Monday, March 23, 2009

Revolution in the air

A new era in budget travel has dawned with the first low-cost long-haul flight connecting South-East Asia to Europe. 

   
AirAsia X founder Tony Fernandes’ dream to take passengers halfway across the world for half the price of other airlines was realised when his no-frills carrier’s first flight from Kuala Lumpur to London touched down at Stansted airport, Essex, on March 11. 
   
At a press conference shortly after flight D7 2006, carrying 286 passengers, landed at 2.35pm, 25 minutes ahead of schedule, Mr Fernandes declared: “Everyone said we were crazy. No one said this could be done.” 
   
Throwing his hands in the air, he added: “This is proof you should believe the unbelievable, dream the impossible and never take no for an answer.” 
   
AirAsia was founded in 2001 and is the biggest low-cost carrier in Asia, with about 400 flights a day from hubs in Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia to more than 60 destinations. 
   
Its affiliate AirAsia X was launched in 2007 with a focus on budget long-haul services. There was a frenzy among travellers from both sides of the world when seats for the Kuala Lumpur to London route went on sale in November last year with all promotional tickets from $205 being snapped up within 48 hours. 
   
Mr Fernandes says the Air Asia X dream began in 1977 when, at the age of 12, he was sent to boarding school in London. The Malaysian entrepreneur remembers being overcome with homesickness when he first arrived at Epsom College and called his mother to ask if he could come home for half term. 
   
“She said no,” he recalled. “It was too expensive. And there began my quest to start a budget long-haul carrier.” 
   
In the wake of the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks in the US, when the world became apprehensive about flying, he was told his company would fail miserably. Now he has proved those critics wrong. 
   
Mr Fernandes, considered the Richard Branson of Asia, admitted he was “a bundle of nerves” the day of the inaugural flight. “A lot of things can go wrong on a 13-hour flight and I was thrilled when I woke up in the middle of the night and saw the plane had taken off,” he said. 
   
“Then I was counting down the hours. One of the greatest feelings I ever had was watching the plane touch down. It was a very special day for me.” 
   
And it was a special day for passengers onboard the historic flight — among them VIPs including secretary-general of the Association of South-East Asian Nations Surin Pitsuwan, AirAsia X chief executive Azran Osman-Rani and British High Commissioner for Malaysia William Boyd McCleary. 
   
The morning began with a celebratory reception at Kuala Lumpur’s low-cost carrier terminal, where passengers were greeted by airline staff — dressed as traditional Tower of London Beefeaters — playing bongo drums. After a relatively quick check-in we were ushered through passport control and to the gate before the sound of bagpipes signalled time to walk on to the tarmac to board the plane. 
   
The flight was one of the smoothest I have been on and there was a party atmosphere on board as passengers mingled throughout the journey. 
   
The seats were more comfortable than on the Perth to Kuala Lumpur leg, although the A340 has yet to be given an AirAsia X makeover. The airline is considering whether to change the existing seats to the narrow, fixed-back leather type with less legroom, currently on the smaller planes, and to reconfigure the interior to accommodate more people. 
   
Most passengers, me included, didn’t seem to mind having to pay for “extras” such as food, in-flight entertainment and “comfort kits” (comprising a blanket, neck pillow and sleeping mask). 
   
Meals are cheaper when pre-booked. It also takes away the hassle of having to dip into your wallet every time you’re hungry, but you must still present your boarding pass during each service. 
   
For those who wish to order on the day, food is reasonably priced at RM18 ($7) for a hot dinner and RM9 ($3.50) for a sandwich or hot dog and drinks range from RM5 ($2) for a cola to RM10 ($4) for a beer. 
   
AirAsia X, however, accepts US dollars only, local currency of the country of origin/departure and Malaysian ringgit. All change is given in ringgit and credit cards are not accepted. 
   
The quality of the meals was not as good as I have experienced on some full-service carriers and I was a bit bemused when I was given a knife and spoon to eat with but the local Malaysian dishes were flavoursome enough and the service from the cabin staff couldn’t be faulted. The Kuala Lumpur to London route — dubbed the Kangaroo Route — has been hugely popular among Australian travellers who can travel to the Malaysian capital from the Gold Coast, Melbourne and Perth before catching the connecting flight. 
   
Among the 17 Australian guests on the inaugural flight was 50-year-old Ray Saunders from Mt Hawthorn. 
   
Mr Saunders, who was returning home to Dorset to visit family and friends, went so far as to say: “It was the best long-haul flight I have been on.” 
   
Indeed, passengers on board the plane broke into applause as the pilot, Capt. Adrian Jenkins, guided the plane to a soft landing. 
   
Moments later the captain announced: “Ladies and gentlemen, we are about to go through the world’s biggest car wash” as the plane was sprayed by water cannons. 
   
With the Malaysian and British flags flying proudly from the cockpit window, the plane taxied to the airport terminal where Prince Andrew was waiting to greet the airline crew. 
   
The prince, who was later given a tour of the aircraft, joked that not many international flights come in 25 minutes early these days. 
   
It was a historic day for AirAsia X and the celebrations continued well into the night with a party at London’s Altitude Bar where guests were treated to a performance by rising British girl band The Saturdays and Malaysian singer Noreen, who took to the stage in a skin-tight red sequinned number and belted out songs including You’re Just Too Good To Be True. 
   
So, is a return ticket from Perth to London for about $1000 on board AirAsia X too good to be true? Well, it all depends on what you want out of your travel experience. 
   
Having downloaded a couple of movies on to my iPod and armed myself with some good books, I didn’t really miss not having an in-flight entertainment system. It was also interesting to observe that people actually spoke to each other more than they would otherwise because they weren’t glued to the TV screen fixed in the seat in front of them. 
   
Nor did I really miss the food. While having a set meal does break up the monotony of the journey, I have found myself on recent international flights turning down dinner when I’ve climbed on board a plane in the early hours of the morning because I couldn’t stomach it. Having the option to eat when I wanted was quite refreshing. 
   
For me, the deciding factors on whether or not I would fly with AirAsia X again are the affiliated airports and the luggage allowance. 
   
Kuala Lumpur’s low-cost carrier terminal fares miserably compared to the nearby ultra-modern international airport, with just a handful of shops and no facilities to freshen up during a lengthy layover (I had to wait nine hours for my return flight to Perth). 
   
At the other end, Stansted, while bright and modern, is 64km from the centre of London and although there are connecting trains and buses to the city, travelling to other parts of Britain isn’t easy and can add a significant chunk of time on to your journey. 
   
The luggage allowance of 15kg is also a significant factor for the Imelda Marcos among us who have trouble travelling light. AirAsia X is strict if you go over your allowance, charging $9 a kilo (still cheaper than most other airlines), although you can pay extra when you book to “supersize” to either 20kg or 25kg. It was also a pain that we couldn’t check our luggage through to London as we boarded in Perth. Yet in the current economic climate such factors seemed to be minor inconveniences for most passengers, including several businessmen who said their companies, realising they needed to be more budget conscious, were trading down from full-service carriers. 
   
Also for people like Baghan Kaur, a schoolteacher from Malaysia, who was travelling to London for the first time with her husband Laban Singh, daughter Jagjit Kaur and son Jasmair Singh for just RM6000 ($2480). 
   
Ms Kaur explained that AirAsia X’s low-cost fares now made it possible for her entire family to visit relatives in England they had never met. “I haven’t been able to sleep I have been so excited,” she said. “An opportunity like this just wouldn’t have been possible before.”

Details: For more information on Air Asia X flights to Asia and on to Europe visit www.airasia.com. > The writer travelled from Perth to London as a guest of Air Asia X and Visit Britain.

LUCY GIBSON

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