I am a seasoned traveller who loves to fly on Japan Airlines (JAL) or All Nippon Airways (ANA). I have a certain level of comfort that I enjoy when I travel to different places. I don’t mind being crammed into small places for a long time as long as I am expecting it. While I don’t mind, I still prefer to have the luxuries and comforts of being in a nice plane with the basic amenities that I have grown accustomed to. In March 2012 I flew aboard the low cost carrier, Air Asia X. Air Asia is the largest low cost carrier (LCC) in the world and their Air Asia X brand is their long distance LCC. I had a chance to read up on the Air Asia brand and felt that their flight would offer the right mixture of competitive prices as well as services. I was well prepared but I was also unprepared for some of the problems I did experience.
Flying on an LCC is something that one must experience to understand. It is akin to being jammed into an overloaded bus and travelling in the air. For short trips this is beneficial as I generally don’t need lavish planes for a simple one or two hour journey. The model is very good and very well suited to short haul flights. In Japan, I think it is something that can work very well for all routes within Japan. In fact, there are several LCCs in Japan already but they weren’t necessarily recognized as an LCC by most people at the time. Most of them operate limited schedules and between only a few major airports within Japan. Osaka is the first city in Japan to see a true internationally minded LCC in Japan. The first internationally minded LCC is called Peach. It is a joint venture between ANA and an investment firm, but this is a bit surprising as Air Asia has just expanded into Japan with a joint venture with ANA as well, but based at Narita Airport. JAL is not to be left out as they formed a joint venture with Qantas to setup Jetstar Japan which launched in July. It is their answer to Air Asia as it will also be based in Narita Airport. The LCC carrier market has generally been dominated by semi-private airlines in Japan that only operate a few routes each, but with the introduction of Air Asia, Jetstar, and Peach, the level of LCC competition in Japan is looking to heat up a lot over the next few years.
My experience flying on Air Asia X was one that was not supposed to be difficult. The number of flights each week is limited to 3. I was happy to be flying out of Haneda Airport and I had already done all of my research into how to get onto the flight. I knew that Air Asia X had no food available unless I paid for it. All Air Asia X flights also require passengers to walk into the plane from the tarmac. It was not a problem whatsoever, but my only problem was that Air Asia X had lead me to believe that doing a web check-in would mean I could walk directly from the train station and through security. Unfortunately this was not the case. I was forced to line up for security only to be told to head to the check in counters to check in. This is a very strange thing as the Air Asia X website told me that I had to be at the gate on time. I was frustrated by this but had to abide by their rules. I was more annoyed that their website didn’t have enough information about the check in procedures outside of Malaysia. For someone like Tony Fernandes who says he will do every job in his company so that he can understand how they feel, he should also travel to all of the destinations his company flies to as well as do all of the bookings himself so he knows what it is like for a new passenger trying to get things done on their own. At the check in counter, my bag was weighed and I was given a special tag to say that my bag was not overweight and that it was inspected. It isn’t a big deal as I was half expecting them to pinch their pennies. They are very strict in terms of luggage. I was worried I would be overweight by a little and I was. Thankfully the person helping me with my things allowed my overweight baggage due to the fact that I had a computer inside. They did voice concerns with the weight distribution as one bag was a bit too heavy. Once I was done with checking in, I headed through security and down to the gate. From the gate, the bus ride was pretty quick and painless and we had a few seconds to take photos of the plane before we headed up the stairs and to our seats.
One thing I learned when I went to Las Vegas aboard Alaskan Airlines is that you need to get to your seat as fast as you can. It is literally a fight to get enough space in the overhead compartments. When I arrived at my seats, I found that there was only a little space available for me to use. Somehow, Americans are much better at putting their luggage in the overhead bins. I remember on my flight on Alaskan Airlines that they asked me to put my luggage in with the wheels facing out. If you put the wheels facing out, it aides in creating more space for everyone to put their things into the overhead compartments. I found a quick space to put my luggage in but thanks to the people before me, they loaded the back of the bin with umbrellas and even a small rug! I had to throw things all over the place before I could get my luggage to fit in the bin smoothly. I had two pieces of luggage and it took a minute to find space for both pieces of my luggage. I was surprised at how poorly the cabin attendants were trained in putting the luggage into the overhead bins. For a budget airline, they should be experts but I knew a lot more than them.
While the staff had problems with the overhead bins, they did a great job overall with the service. They all had big bright smiles as well as lots of make-up. They all seemed friendly enough. On my flight to Malaysia, I had an okay time. The seats are pretty small but just large enough for me to feel comfortable. The leg room was tight but just satisfactory. For a 7-8 hour flight, it was bearable but for any longer, I would have gone crazy. The flight to Malaysia was a bit noisy and very cold. I would guess that Air Asia X didn’t want to spend too much money on heaters and they also wanted to try to sell the comfort packs of blankets to the passengers. It is a bit of a guess but a reasonable one at that. I didn’t order any food on my trip to Malaysia but they did bring the food out at regular intervals. For a red eye flight, I didn’t need food as I would prefer to just sleep as much as possible but it was difficult to do so as they kept going up and down the aisles every few hours and the people around me were noisy enough that it was difficult to sleep constantly. It is natural that things will be like that so there wasn’t too much I could complain about. On my return flight, I was a little more annoyed as the staff seemed ruder in general. It could have been how I addressed them at first or the fact that I had to interact with them but it wasn’t as pleasant as my flight to Malaysia. On my return trip to Tokyo, I did order a meal before the flight but I did have to ask them for it. It wasn’t easy to get it but I did get it and I did enjoy the food. Overall, everything met my expectations but unfortunately, nothing exceeded it either.
Flying on Air Asia X also meant I had to fly in and out of the Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) in Kuala Lumpur. Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) is a very nice modern airport but the LCCT felt like a ghetto airport. I arrived very early in the morning and quickly got a ticket for a taxi. I didn’t want the hassle of waiting for a shuttle bus and making two connections for trains to get to my hotel which would have been a walk as well. I spent about RM74 to get from the LCCT to my hotel. It was well worth the money as I was very tired. My driver was very crazy and I made it to my hotel within an hour during rush hour traffic. The terminal itself looked worse than it was at night. It was very crowded in the early morning and I felt like I had to fight to get around all the different people. People were also shouting at me to buy bus tickets even though I had a taxi ticket in my hand. When I returned to the LCCT to go back to Tokyo, it was a different experience. Things were a bit calmer overall and I could enjoy looking at the few shops that were available. The security checkpoints were pretty simple and so was immigration. I even had time to do a little duty free shopping. One of the special perks of the LCCT is that there was a duty free at the arrivals area as well as the departures area. I could buy duty free items at both times. The terminal is pretty small but it serves its purpose. The LCCT is definitely showing signs of strain as the capacity of the terminal had been reached due to the popularity of Air Asia. I look forward to hearing about KLIA 2, the new LCCT, in the near future and to see if it is better or worse than the existing LCCT.
My overall experience aboard Air Asia X and LCCs in general was not bad. It wasn’t great but it wasn’t terrible. For the price, you can’t expect too much from Air Asia itself and due to the time it takes to go from Tokyo to Malaysia, you can be forgiven if the services were not up to par for international travel. If they flew to Taipei, I would consider using it. Anything over 5 hours is something where you will have to weigh the costs a lot. Since I saved nearly half of the airfare compared to flying on JAL, I would say that it was worth it. If the savings are still around the same, I would consider using Air Asia or any other LCC in the future, but if the savings are minimal, I wouldn’t fly them. For long haul flights, such as going to Vancouver from Tokyo, I would not use any LCC. I need entertainment and the amount of time I would spend crammed into such small seats is not enjoyable. I would probably go crazy without free movies and some form of entertainment. Meals also have to be mandatory on a flight that is over 6 hours as I was very hungry when I got into Malaysia without a meal. If the flight is within Japan, or within a short distance of Japan, I would highly recommend an LCC if the price is worth it. Comfort is a luxury when travelling short distances, but a necessity when doing long distances.