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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.