May 24, 2008

Sting in The Tail

Airlines are all pretty much the same aren’t they? They all fly nice planes that are safer than your family car, they have lots of seats and everyone has to endure the same airport security procedures before the plane takes off. So is there a difference between full-service and discount airlines?

I’m here to tell you that not all airlines are the same, and having paid my money to travel with Tiger Airways from Melbourne to Thailand earlier this year I’m convinced that not all discount carriers are the same either.

My main gripe with the cheap airlines is the baggage, and the chaos caused by limiting check-in luggage to 15kg. The ridiculous pantomime of people unpacking suitcases and stuffing heavy items into their handbags is a farce. If it’s ok to take it on the plane under your arm then why not just let them check it in anyway. There’s more weight difference from one person to another than one bag from another – my wife weighs 25 kilos less than I do but we still pay the same price for a ticket.

Full-service airlines have the good sense to allow a little grace with luggage limits and save everybody, including themselves, the hassle.

Having to play the luggage limit game is silly enough, but flying discount means having to do it over again for every connecting flight. That’s right, if you’re flying from Melbourne to Phuket on Tiger Airways you have to get off the plane in Darwin, collect your bags, stand in line and check them in once again. The procedure is repeated in Singapore too, with the added excitement of clearing passport control, entering the country, and then exiting the country an hour later after you check-in on the other side of the building.

Or you could catch the Jetstar flight direct.

Re-checking an entire plane of people and their bags is a waste of money and time, but the utter turmoil facing 150 transit passengers in Darwin every midnight looks more like an airline strike than a modern mode of transport. The queue to check-in extends all the way through the departure-hall and into the arrivals section. Your place in that queue is determined by when your bags come off the carousel. If you’re an elderly traveller who isn’t used to having to push your way to the front of the pack to reach your luggage then you may end up standing in line to check-in for about 2 hours.

That’s not an exaggeration, that’s exactly what happened to my mother-in-law. I can’t even mention the name Tiger Airways anymore without her ankles and legs throbbing with pain from the enduring memory of that experience.

Things are a little better in Singapore where a plane-load of Aussie passengers are dispersed among those over-nighting in the city and others making connections to one of a dozen Asian destinations. It was however the third time I had my bags weighed and this time the scales said I was over the limit. Much like airlines, not all scales are made the same.

After six sectors on Tiger Airways only one flight actually departed the terminal within an hour of the scheduled take-off. Plus we had to listen to our friends for the entire week talking about what great service they got with Thai Airways and how they didn’t spend three hours the night before the trip trying to reduce their luggage to 15 kilos.

Even my 6ft tall brother-in-law was boasting about having plenty of leg-room and sleeping comfortably during the night. I’m barely 5’4” and my knees were hard up against the wire frame of the seat in front of me. When I did fall asleep I was bumped awake by a Tigeress pushing her overpriced snacks-cart up the aisle. Who really needs the offer of purchasing a chocolate bar at 3am?

I know what you’re thinking, “You get what you pay for right?” I have to admit my ticket was dirt cheap, but I booked it nine months in advance and got a great deal. If I were to book the same flights for next month the cost would be the same if not higher than going with a full-service airline. Compare that to Air Asia’s range of short-haul flights where I know the price of the ticket is always cheap, even when I buy it the same day I fly. That pricing policy has forced other airlines on the same routes to lower their prices too.

I think Tiger Airways can do better and offer some genuine competition for Melbournians who want to fly to Asia, but for now they’re best value is on the domestic routes. Budget conscious travellers can hunt online for one of their cheap seats abroad, if they get in early, but watch-out for a sting in the tail.

A month after enduring the Tiger trauma I found myself on a direct flight from Melbourne to Bangkok with Thai Airways. It was only economy but it felt like my own private limousine service. I had miles of leg room and elbow room, really comfy seats, proper entertainment and absolutely delicious food. The service was attentive and professional and my bags arrived at the other end. It was so lovely I could have cried.

The next time someone offers me a flight to Bangkok for half the price I‘m going to pass. Holidays are something to enjoy, not survive.

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