From time to time on the Ginger Travel Guru we have a guest article from a friend. This is another one of these guest posts and the second from James and Richard who recently travelled with AirAsiaX from Kuala Lumpur to the Gold Coast.
This is my second flight report as a guest writer for the Ginger Travel Guru. Previously we travelled from Australia to the UK on Vietnam Airways, this is the return journey report. As a recent UK resident we were regular Avios collectors and Gold members of the BA Executive Club. As part of this we have a couple of Amex Companion Vouchers gained through credit card spend, which is still one of the best value things associated with the Executive Club.
Unfortunately, reward availability on BA to Australia is pretty terrible in any cabin, but particularly so in Club World where they only release two seats per flight. If you intend using the companion voucher it has to be on a BA operated flight (there is often excellent availability on Qatar or Cathay, for example). Generally speaking, you need to book as soon as they release the seats, which is 355 days in advance at about midnight / 01.00.
When we had firmed up our travel plans with our Vietnam Airlines flights it was less than 355 days before our intended travel dates, and there was no reward availability to Sydney on a BA operated aircraft. So we had to work out an alternative solution. BA flies to a number of Far Eastern destinations that have connection options to Australia, the three most sensible ones being Singapore, Kuala Lumpur and Hong Kong.
So I set about trying to match reward availability to match our intended travel dates and found some First Class seats to Kuala Lumpur on the dates we needed. In a different viewpoint from His Gingerness, we generally try to fly Club World on BA to save Avios because our main priority is a lie flat bed for the journey. However, First Class obviously satisfies that requirement so we were perfectly happy with that instead
As the companion voucher is valid for a return journey, we needed to look into booking the return portion. There is a provision that permits you to book an open jaw redemption so long as the distance between the two cities is not greater than the shortest flight. This means that we are able to book our return from Sydney (subject to paying the relevant additional Avios) because London to Kuala Lumpur is about 6,600 miles and Kuala Lumpur to Sydney is about 4,100 miles. Due to the availability issue mentioned above, I couldn’t book the return at the same time as the outbound (and also open jaws need to be done on the phone), so I waited until 355 days from my intended date and called up. Luckily the time difference in Australia was in my favour so I didn’t have to wait up until the early hours.
I’m not going to do an in-depth review of the BA First Class as it’s been done before. But very briefly we used the First Class wing at Heathrow T5 which was efficient and pleasant. The Concorde Room bar staff were surly and inattentive, the Boeing 787-9 was a standard BA First product, the crew were good and engaging but nothing amazing. We landed in Kuala Lumpur ten minutes early.
Once off the air bridge we used the fast track immigration line and were quickly into the baggage collection area where the bags quickly arrived. Now, Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) has two terminals, the main one where all of the international long-haul carriers, including BA fly into, and a budget airlines terminal called KLIA2. Ninety percent of the flights from this terminal, judging by the departure boards, are operated by Air Asia or one of its subsidiaries.
We had booked a one-way flight from KL to our local airport – Gold Coast (OOL). This was a great value flight as Air Asia has a product called “Premium Flatbed” which cost us about £260 each (in a sale) for eight hours on a A330-300; it includes 40kg of checked baggage, food and one drink on board.
The two terminals are very much separate – there is no interconnecting walkway etc. There is, however, a regular, modern and efficient air-conditioned train service between the them that takes three minutes. The cost for a single is 2 MYR, which converts to £0.36. We didn’t have any Ringgit on us (I forgot to pick up my stash of left over cash kept for this exact situation), so I paid for the two tickets on my Lloyds bank Avios card which has no foreign transaction fees. You get issued with a simple paper receipt with a QR code on it to scan at the barriers.
KLIA2 is a modern, bright and airy terminal, there are a mixture of domestic and international flights with a large number of check-in desks. There were some quite substantial queues for check-in at a number of counters to drop bags after carrying out self-check in, however Premium Flatbed and Premium Flex (Economy with extras included) customers have a dedicated check-in counter. There is only one counter for all flights, so I imagine in peak periods it could develop a queue too, but we only had a short wait.
Once we had checked in we were directed to the AirAsia Premium Red Lounge a short walk across the terminal, land side. This was quite empty when we arrived, but started to fill up gradually, although was never full. There were some hot and cold snacks, soft drinks and beers available as well as a coffee machine. All of the soft drinks were “full fat” versions, nothing diet or zero branded was available, and I’m not a coffee drinker.
The snacks were innocuous enough (donuts and chicken pastry parcels), but as we’d eaten plenty on the BA flight we only had a drink and a few nibbles before enquiring about a shower. This was the first major indication that this lounge was provided by a low-cost carrier rather than a full service airline. There were two male showers available within the toilet block, one was in a separate cubicle with a toilet and sink, the other was in the open toilet space, with a rather flimsy curtain to protect your modesty and nowhere to change except in the general circulation space of the room …. I chose to wait for the private cubicle. Towels were available from reception, but there was no queue management, you just had to wait until the person before you had finished. There was also no cleaning or checking of the shower in-between uses. So, functionally it was adequate, but certainly not a premium experience.
After the shower we were feeling a bit more peckish, so as they had brought out some main meal options we had a look, there was red curry and later tempura in sauce, both with rice. I had the red curry, which was fine, it reminded me of canteen food – nothing to complain about, very much routine sustenance. There was wifi available in the lounge, which worked fine. Upstairs there was an interesting space that was totally empty – it seemed to be a teenagers fantasy hangout room, with bean bags, funky signs and a view of the apron.
We were soon ready to get going and passed through immigration to the departure gate where we boarded the A330. We were warmly greeted by the cabin crew and ushered to our seats. The cabin is configured in a 2-2-2 setup, with a total of twelve seats in the cabin. We were seated in 1A and 1C, giving us a little extra space around the seat due to the bulkhead.
So, let’s talk about the seat…. it is not a fully lie flat product, but is pretty damn close! You can see from the pictures below that there is a tilt on the seat, so when you sleep you are at an angle. I found this to be of no impediment to sleeping, there was plenty of room to stretch out and it was wide enough to curl up and move about whilst getting comfortable. The padding was fine and I slept well during the flight, getting about 5 hours on an 8 hour long flight. There is no direct aisle access from the window seats when the aisle seat is in the sleeping position as the extending section is in the way. This wasn’t an issue for us, travelling together, but could be an issue for a solo traveller. The two seats in the middle both, obviously, have aisle access, so a solo traveller would just need to avoid the four window seats.
There was a blanket and pillow provided, which were thick and comfortable respectively; in contrast to our BA First experience! There was a multi country power socket at each seat, but no wifi on board. My overall opinion of the seat is that it is perfectly adequate, clearly it’s not a Qatar Q-Suite, but it provides all the things required of a bed and served its purpose well.
Before I went to sleep, the crew started the dinner service and I watched a film on the inflight entertainment system. This is another point where you realise that you are not on a full service airline, the food provision is the same throughout the aircraft. The main difference between Premium Flatbed and economy is that food is included in the Premium Flatbed fare, whereas it’s extra in economy. You are not getting a business class product here at all. Notwithstanding that, the food was towards the better end of what I’ve eaten in economy on many other legacy carriers.
There are a number of food choices that you pre-select when you book, I chose the traditional Malaysian dish Pak Nasser’s Nasi Lemak – a chilli chicken with ground nuts and coconut rice. My partner, Richard, decided to go more traditional due to an intolerance to nuts (which are prevalent in Malay cuisine) and selected Roasted Chicken with stuffing and mixed vegetables. Both meals came with a bottle of water and plastic cutlery.
The service was polite, efficient and attentive. The crew made an effort to ensure that our needs were met, and despite the rules being that they charge for any extra drinks, were happy to give us more water. Apologies the photos are so poor, but the crew dimmed the lights to allow those who had opted to go straight to sleep to have some rest.
The in-flight entertainment is provided via a tablet that was handed out soon after take-off. In a similar vein to the food, they are included for Premium Flatbed customers but chargeable in economy. Some very cheap simple headphones were provided, but I didn’t use them as I opted for my travel noise cancelling set. The selection of films was decent enough, I could find a fair selection of western films including a number of newer releases.
The service throughout the flight was great, the crew really understood how to take small steps to make the journey more pleasant. I felt that they genuinely cared about the passenger experience and wanted to do everything in their power to make the trip more pleasant. A couple of examples stood out; the first is the slightly cheesy one from airline ads in the 80’s, but when I fell asleep without a blanket on the crew proactively placed one over me without waking me up.
The second example, despite there only being eight passengers in the cabin, there was a person in the toilet in front of me when I decided to stretch my legs and then use the facilities. The crew member in the galley addressed me by name and said that if I wanted to return to my seat they would come and get me when the other person had finished. Now, this isn’t strictly necessary – I’m quite capable of looking up at the green sign. In fact, the only reason I was there at that time was because I was already up from my seat and couldn’t be bothered to sit down again! A little thing that demonstrated their commitment to customer service, that many full service carriers struggle with nowadays.
As we approached Gold Coast the Captain made the customary announcements and we landed slightly early to a beautiful sunrise over the Pacific Ocean. Gold Coast is only a small airport with limited international flights, so we were through the formalities in no time and off home to try and fend off the jet lag.
I have to say that I really enjoyed our AirAsia flight, the crew made it feel welcoming the whole way through. I acknowledge that it is not the same level of comfort as a “proper” business class, but it’s really not too far off. The items that are critical for me are that I can sleep on a comfortable surface i.e. not a reclining chair; there is some edible hot food; there is some decent entertainment available; and that the crew experience is generally pleasant. AirAsia met all of these things, and taking into consideration the price, this was probably the best value flight we’ve ever taken. I don’t think I’ve ever flown so far, for so little money with such high levels of service both in hard and soft products. So, AirAsia Premium Flatbed are a contender for one of my favourite airlines, taking into consideration cost and service. I’d fully recommend their Premium Flatbed product for the cost conscious, but comfort seeking traveller.