Berlin’s internationalization continues apace as a new direct budget flight is added from Berlin to Singapore this June. Joseph, after an Asia trip, returns to the German capital with some words of warning about budget airlines to the East. And argues that we shouldn’t give airlines even an inch when it comes to passenger rights…
A Thai friend living in Berlin is delighted. “From June, you can fly direct, and budget, from Berlin to Singapore!”
My face falls, I grow pale, a cold sweat breaks out. And I venture, “Which airline?”
But then he tells me, “All I need to do then is take a cheap AirAsia flight home!”
Now, I flew both Scoot and AirAsia on my last trip out East. Germans are well known travel addicts, and the Scoot flight will scatter Berliners with wanderlust across the Pacific. You can even fly as far as Honolulu budget with Air Asia, connecting in South-East Asia. But buyer beware. You are entering into a market where EU passenger rights that keep the neoliberal profiteering of budget airlines (more or less) at bay most likely do not apply. Scoot, as an airline departing from the EU, will be obliged to follow those rules. And we had a decent experience with Scoot. But once you connect, god help you.
Let me tell you a story about my experience on Air Asia. I wish I had read the online reviews of Air Asia before I went, which dub it the world’s worst airline. Let’s take just three examples: travellers with disabilities, water on board, and baggage. Don’t even try, now, to remember the days when flying was fun.
AirAsia has been called “discriminatory” because of how it charges for wheelchairs for those with reduced mobility. A Filipino MP took to social media about his appalling experience: “AIR ASIA is the lousiest airline in the world. They make 88-year old passengers pay for their wheelchair. They abuse their passengers in the guise of cheap fares”. He goes on to say, ominously, that no one will help you. In Europe, free assistance getting on and off the plane is a right.
Meanwhile, forget about drinkable tap water on board: you will need to buy all water. And customers who bring their own are reportedly asked to dump it. Hitch is, if you don’t have cash in a local currency, you’re not going to get any water at all, leaving you very thirsty on a long-haul. I read one post in which the author, writing about water, called AirAsia the “no ethics airline“. In the EU, there is a movement afoot to make water a passenger right, at least in airport lounges.
And now we get to baggage. People in Europe complain about airlines such as WizzAir whose draconian baggage policy provoked such a backlash it was forced to change its ways to bring it up to the high standard of… Ryanair! Now imagine taking a 8-hour long haul flight on AirAsia, from Kansai to Honolulu, with a carry-on policy even more restrictive than Ryanair! Welcome to AirAsia.
And what happened to us? We see scenes in Kansai, checking in for our AirAsiaX flight, that will remain with us forever: families shouting at ticket agents, children in hysterics, grandmothers with their faces in their hands. We are repacking our bags on the airport floor, meanwhile, trying to reduce two big bags, meant for check-in, to just 7kg each including our laptops because we refuse to pay profiteer rates. Socks and toiletries are scattering. “Do we take underwear?” my partner asks. “Who needs underwear?” A couple shirts, some shorts, and not even a book for the 8-hour flight (with, remember, no water or entertainment). At least we were flying somewhere warm.
How did it come to this? Well, we tried to add an (expensive) cabin bag online with AirAsia. We were sure 7kg was not enough (compared to, say, Ryanair’s 10kg offer, or Easyjet’s unlimited cabin weight). The website is down, we get an error message, make a call to customer service, and are told to go directly to the airport and resolve the problem there. BIG MISTAKE. When we do, we find ourselves in a line surrounded by other passengers who also could not add baggage. Air Asia tells us: it’s a known error that the system was down, but nonetheless we will all have to pay in-airport fees for the bags: for two bags return (Kansai-Honolulu) at airport rates, it would work out to 400 USD, or more than the price of our tickets! The check-in agent looked harried, distant, staring at us as if to say: “I’m so sorry, there’s nothing I can do”. We put all our luggage into storage at Kansai (much cheaper) and rush to have our toothbrushes and t-shirts weighed by the terrorized and punctilious AirAsia staff. Meanwhile, a couple checking in at the counter next to us walk away with enormous backpacks that no one checks: obviously we chose the wrong agent.
Four months of frustrating exchanges follow with AirAsia customer service (with the Orwellian name: “Customer Happiness”), who absurdly both admit that it was a known error that their baggage system was down AND that they nonetheless refuse to take any responsibility. Obviously profiteering at the airport is rather more profitable than treating people with kindness. Meanwhile, customer service becomes a containment strategy: and when you have a complaint, you’re told to stuff it.
As for poor Scoot Airlines? The one who will be flying from Berlin? I’m rather afraid that this post turned into a cautionary tale about the dangers of flying budget in Asia more generally––without the passenger protections one is used to under the EU––without acknowledging that our experience with Scoot was actually pretty good (Bangkok-Tokyo). They offer 10kg of combined cabin baggage, although no one weighed it. The seats were bigger, the staff friendlier, everything was better than AirAsia. But then again, Scoot is the budget wing of the high-end Singapore Airlines, and there is an image to protect. I got the sense that AirAsia really doesn’t care about what people think. Speaking metaphorically, Scoot is the stale pastry in cellophane that you eat because you are hungry. AirAsia is the one that gives you food poisoning.
Will I be taking Scoot from Berlin to Singapore? Probably not; that’s a lot of trees to plant and I already fly more than enough. But some warning for those who think that the Berlin-Singapore flight opens up a world of easy budget travel throughout Asia. Words to the wise: if you thought budget flying was a hassle in Europe, hold onto your seats.
But this story is not really just about budget airlines, as we compare standards between Europe and Asia, is it? It’s really about what happens if passenger rights go by the wayside, and business is allowed to impose its will in situations of stress and need (such as when you are getting on a flight). I ask: will Brits still be protected under legislation similar to EU passenger rights when they leave the EU? How much more would airlines like Ryanair take from us if they could? Why do people in Malaysia, AirAsia’s base, put up with these conditions on a regular basis? What steps took place to deteriorate the place of the customer so that she becomes simply a bank account for the company? What small changes in legislation, in letting go of controls, of privatisation, were key in this process? In Berlin, we are still relatively protected in a neoliberal context. And yet we are connecting into a world of deteriorated global standards (isn’t a direct flight between Berlin and Singapore a metaphor?). We need to fight even on the tiniest concessions.