a failure to accept the card after going through the booking process. That seems an odd way to run an airline booking system.

There is no doubt that the only reason I would fly AirAsia is their low price. However, that can be so low that I would probably be prepared to fly them again some time in the future and accept the inconveniences.

In a way, it is a little like travelling to foreign parts. I appreciate my homeland so much more after seeing the rest of the world. I appreciate Qantas and other full service airlines so much more after flying AirAsia.

Cheers, Alan, Australia

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