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The Daily Juggle

How the budget airline business model manifests itself

/ Nov 30, 2012 6:54AM / Print / ()

How the budget airline business model manifests itself

Yesterday I flew to Kuala Lumpur courtesy of the Asian Publisher's Convention. For the past four years I have been invited to the conference as a keynote speaker on all manner of topics, from the economics of digital publishing to repurposing archival content.

Some years delegate numbers have spilled over 500. Perhaps as a sign of the economic times in which publishers currently operate there will be just 150 attendees this year. And where speakers were once flown in via the national carrier of the host city with all of the trimmings and transfers, yesterday I boarded one of the world's budget airline success stories, Air Asia.

I saw it as a great opportunity to give the budget carrier a spin. Luckily. I have flown cheap and cheerful airlines before. Who hasn't flown Jetstar and thought you couldn't get anymore stripped back if you tried? Well I can now tell you that you can. This was definitely a step beyond my comfort zone.

It was quite fascinating actually. The care factor of airline crew must be directly equivalent to the price of the ticket. As our tickets were scanned for boarding, the one held by the woman in front of me made a disconcerting beeping noise that would have seen her sent off to a customer service counter immediately if it was any other airline. Instead the crew member tried to scan it three times with no success. After the third time he handed it to her and said, "three times and you're out, on you go". It was starting to feel like a Monty Python sketch. Happily I'm a big fan.

Once seated on the plane, the usual announcements were made about safety and the use of electronics equipment. However the crew didn't seem to care that the men seated across the aisle from me were still using their iPhones and iPads as the plane started taxiing. Not an eyebrow was raised that the lady in front still hadn't clicked in her seatbelt. I imagined that this was an airline sweating the big stuff and I was OK with that. It's how I like to operate too.

My iPhone and iPad were my trip saviours as there was nothing else to entertain passengers, not even pre-programmed music piped through one-use-only earphones. I only have four CDs and a two-year-old recording of my then 13-year-old son singing a song he wrote in my iTunes library. The seven-and-half hour flight time allowed a lot of room for repetition. I have relearned the words to every song on Coldplay's Parachute album.

Meal service was particularly amusing. On other airlines I have flown where meals are a separate cost, such as Virgin, the flight attendants bring out the pre-booked meals first. They have a list of customers to match the meals against. Not on Air Asia. I had pre-booked a meal but I watched with curiosity as the cart moved slowly down the aisle. No one was handing out pre-booked meals as a priority. I wondered how I would be able to prove to them that I had bought one and was resigned to having to purchase another. I even pulled my wallet out of my handbag in preparation. Instead, when the attendant reached my row she asked me if I had pre-bought a meal (not because she knew but because she didn't), then asked me for my boarding pass to prove it. The series of numbers on my pass satisfied her and she handed me a no-frills pack with a bottle of water and the most basic looking green curry I have seen anywhere other than my own kitchen. It wasn't particularly hot as it had taken about 40 minutes to reach the section of the plane where I was seated. I love a cup of tea or coffee after a meal but there was no chance of that. And I'm not sure what would have happened if I'd required another bottle of water.

Everything about the service was lacking in trimmings, unlike the beautifully groomed attendee dishing it up. She was wearing the longest false eyelashes I have ever seen. And good for her. I love it when people go to a little extra effort for any occasion. Think sequins at a backyard barbie. Her eyelashes were the most entertaining part of my flight.

Considering all of the above and the fact that I have been flown to destinations for business purposes at the pointy end of some of the world's leading airlines, I actually did enjoy the flight. Well, maybe enjoy is too strong a word. I appreciated the value proposition. Much more than it probably reads. It wasn't pretty, but it was practical. And I like the fact that Air Asia has discovered a new way to do business in its challenged industry. The variables have changed, passengers are being herded into a new comfort zone without complimentary water and yet my flight was full. Clever.

Have you had an experience outside of your comfort zone and been pleasantly surprised (or at least amused)?

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