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Inside The No-Frills, Long-Haul Flight on Air Asia X

March 16, 2009 at 5:16 PM | by | Comments (9)

As regular Ryanair masochists can imagine, the world’s first long-haul, "no frills" flight is not a concept that particularly fills us with longing. But Air Asia X’s launch sent prices from London to the Far East plummeting when booking opened last November, so we were intrigued. Would people really put up with no frills on a 13 hour flight? We turned reluctant guinea pig to find out.

A quick admission to start with. We were originally told that this was the inaugural flight to KL. Except when we got to the Air Asia launch party the night before, we realised it wasn’t – the first flight was taking off as we listened to The Saturdays. However, with the glitches we experienced on day two, we’re kind of glad we didn’t catch the first one.

Check-in

Since the flight was to depart at midnight and was the last one out for the day, we arrived at just before 10pm to find the notoriously chokka Stansted beautifully deserted. At check in, we asked if there were any emergency exit seats left – we were told we could buy one for £20. We were about to hand over the plastic when they offered it for free, which we accepted readily.

A word of warning – it’s blissful racing through check-in and security this late at night – but airside it’s a different story. All the shops, barring the duty free, and all the bars/restaurants, except for one particularly grim one, are shut. So is the Bureau de Change, and even the toilets in the main building (you have to go at the gate). So don’t plan on saving money on the flight by stockpiling supplies on the ground.

According to staff, a lounge is in the pipeline for XL customers (in the premium seats), although there’s no word on when that will happen.

Boarding

Our boarding cards said that boarding (at gate 16, amid the easyJet planes) would start at 22:35pm. But we ended up boarding at 23:42pm, with no announcements having been made as to why (in fact, we were standing by the desk and heard the supervisor instructing the gate workers not to make one). Apparently (yes, we earwigged), the problem was - and was the previous day as well - that the outgoing crew hadn't cleaned the plane sufficiently. We cut them some slack – everyone’s new here. That’s why the incoming crew went the wrong way onto the plane, and the gate workers acted like they’re getting their moment in front of Simon Cowell as they use the tannoy.

When it finally happened though, boarding was swift – we’d all been preassigned seats, unlike on some no-frills flights, and the stewards were all super-polite – we practically got our seat plumped up for us. We had a nice amount of legroom in our bulkhead seat (31G) – definitely worth £20. It was all going swimmingly until some people came along and asked where their bulkhead seats are. They were holding tickets for row 30, and had paid for extra legroom too. Ruh-roh.

The stewardess told them that the seating configuration on the website was wrong, that there was no row 30 on the plane, and she would find them other seats, without extra legroom. There was no mention made of refunding them their £20. But then, another off duty Air Asia person popped up to say that actually, there was no missing row, that the stewardess had been counting wrong, and that what she thought was row 31 is actually row 30.

What did that mean for us? Well, we were moved back a row to the standard seats. We were slightly peeved – yes, we'd accepted the seat upgrade as complimentary, but we had offered to pay, and had been about to pay, at check-in. We would not have been happy to have wasted £20.

All was well in the end - nobody claimed 31C, another emergency exit seat, so we moved there - but we couldn't help but be disappointed in their way of dealing with the situation. If the other seat had been taken, and we had paid for our legroom, would Air Asia have refunded it?

Anyway, we pushed back from the gate at 00:25am and took off 10 minutes later, 35 minutes behind schedule. Yet we still arrived 20 minutes early! The pilot gets a thumbs up.

Seating

There are two classes on the plane, an A340-300, economy and XL seats. We had a squiz at the XL section and we liked it a lot – although they’re not the fancy, massaging chairs you get in most business classes, and they don’t go flat (this picture shows one fully reclined):

They are, though, a fair bit wider than economy, better spaced (with a 2-2-2 configuration), and they have a whopping 60in seat pitch. At the time of booking, the cheapest we could find these seats for was £699 each way – but unless you really want that legroom, they’re not dapper enough to be worth £500 more than economy, as you still have to pay for your extras. However, if there is space, you can upgrade at the airport for £150 each way, which seems like a really good deal to us (double the space x 13 hours = much more pleasurable flight. In fact, it seems like such a good deal that we will most likely give that a whirl on our return flight.

Back to economy. We liked the 2-4-2 seat configuration very much – we’re more used to 3-4-3 on longhaul, so it was good to feel that we weren’t packed in. Seat pitch is an acceptable 32in.

Each seat has a storage pocket (don’t take that for granted on a low cost – Ryanair whipped theirs out to shave off precious cleaning minutes). The only caveat is that, though the seats are comfy, the padding between the small of your back and the storage pocket of the person behind is such that every time they reach for a magazine, you feel like they are tickling your derriere.

There are no TVs on the backs of the chairs – the slots are filled with cushions. If you want to watch a film, you buy a handheld console. This might be easier than craning your neck to catch the screen when the seat in front is reclined, or it might be more awkward. We can’t say, as, um, there was no entertainment on our flight.

In-Flight Entertainment

Unlike Air Asia X’s Australian planes, which have TVs in the back of their seats, the UK ones don’t. But you can rent an Eplayer handheld console for 30MR (£6) which gives you access to seven films, eight TV shows and 30 music channels.

We would quite happily have watched Quantum of Solace or Madagascar 2 (they aren’t new releases, as you can tell), but when we asked to buy a console, we were told that there was no in-flight entertainment because the batteries had not been charged before the flight. We asked if there was any entertainment at all, and the steward laughed and said: “Yes, you can look at me.”

Umm, ok. Paying for our food we are fine with. Hiring a console we are fine with. Teething problems we are fine with. Forgetting to charge the batteries, leaving 187 seething people with nothing to watch or listen to for 13 hours – and not even making an announcement or an apology for it – we find pretty unforgivable.

We heard one guy say as he was boarding that he had forgotten a book, so heaven only knows what he did. As for us, we did without our traditional celeb mags (Stansted was closed, remember?) and our back-to-back film habit, and thanked the lord that we charged our iPod to the max before boarding.

A note for those planning to try the XL seats - there are screens built into your seats, but they are not in use yet, because, as an engineer on the flight told us, Air Asia has not yet worked out a way to stop people who haven't paid NOT watch them. Also, there is an issue with copyright, apparently, and they have not yet been programmed with Air Asia's logo (they bought them from Air Canada). Until these problems are sorted out, you will be buying the consoles. Once they are, though, you should have access to a moving map (we love these) which economy doesn't have.

Food: Food was served an hour after take-off. There were snacks (nuts, sandwiches) plus five hot choices: Nasi Lemak, Chicken Biryani, Roast Chicken, Vegetarian Mediterranean Pasta, and Penne with Chicken Bolognaisea (sic). All cost 18RM (£4), which again is a lot cheaper than what we’re used to on the European budget carriers. If you prebook them online, they cost 12RM. We chose Pak Nasser’s Malaysian Nasi Lemak – coconut rice with chilli sauce, chicken redang, dried anchovies and nuts. And, apart from an amazingy twee afternoon tea we had in BMI transatlantic business class last year, it’s probably the best plane food we have ever had.

OK, it looked unprepossessing and it’s not exactly restaurant standard, but it was way better than a ready meal and it was the only time on a plane we have ever scraped the fork around the tin. Water and coffee cost £1 a pop, there’s another meal run three hours before landing, and you can buy food in between as well.

Amenities “Comfort kits” are sold at the start of the flight for 35RM or £7 (or prebook them online for 25RM). They consist of a blanket, suede pillow and eye mask. We resisted the urge, but they looked quite swish.

Service The stewards are all nice and friendly, and our head guy did a good line in quips during announcements. He drawled like a radio DJ and told us we are being served by the best in the business. We liked them a lot, although they weren’t as perky as Virgin.

Pricing

Launch prices back in November were £99 each way including taxes, but they sold out almost immediately and were replaced with £179 each way. By the start of December, they were up to £221 each way, they which isn’t that much of a reduction, given that you can get tickets on other carriers for about £430 upwards.

This is where it gets confusing. With other low cost airlines, we’re used to the price starting low and going steadily up, but with Air Asia X, prices then went down – at the time of booking (a week before the flight), our ticket would have cost about £240 return – about half the price that we could have booked it for in December.

Clearly, £240 return is an excellent price, though you must factor in the extras when you book (checking in a bag costs up to £20 each way, for a start). But if you come prepared, you needn’t splash out on the plane. You don’t really need a suede eyemask, however appealing it looks.

Verdict

We really want this airline to do well – cheap longhaul can only be a good thing, and Tony Fernandes is definitely onto something. But – and if we change our minds after the return flight, we’ll let you know - there were just too many teething problems on this flight for us to want to rebook, unless it was at a bargain price – say max £300 for the ticket. And we don’t see how that can be profitable.

That’s not our business, of course. It’s Tony Fernandes’. But if he manages it, we’ll be back for more. Hopefully with a TV this time.

*Disclaimer: juliab flew as a guest of Air Asia X.

Related Stories:
· Air Asia [Official Site]
· Air Asia X Launches Low-Cost, Long-Haul Service [Jaunted]

Comments (9)

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Great Review

Sounds very promising.

Are the seats upholstered with some kind of microfiber? It looks like some kind of fake-suede material?


this review cracked me up

i honestly need to travel with you sometime julia! you can be my inflight entertainment when the handheld consoles have died out from lack of charged batteries. :)

you pay for what you get!

i took a few shorter-haul flights with Air Asia - and it was a bit chaotic, no pre-assigned seats, everyone lining up at the gate well before line-up time, let alone boarding time. but it's pretty damn cheap, especially when regular fares will cost you 2 to 4x more on other airlines. even still, Air Asia could still be compared to one of our "typical" North American airlines - so I shouldn't complain - at least they're honest about the "no frills."

microfibre

i wish it was fake suede, but that was restricted to the eyemask/pillow combo. it was normal material but with that weird paisley pattern. very retro.

LOL...laughing my head off :)

absolutely great review!!!...you guys should be a comedy writers or something (i abandoned flying ryanair after the 3rd flight...and flying long-haul in the back of the plane...the problem is:once you get used to first 7 biz theeres never going back to....the back...however i can absolutely agree with 2 coments up: you guys gotta be a great deal of an awesome party to fly with...who cares its economy) ;)

Air Asia X premium seats

Just flew Air Asia X premium. Just wanted to say that seat reclines a lot further than the image you have. Mine went almost fully flat. I actually found it a bit too flat, so had to raise it a bit. Anyways, if you can get one of the promo fares, its mega value!!!

Be careful with AirAsiaX

Most recently, my wife and I were stranded in Abu Dhabi when AirAsiaX announced they were canceling service to/from Abu Dhabi in January this year. They didn't notify us (their stranded passengers) until Feb 10th. Neither did they offer any accommodation nor answer our emails asking for help. We had to get back to Malaysia on our own. They won't reimburse our additional expenses either. They said they would refund the Abu Dhabi/Kuala Lumpur portion of our trip, but it will take them 30-50 days to process the refund. Such an attitude! Watch out for these guys. If you are considering using AirAsiaX, It might be a good idea to develop a plan B... just in case.

best...

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Just flew Chc-KL return with Air Asia and dont care how cheap they are will never fly them again! First they lost all our lugggage and then when they found it it had the cheek to make us pay taxi fares for it to be returned to us, I found the crew rather robot like and not trained in dealing with anything out of the norm! We prebooked meals and on the return flight my son was given his hotdog meal, then on his second bite the hostie snatched it from him screaming not yours at him, She then proceeded to ignore us when we demanded explanation!! 20mins later she practically threw his half eaten cold hotdog back at him.. with a half hearted "So sorry"

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