I first flew AirAsia X in July 2008 not knowing what to expect. It was a low-cost carrier but flew long-haul. After a few hours on my flight from Australia’s Gold Coast to Kuala Lumpur (disclosure: it was a complimentary ticket) I was sold.
The flight felt like any other. The main difference was that when you book your ticket you also need to pay for luggage and food (if you require them), and mid-flight snacks will cost you a few dollars. And heck, AirAsia X even had flair some legacy carriers lack.
After talking to CEO Azran Osman-Rani in KL, I knew this then-quiet carrier was going to usher in a new era in travel–low-cost, long-haul–and make it work.
Operative word: work. My flight was on the carrier’s leased A330, a former Aer Lingus bird in a standard configuration (added bonus: Celtic music and Galway tourism ads on the audio system). AirAsia X’s growth, however, hinged on 25 A330-300s in a dense 3-3-3 392 seat configuration. That’s 79 fewer seats than what Singapore Airlines fits on its A380.
The first two photos show the regular economy seats and the second two show the bigger business class-like seats
An AirAsia X ticket might be a fraction of a full-service carrier, but would the seats be too cramped to make the trip worth it? I wanted to find out, and with AirAsia X half the price of other carriers on a recent trip from Melbourne to the UK I had no reason to say no.
Below are cabin photos of A330s direct from Airbus. I flew this aircraft from MEL to KUL. (KUL to STN was on the carrier’s A340.)
The first interior on AirAsia X’s new A330s. This interior will be replaced by June. These photos depict the regular economy seats in a 3-3-3 configuration for a total of 364 seats.
The first interior on AirAsia X’s new A330s. This interior will bereplaced by June. These photos depict the XL economy seats in a 2-3-2 configuration for a total of 28 seats.
The verdict? The cabin is sleek, leg room is standard for economy, seat width is narrower but not uncomfortably so, or at least not for your skinny author, and there are flexible headrests.
One problem: the seats don’t recline. As hard as I pressed on that silver reclining button while leaning back, the seat didn’t budge. Flight attendants embarrassingly told me the seats didn’t recline.
Osman-Rani explained to me in an e-mail the other day:
When we first procured the A330s in 2007, that was the period when all airlines were buying up new planes like crazy, and all the seat manufacturers were at full capacity. We did not have a choice as only one seat supplier could meet our time frame requirements.
So AirAsia X went with a supplier that provided a fixed-back shell design. The seat cushion was supposed to slide forward, giving passengers a recline without interfering with the passenger behind them. But it failed, and Osman-Rani doesn’t hide it:
However, while the theory [of the seat] was interesting, in practice, it wasn’t a great seat because the cushioning was not soft enough and the gliding mechanism was too stiff that most passengers did not know how to slide the bottom forward to recline.
It appears I was in the majority that couldn’t slide the bottom forward.
AirAsia X doesn’t want to be that carrier passengers love for the price but hate for the service. So AirAsia X is going to rip out the old interior and put in new seats that properly recline. Even full-service carriers shudder at the thought of re-configuring aircraft, but AirAsia X knows bad word could spread that their seats don’t recline.
The re-configuration is being fast tracked: the first A330 with the new interior (including lie-flat business class-style seats–check back here in a few days for more details) entered service this month and all five of the carrier’s owned aircraft will be completed by June. AirAsia X’s leased A330–the former Aer Lingus bird–will receive the new interior by November, Osman-Rani says.
Costs will be high–the carrier hasn’t disclosed a figure–but will be off-set because the new seats won’t have AVOD IFE units in the seats (see above photos), shaving off more than one ton of weight per aircraft according to Osman-Rani.
AirAsia X found its IFE, at 30 Malaysian ringgits (US$8.75) for an eight hour flight, wasn’t selling well. On my daylight flight from MEL to KUL, which was nearly full, I couldn’t find more than 15 passengers using the system in the regular economy cabins. That’s less than four per cent uptake. Ouch.
Instead of built-in IFE, Osman-Rani says flights will have a limited supply of portable units. “Portables are the way to go,” he wrote, explaining the carrier can also achieve efficiency by regulating demand. I suspect IFE would be more popular on the carrier’s eight-hour hauls to Australia than four-hour flights to Taiwan, or soon India. I wonder what my IFEC whiz colleague Mary “Runway Girl” Kirby will have to say about built-in units versus portables.
I’m due to fly on the aircraft with the new interior Thursday on my return to Melbourne. I’ll post an update then. Before then, expect a report on my AirAsia X KL-London flight, currently the longest flight operated by an LCC.