AirAsia: Taking Cattlecar Class to a whole new level

AirAsia jet at Cebu

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There some airlines that will only procure new aircraft, retiring older airplanes to brokers, and there are some airlines that purchase only used airplanes from these brokers. There are some that “give” their older planes to their subsidiaries and some just flat out send their older planes to scrapyards where they will be stored in dry weather conditions and parts recycled or sold as spare parts, mostly to third-world countries.

It is easy to understand why some budget airlines prefer the older, used airplanes, especially in third-world countries where commercial aircraft is not as strictly regulated as in Europe, Canada and the United States. The cost of new airplanes can be staggering and with the average age to scrap an aircraft being about 18 years, the motive to purchase older aircraft by budget airlines is almost logical. Airplanes that have reached their “shelf-life” can easily find ready buyers in those regions where routine maintenance, end-of-life component replacement and safety procedures are not always followed to the letter.

Here are some comparative aircraft prices from the two top competing aircraft manufacturers:
Boeing Aircraft Average Price (2017)
737 $103.4 million
747 $387.2 million
767 $202.6 million
777 $344.2 million
787 $270.9 million

Airbus Aircraft Average Price (2018)
A220-100 $81 million
A220-300 $91.5 million
A318 $77.4 million
A319 $92.3 million
A320 $101 million
A321 $118.3 million
A330-200 $238.5 million
A330-300 $264.2 million
A350-800 $280.6 million
A350-900 $317.4 million
A350-1000 $366.5 million
A380 $445.6 million

In comparison, you can buy a used 2003 Airbus A321 that was owned by United Arab Emirates that cost more than $120 million, for a bargain price of about $17 million. Considering a new one might cost you about $118 million that might be a bargain unless you find some issues that need immediate attention! Recently a savvy Russian bought a used, 17-year-old Boeing 737 for just under $4 million that originally cost in the neighborhood of $103 million. Who knows what he is going to do with it, perhaps start a budget Russian airline?

So, I get it, airline travel is expensive and there is the need for budget airlines but what I don’t get is the dirty airplanes, poor service and the bureaucracy that so many of these low-cost airlines employ. I mean, does bureaucracy save them money and add to their profits? And what does good customer service cost? The airline has already hired that person and it costs virtually nothing to train them to be good ambassadors for their employer. Finally, does it really cost all that much to clean the insides of the airplanes once in awhile to remove the food smudges from the seat backs and clean the smeared windows or run a vacuum cleaner up and down the aisles? Or how about fixing the broken seats so that they do not remain in the fully declined position? Or how about the decrepit seat belts that worn, frayed and horribly twisted that unraveling them is impossible?

Recently we took a flight from Manila to Cebu in the Philippines on Air Asia and this was the worst airlines that I have ever flown, from the check-in to the end of the flight, which mercifully was only an hour long. To be honest, it really went back a few days earlier when I received a notice that I can check-in early, so I did, and copied our boarding passes to my phone. That was where I saw that were only allowed a very small amount, in weight, for our carry-on items. We used the bathroom scale in our hotel and saw that we were over by about 4KG. So, I went on-line and paid the $10.00 to check-in my very small suitcase.

That’s where the problem at the ever-chaotic Manila airport grew into a giant multi-headed monster! First off, when we entered the terminal (the old terminal 4) we were allowed to present our boarding pass that was on my phone. Going through x-ray was next and not a problem. Then we walked around the corner and saw many hundreds of people in the AirAsia check-in counter that doubled as a baggage drop-off. Unfortunately, you had to wait in one long line just to drop off your small bag that you had paid for two days earlier. This is the bureaucracy that I was talking about. Why not have a separate bag drop-off like all other airlines?

Then we were told that the copy of our boarding pass on my phone was not acceptable, so we had to go a kiosk where the machine printed one out. Really? And this is better than a clean, clear copy on my phone?

But this is where it gets really stupid. AirAsia has two separate lines for people who arrive at the last minute and their plane is about to leave. So, it pays to arrive early so that you can wait in line for fifteen minutes rather than one-and-a-half hours??? Of course, as luck would have it, they opened up our flight for last minute people just as we were two people from the front of the horrendous line that we had been meandering in!

We were finally out of the nightmarishly long line and headed to the second screening of our items. That was easy but as the boarding pass said that boarding was at 10:00am, that time came and went. Finally, we boarded and nowhere from the time we entered the airport terminal and exited in Cebu, was anyone’s carry-on items ever weighed! And I knew that my measly 4KG was much less than the taped cardboard box that the lady behind me kept running into the back of my legs as we walked to the airplane and climbed the stairs to board. I should not have bothered to check-in that small suitcase and avoided the long line to drop it off!

We boarded the airplane and instantly forgot if I had really saved any money flying the horrible airlines. The plane smelled and the “leather” seats were wrinkled, worn and torn like an old couch that had been sitting on some front porch for a decade! We found our seats and were thankful that the flight was only an hour long. The windows were smudged as were the seats. They don’t serve any refreshments on this flight unless you pay for it so I didn’t bother to lower my tray because is the other parts of the plane were an indication, the trays were probably crawling with E.coli or some other nasty germs.

As we tried to get comfortable for our flight to Cebu, where we would go swimming with the whale sharks the next day, the passenger in from of us got into his seat which immediately leaned back nearly to my face. The leg room, which you can see in the above photo, wasn’t too much to begin with and my knees were right against the seat back in front of me. At first, I thought that he was just an inconsiderate passenger but after awhile the stewardess kept asking him to raise his seat back, and in German he tried telling her that the damn seat was kaput! He even gave her a demonstration worthy of any presentation that a stewardess could give, but she said nothing and let him keep his seat back. Probably thinking that he was a rude German who insisted that he be allowed to keep his seat reclined.

Now, as a former quality engineer who evaluated products from aerospace to nuclear to consumer, medical and high-tech, I have always scrutinized items on an airplane whenever I fly, and I flew a lot over the many years in business. For some reason I look at the minor things like exposed rivets, torn carpets, peeling airline name logos on the outside, lights that don’t work and weird sounds that simply should not be heard. I know enough from many years of flying what certain sounds mean, like when the wheels are raised or lowered, or when the flaps are moved, and what the numerous bing-bings signify. On this flight, as we were taxiing toward the runway, I heard some very strange sounds that I had never heard before. It was like a large hydraulic machine was grinding nuts and bolts. My guess is that the sound came from hydraulics on the wheels, but since were driving down the tarmac, my hope was that the pilot wasn’t fussing with this particularly important item!

Since the only in-flight entertainment is looking out the window or thumbing through a grimy, food-smudged airline magazine, why not clean the windows one-in-a-while? I took the above photo after cleaning my window and putting my camera right up against the window. My feeling is that if an airline company is so lax about small, simple, easy to fix issues, are they also this lax when it comes to the more important mechanical, routine maintenance and safety items on their planes?

Let’s take for example the doomed AirAsia that stalled in midair on take-off and crashed into the Java Sea killing all on board in 2014. That airplane had made 78 trips between Perth and Bali with the same unrepaired mechanical fault that caused the crash.

AirAsia does not readily list which of their aircraft had been scrapped or sold to their “lower tier” affiliates but with some thorough digging it would probably be found somewhere. They are owned by the Tune Group, a leisure and entertainment corporation founded by Malaysian entrepreneurs Tony Fernandes and Kamarudin Meranun. They say that their mission is to provide affordability and accessibility to leisure activities and entertainment, primarily in Asian markets which it does with their budget airline, hotel, telecommunication, financial services, sports, media and creative industries subsidiaries.

AirAsia, the budget arm of the Tune Group, is headquartered near Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia and is the largest airline in Malaysia, operating in 25 countries with over 165 destinations. They primarily fly the Airbus A320 which consists of short to medium range, single-aisle, commercial passenger twin-engine jet aircraft that are manufactured by Airbus.

We finally made it to Cebu and Miss I-don’t-care-that-your-seat-is-all-the-way-back, announces that we have proudly arrived 15 minutes early, even though the pilot told us that we would be doing so when we left Manila.

I couldn’t wait to get off this airplane and even though we have a flight on this airline in a few days back to Manila, I will never fly it again. AirAsia simply has not met my very basic, minimum requirements that have no bearing on affordability but a huge bearing on cleanliness, safety and customer service.

Someone once said, “You never get a second chance to make a first impression.” Well, that may not be all that true. After spending a few days in Cebu, taking in the sights and swimming with the whale sharks in Oslob, we had to return to Manila using our round-trip ticket on AirAsia. And although it didn’t start out quite right when the QR code on our boarding pass could not be read by the security scanner, and we had get out of line, and go back to the AirAsia counter to obtain another boarding pass. It was not necessarily the airlines fault. In all honesty, the hotel that we stayed in Cebu printed out our boarding pass on cheap paper and the printing wasn’t too clear. But anyway, we got through the check-in process quickly which was fine with me since I would rather relax in an airport than sit in traffic fretting about missing a flight, which, I am proud to say, has never happened to me.

Our plane to Manila was late getting to Cebu, but it was all good. The waiting area was nice, and we chatted with a fellow traveler to pass the time. When the plane arrived, we were allowed to board the plane first since we are seniors. Ah, one of the many perks for paying your dues! As we boarded the plane, we were greeted by some of the nicest stewardess that I have ever encountered! They clearly went to customer service school and paid attention, not like those on our flight earlier in the week. The minute we entered the plane it was instantly recognizable that this particular plane was much different than the garbage truck we had flown in on! The seats were like new and the plane had this new car smell. Clean and comfortable seats, carpet and windows! Wow! What a huge difference! And that weird hydraulic sound we heard on the first flight, well, it didn’t appear on this flight!

Despite the lack of odd noises being emitted by the plane, there were instead freezing cold blasts of air from the time we entered the plane until we landed in Manila. There was a continuous mist of cold vapors coming out from the air-conditioning unit from the back of the plane to the front, and on both sides.

I understand the reason to keep the cabins cold, which some budget airlines do to “rent” you one of their blankets that are so itchy and scratchy that you wouldn’t let your dog sleep on them. It appears from some recent testing that people tend to faint while flying due to a condition known as hypoxia as a result of high cabin pressure and warm temperatures. Apparently, some people faint when their body doesn’t receive enough oxygen and it’s too warm inside the cabin. So, some airlines like to chill you into a state of suspended animation so that you won’t pass out while they try to sell you duty-free items. However, after flying on many, many airlines, I can honestly say that it was really, really cold on this flight and I almost passed out from the thermal cycling my body went through.

Even if this flight was much better, in terms of the friendly staff, the cleanliness of the plane and surprisingly a little more leg room, I still despise the overall business plan of every budget airline that I have ever flown including Air France, Ryan Air, Southwest Airlines, and others, so I probably will only fly them in extreme situations. If you consider the options and if you time your ticket purchase, you will actually save money on airlines that offer some frills like refreshments and normal weight for hand carry luggage.

If you have a special place on your bucket list that you are planning to go to, don’t just go the cheapest way. Research every leg of your journey to make sure that you are flying on a top-rated airline that is as concerned about your safety and well-being as they are about making a profit. Do your homework to see what their safety record is and read reviews from other travelers. Adding another drop in the bucket involves more than just getting to your destination at the lowest cost, which usually translates to getting what you paid for, it involves planning.

All photographs are the copyright of Jim Jackson Photography. Please contact me for authorization to use or for signed, high-resolution copies.

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