AirAsia has successfully done what many budget airlines aspire to do - create an illusion of accessible air travel for the masses while making millions selling their additional services.
When we were traveling to Koh Lipe in December of 2018, we were required to take a connecting flight to Hat Yai from Kolkata via Bangkok. Considering the facts that the distance between Don Mueang International Airport (DMK) and Suvarnabhumi Airport (BKK) is almost an hour and majority of the flights to Hat Yai operate out of DMK - while Thai Air Asia, Nok Air and Thai Lion Mentari fly out of DMK, Thai Smile operates out of BKK - we decided to book the following air travels with Thai AirAsia as that was the only airline that allowed us to book both legs of the journey to Hat Yai.
- Kolkata to Bangkok (December 25, 2018)
- Bangkok to Hat Yai (December 25, 2018)
- Hat Yai to Bangkok (December 28, 2018)
- Bangkok to Kolkata (January 4, 2019)
As it was a compulsion to book AirAsia and not a choice, we decided to at least have a worry free and comfortable journey and booked all the flights in the 'Premium Flex' category. Beyond allowing the flex option of changing and cancelling flights at favorable rates, as the name suggests, this category was also supposed to allow us 30kg checked-in baggage, express check-in and boarding, express baggage, option to choose 'Hot Seats' and complimentary meals. Unfortunately, AirAsia hardly lived up to its promises even while charging almost double the fare in the 'Premium Flex' category, when compared to the regular fare.
As a side note, before we start elaborating why we are so aggrieved with AirAsia, we would also like to touch upon the positive side about the Thai aviation industry, which we would be covering in details in a separate blog:
We also visited Koh Kood during the same trip and it required us to book a flight from Bangkok to Trat. We were initially very perturbed with the fact that only Bangkok Airways flew between Bangkok and Trat, and that meant we would have to travel from DMK to BKK after landing at the former when returning from Hat Yai - which also meant, having to stopover for a night in Trat. As there was no other option, we went ahead and booked Bangkok Airways. And, after all the fiasco with AirAsia, we were glad we booked with Bangkok Airways as they clearly lived up to their slogan - Asia's Boutique Airline. The onward and return flights between Bangkok and Trat with Bangkok Airways are the best that we have flown till now.
The Cancellation Fiasco: We had just touched down at Kolkata Airport on October 21, 2018, returning from our travel across Assam, and our plane was taxing to reach its designated gate, when we received an email from AirAsia. We had booked our tickets about 10 months in advance and had received several emails (yes, several) notifying about the multiple changes in the schedule of our flights, so didn't pay much heed to this email either, procrastinating to read it at a later time. It was only when we were waiting for our ride back home that we thought about giving the email a read. For a few seconds we froze right where we were standing after reading the first few lines of the email.
With just over 2 months to go, for a trip that we had been planning for over a year then, the AirAsia flight from Bangkok to Hat Yai was cancelled. AirAsia did offer to accommodate us in one of the other flights that they operated between Bangkok and Hat Yai, but none of them were at a time that suited us. We were to fly into the international terminal at DMK, complete immigration and then head to the domestic terminal to take the flight the Hat Yai after completing all formalities at that terminal. We could not take the first flight of the day as it was it was scheduled to depart just 30 mins after our scheduled arrival time into DMK - on paper it is possible to get such a connection, but practically it is close to impossible. And, as we already had our car from Hat Yai to Pak Bara, our speedboat (the last one of the day) from Pak Bara to Koh Lipe and our resort in Koh Lipe booked, we could not afford to take any flight later than two hours from the one that we booked - our flight was scheduled at 9:00 AM, the next one was at 11:20 AM.
After a few days of trying all permutations and combinations, we decided to request AirAsia for a refund and book the flight from DMK to Hat Yai with one of the other airlines, which were at that time selling the tickets at premium prices.
The Check-in Saga at Kolkata Airport: It is a well known fact that one must report to the airport at least 2 hours before for domestic flight and and 3 hours before for international flights. We frequently travel from the Kolkata Airport and are aware about the rush that it witnesses in the peak hours, so decided to reach a little early at about 10:00 PM, complete all check-in, security and immigration formalities, and then grab some dinner in the lounge before catching our 1:40 AM flight.
Upon entering the airport we were surprised to find that all check-in counters of AirAsia were vacant. Not a single AirAsia staff was is sight. Every other airline was proceeding with their check-in procedures. After asking around we could only gather information that the counters would open 'soon'. We realized our mistake to have reached before 3 hours and decided to wait.
At around 11:00 PM we saw some activity in the check-in counters, but none of the people there were in the trademark AirAsia uniforms. The check-in process was initiated at around 11:20 PM, but that was not for our flight - it was for the 1:10 AM flight to Kuala Lumpur. When we inquired about the check-in of our flight the executives managing the queues informed that it would only open 2 hours before the departure time.
We waited till about 12:00 midnight when passengers for our flight were called for check-in. While we were waiting we had also gone through the self check-in procedure at the kiosks and had already got our boarding pass. The only thing left to do was drop our baggage, which we figured would be a breeze as we were booked in the 'Premium Flex' category, which offers express check-in.
But, to our plight, neither were there any dedicated express check-in counters, nor were there any dedicated baggage drop counters for self checked-in travelers. Moreover, the executives managing the queues had no clue about express check-in. By the time their supervisor came to speak to us, after multiple requests, our turn had come to drop our baggage. We finally completed the entire check-in process at 12:30 AM and headed for the other formalities.
As for the staff not wearing the trademark AirAsia colors; we later found out that they are not AirAsia employees, but those of a company who have been outsourced to manage the operations of the airline in the international terminal. Their professionalism and attention to details clearly differentiated them from employees of other airlines, even the budget ones in India.
Side Note: We did enjoy a wonderful express check-in at DMK when returning to Kolkata, that too about 2 hours 30 minutes before the departure time, giving us ample to grab some dinner and snooze at the airside lounge.
The Confused Service on the CCU to DMK Flight: Everyone knows how appetizing airline food is. But, add some beer or wine and you can get yourself a decent meal that satisfies you when you are hungry, while helping you pass some time in a long flight.
So, when our meal got served we asked the cabin crew if we can buy some beer - as AirAsia is a budget airline the don't serve alcohol even on international routes, but you can purchase some from their menu. The young guy who seemed to be on one of his initial flights as a cabin crew shared with us the options available on the flight and informed of their respective prices. We asked him to get us Singha beer, the prices of which was marked up by at least 4 times.
He went to get us our beer, but came back empty-handed after about 5 minutes. He apologized that he cannot serve us the beer as we were sitting in exit row seats. The most surprising thing was that these were 'Hot Seats' with better upholstery and more legroom - a premium offering - which we booked as part of the 'Premium Flex' offering. But, the in-flight dining service to these seats were only limited.
Side Note: While the confusion with the beer was a minor hiccup, there was something good about this flight also and the cabin crew on it, which we should acknowledge. We had to pre-select our meal while booking our tickets - one of us had chosen chicken lasagna, while other was confused between two Thai dishes so selected both. When our meal was served on the flight, the same guy we mentioned above asked which of the two meals we would like to go for. We expressed our confusion him, to which he left both of the meals for us to try - that too at no extra cost. That was a very sweet gesture of him.
The Boarding Episode at DMK: Express Boarding is one of the features that AirAsia heavily advertises on for the 'Premium Flex' category. And, that is something that we always prefer as that ensures we don't have to stand in the queue with our heavy camera gear. When we were returning to Kolkata from DMK, we reached our boarding gate about 5 minutes before the scheduled boarding time. As expected the flight was delayed by about 30 minutes and we decided to wait near the gate itself.
When the boarding was about to start we came up to the ground staff, who was lining up people for the boarding, and asked her if this was the line for the express boarding of the 'Premium Flex' category. Even before we could complete our questions she asked us to head to the back of the line. Her response came without listening to our question or looking at our boarding pass, that too with a very rude tone. It was as if we were doing a crime by asking to be boarded on the plane.
She simply ordered us to go to the back of the line and did not even adhere to the service that her company promised us, against a payment they took from us. We were too tired to fight with her and decided to just wait until everyone boards and we boarded the plane last.
AirAsia should take notes from VietJet Air on this area: VietJet Air has a premium ticket category called 'SkyBoss', which provides services similar to that of AirAsia's 'Premium Flex'. They don't only offer express boarding when boarding trough an aerobridge, but also provide special cars instead of the regular buses for 'SkyBoss' passengers when the boarding needs to be done on the tarmac.
Side Note: We did get this service provided to us when boarding the flight for Bangkok at Kolkata Airport. And, like we mentioned above, it was very helpful as we had heavy gear with us.
Baggage Claim Drama at Kolkata Airport: Express baggage was another service that came with the 'Premium Flex' category. This is very helpful when you have a connecting flight or other bookings that you need to rush to after you land. Thankfully, this time the only place we were going to from the airport was home. Although we had our baggage tagged for express baggage when checking-in at DMK, our luggage arrived about 20 minutes after the baggage claim initiated.
Side Note: The express baggage service worked wonderfully when we landed at DMK. By the time we reached the carousel after completing our immigration, which took about 10 minutes (as we had got our visa before travelling and did not depend on visa-on-arrival), our bag was already there. This was very helpful as it gave us a lot of time, which we utilized to exchange our currency, buy a sim card, head to the domestic terminal of DMK, complete the check-in process for the Hat Yai flight, clear security and even grab some breakfast in the lounge before we boarded our next flight.
While we faced all of these negatives during our travel with AirAsia, there is no doubt it is one of the most promising budget airlines. If you do not go for their premium services and the only thing you expect from them is to fly you from point A to point B at the cheapest prices, then you would surely be impressed with AirAsia.
We only have reservations to travel with AirAsia internationally when we go for vacations, because that is when we want everything to be perfect and as per our expectations. We have not flown with AirAsia India yet so would not comment about their domestic services. With Tata Group being one of the joint-venture partners in AirAsia India, we are sure they will provide services at par with other budget airlines in the country. We look forward to traveling with them soon and will put out a blog on our experience.
Do share with us in the comments if you have had better, similar or worse experience flying with AirAsia.