Low-cost flights have become so common that we are now used to travelling without a numbered seat and, when boarding an aircraft, we no longer expect to be immediately offered newspapers, water, fruit juice and coffee. We have learnt to travel by plane without all those extra services guaranteed by traditional airlines. However, this change in habits only concerns short-haul flights. As for long-distance flights, the charm of a trip on the “Orient Express” resists: people still expect service, courtesy, food, drinks, movies and comfort. When travelling with a low-cost airline, people now know they need to get organised beforehand: “pack your stuff and be independent!”.
Air Asia is one of the most diffused low-cost airlines in Asia. It operates between Australia, Brunei, Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam and, on March 11, 2009 Air Asia inaugurated the non-stop flight London-Kuala Lumpur, thus testing a low-cost journey for a long-distance flight.
What does it mean to travel by plane for 12 hours when services and costs have been reduced to the minimum possible?
Of course, what interests and then convinces potential customers is the price of the ticket: for less than 100 Gbp it is possible to have a one-way ticket to Europe (or to Asia!). But what happens next? What should people be prepared to do if they want to get to their final destination fully satisfied?
Low-cost often means “do-it-yourself” and it is up to customers to arrange their itinerary, decide if they are going to pay for a travel insurance or not, if and where to book their seat and to be sure to plan their connecting flights with reasonable flight times, allowing them to travel without major inconveniences. In fact, flying low-cost means saving money, but it also means taking risks. Remember that you need to check in your luggage at every connecting flight and that if you miss the connection, you have to buy another flight. Nobody will wait for you, arrange a hotel or offer you bonus tickets if there are delays or overbooking…
Luckily, I was smart enough to book a meal online. Just at the right time, here came the smiling, slender, fascinating, AirAsian girls dressed in red. They kindly put a small, aluminium box and a small, transparent plastic bag with a plastic fork, a spoon and a tiny napkin on my table. Besides the striking contrast between the flight attendants’ bright and charming smile and the meagre meal in the aluminium box, there was nothing surprising in that package. Forget the charm of mono-portions, nicely displayed on a tray. Forget the pleasure of eating using stainless steel forks with the logo of the airline. Forget the dozens of small containers of all shapes perfectly fitting into one another. Forget class and style and go straight to the point: FOOD. Just one dish, but warm and relatively tasteful.
Unfortunately, one of the common features of low-cost airlines is to try to sell anything possible in order to make up for the low price of the ticket. During the flight, expect to be regularly harassed about merchandise on sale. When travelling in Europe, I remember not being pleased with Ryan Air’s scratch-off cards disguised by charity donations to orphans. Also Air Asia has its incredibly wide range of products on sale. Inspiration is drawn from old-school airlines (cigars and perfumes for instance), from services usually offered on board (everything is for sale: water, blankets, earphones…) and it goes even further. There is the Air Asia clothes brand (red t-shirts and caps), Air Asia’s plane-shaped USB pen-drives and a menu à la carte with hamburgers and spaghetti bolognaise.
The only thing really missing is the screen giving information about the flight. I love watching the tiny white plane moving slowly on the map and reading all data such as the km to destination, the outside temperature, the altitude…
What about the rest? If you think about it, what really matters on a flight is the aircraft’s suitability for flying, a skilled and competent crew and the reliability of safety devices. In fact, all the luxury traditional airlines have got us used to are nothing but the legacy of the idea that travelling by plane is for the privileged, a status category that distinguishes the haves from the have nots. Today, as Air Asia’s slogan says, “everyone can fly”; and let me add, “more people will fly”, given that many people want to travel safely while spending the least amount possible. The rest is superfluous.
Here are some tips for making your long-haul journey with a low-cost airline more comfortable:
-Book all the services that you may need on board online beforehand. Not only will you save money, but you will have access to some services that are not always available such as the possibility to choose your seat and your food, paying for extra-weight, etc.
-Have some money in the currency of the airline in order to be able to buy things on board (even just water!). It is possible to pay with credit cards but the commission is excessive.
-Bring your own socks, blanket, pillow, earphones or be prepared to purchase all this. If possible, bring your laptop with movies and music. And hope the battery will last because there is no plug to charge it!