AirAsia (D7) Flight 192 - Kuala Lumpur (KUL) to Kathmandu (KTM)
Airbus A330 , Premium Class, Seat 2A
While many folks would may not believe it at first, I'm here to confirm that it's true - AirAsia, the low cost airline sending its bright red planes all over one of my favorite continents in the world, does indeed have a premium class product. While they might be known better for cheap flights, boarding passes printed on receipt paper, and charging for just about everything imaginable, there is an opportunity for a nicer class of service if you happen to be traveling to a handful of "long haul" destinations under its AirAsia X brand. I'll be upfront from the beginning - this is by no means a replacement for a traditional business class product. It's really a low-end business class seat with economy class service. But for the price point AirAsia is often selling this for, it's probably worth considering in many situations.
Let's dig a bit deeper.
When looking to get to Kathmandu from Kuala Lumpur, there are five options for direct flights. Malaysia Airlines is the most obvious choice for a traditional airline option, though for my trip they were priced quite a bit higher than I was willing to pay. Three of the options didn't really resonate with me in terms of my interest/desire to fly with them, which left the last and coincidentally cheapest option - AirAsia X. I paid $279 for a roundtrip ticket between the two cities in economy class.
So how did I end up in premium class? AirAsia has a partnership with a 3rd party vendor named OptionTown that works with various airlines to sell ancillary items such as extra leg room seats, empty seats next to you, and of course - upgrades to business/first class. It seemed a bit burdensome to go to a different website, create an account, and then bid for an upgrade but I was curious to see just how much AirAsia charged for an upgrade. And curiosity almost always wins out with me. I went through the motions and put in my upgrade bid offer - 130 Malaysian ringgit, which at the time was $30 USD. After putting in the offer I moved on with my life and a few days before the flight I was emailed by OptionTown telling me my bid had been accepted. The 130 ringgit plus a processing fee for a total of around $90 USD. An excellent deal if you ask me.
Premium class, here I come!
Here's a quick rundown on how AirAsia's premium class differs from what is typically considered a standard business class offering. If you end up in the premium cabin, you will get:
Pillow and blanket
One meal & water (any other snacks or beverages you'll need to pay)
Checked bag (up to 25kg)
Priority baggage tags (didn't work for me)
Designated check-in desks
But I'll get into more detail of all of that below.....
AirAsia operates out of Kuala Lumpur's newish KLIA2 terminal. Designated for low cost carriers, it's pretty much exclusively an AirAsia facility save for a handful of flights from Cebu Pacific, Jetstar, and Tigerair. Unlike the old low cost carrier terminal, this facility is barebones but manages to still be a nice terminal. I arrived by transferring from KLIA1 on the KLIA Ekspres train service. The train runs to the city's Sentral train station from both terminals, but you can ride the service between the two terminals for a very small fee as well. Ideally there would be a free service, but it is what it is. Honestly it only costs 2 Malaysian ringgit (.50 USD) so it basically is free.
Check-in for AirAsia's flights are broken off into a variety of counters that are spread out across the airside of the terminal. You'll need to use the giant sign boards at the front of the terminal to locate your flight and determine where to go as each flight/destination is relegated to a specific subset of desks. One good thing about being in the premium cabin is that all premium cabin passengers are handled by the same desks regardless of flight so you don't need to trudge around the terminal to your specific flight's check-in area. The premium cabin check-in is directly to the right in the first row of desks when you walk into the terminal.
When I walked up to the counter to check-in the only way I can think of to describe the two staff members behind the counter would be utterly baffled. They genuinely seemed confused that a customer was checking in for premium cabin class. They were wholly unprepared and had to move a bunch of paperwork and turn on different systems before handling my ticket. They even suggested that I walk to the normal economy check-in desk for my flight if I didn't want to wait, which felt a little less than "premium" service. I'm guessing the increased use of online check-in and smartphone app check-in means they rarely see customers? Or perhaps AirAsia's premium cabins are relatively empty (more on that later)?
Really I found it all quite amusing and I almost admire their commitment to not working very hard. Sometimes I just want a slow day at work, too.
Once they had everything in place and warmed up they printed out a boarding pass for me and also took my checked luggage and handed me a baggage receipt. Before pointing me in the direction of the security and immigration desks they reminded me that there is no lounge for premium cabin passengers on AirAsia and invited me to enjoy the new terminal while waiting. This certainly wasn't Singapore Airlines' polished service but it was friendly and worked well enough for me, particularly with the price I paid!
Security was a bit of a mess since there was quite a line of people who appeared to be very unfamiliar with flying. A lot of confusion, a lot of items not being removed or taken off, etc. Security happens when you finish with check-in with immigration happening a bit later in the journey into the terminal as there are gates for domestic flights set up to facilitate easier passenger movement. Once I reached immigration, that was a much quicker affair with almost no line - mostly because everyone seemed to be stuck back at security behind the ten guys carrying their microwaves and broadswords through the metal detectors.
As noted the terminal is fairly modern and definitely a vast improvement over the previous low cost terminal which it replaced, but other than a handful of restaurants and storefront there really isn't much to do here as you wait for your flight. Even though AirAsia has no lounge for premium passengers, Plaza Premium does run two lounges in the airside terminal that you can pay to access if you so choose. I chose to purchase a small mango smoothie and sit on one of the many chairs available for relaxing.
Unlike the previous terminal this one seemed to make use of jet bridges for most flights. Our flight to Kathmandu was assigned a gate with a jet bridge and despite being relatively full there were always enough seats for people to sit down and relax. I would estimate based on the make up of the people waiting that the flight was about 15% filled with tourists headed to Nepal while the other 85% were Nepalese headed back home after working abroad. The boarding gate was abuzz with excitement, whether from small groups of Europeans discussing their trekking plans in the Himalayas or the hushed tones of men (and they were indeed all men) that seemed thrilled to be going home.
Soon enough boarding was called. Premium cabin passengers were invited to board first so when they opened the door I presented my boarding pass to the gate agent. I did have to fight through a fairly thick crowd of passengers who were eager to get on board themselves though. I was the only person who approached the gate when premium cabin boarding was called. Once I made it down the jet bridge and boarding had started, it became obvious that I would be the only passenger in the premium cabin today. Suddenly the easy bid process accepting my low offer made sense. For what it's worth, my low bid was not accepted on the return flight and the premium cabin flew out completely empty. So I'm not 100% sure what the algorithm is for accepting or rejecting bids, but the premium cabins were deserted on my two flights.
So, about the actual seat, cabin, service, and flight.....
AirAsia's premium cabin is laid out in a 2-2-2 formation with seats that you've probably seen on lower tier airlines or on top tier airlines 15 years ago. There are only two rows of seats, so the plane tops out at 12 premium seats per flight. Boarding happens through a single set of doors so while you get to board early you will have an endless stream of passengers moving past you while you're sitting there.
The seats have a complimentary pillow and blanket on the seat, which is good in terms of knowing they're being offered but bad because I never know where to put them once I sit in my seat. If the cabin is empty, like this flight ended up being, it's pretty easy to just plop the pillow and blanket into the adjacent seat. On fuller flights I always feel awkward trying to find places to throw everything, I usually end up with the pillow shoved behind my back or along my side and the blanket on the floor, which I hate doing because you never know how clean the floors are and I'd bet a good chunk of my annual travel budget that it's pretty filthy down there.
Once the flow of passengers trickled down a bit the flight attendants started making their way through the cabin and putting all of the pillows and blankets they had placed on the seats into the recessed area between the seat and the shell. They also stopped by my seat to introduce themselves and welcome me on board. There were definitely more flight attendants on board but the only two that I ever saw working in the premium cabin were a Thai man and an Indonesian woman. Both very engaging and friendly, lots of smiles between the both of them.
One flight attendant offered to bring me something refreshing to drink while we waiting to take off and I agreed that it might be nice to have a sip of something cool. Within a minute I had a small glass of orange juice.
While we wrapped up the boarding procedures and taxied for take off, I got a bit more familiar with the seat. I had been assigned to seat 2A, the window seat in the second row of the premium cabin. As you can see, leg room isn't particularly amazing for a premium cabin seat. It's pretty equivalent to what you'd see in domestic first class in the United States - roomy but no where near the level of room you'd see on other international business class offerings from competing carriers in the area. Still, considering the particularly tight leg room in AirAsia's economy class, this is definitely the more comfortable location to ride by far. No contest.
The seat shell for the seats in front of me featured a foot well storage area for anything you desire, though I suspect it often was stuffed with shoes. Small, narrow storage slots were available a bit further up which seemed ideal for storing the in-flight magazine and safety cards, but those were inside the mesh netting.
On the left hand side of the seat along the fuselage was a rudimentary seat controller that let you adjust the recline of the seat, the foot rest, and also go flat into "bed" mode. It should be noted that the bed doesn't go 180 degrees nor does it even go completely flat. Less than ideal, particularly for longer flights that these aircraft might operate on, but still a massive improvement over an economy class seat on AirAsia or any other carrier for that matter.
The above is a picture of the seat semi-reclined, which is about as far as I took it on this flight since I didn't feel the need to sleep and this set up was very comfortable for me. As you can see, there's a center console with tray tables folded into the side. I dislike this type of tray table because pulling it out (ha!) can be cumbersome depending on your body type and whether you're reclined or not. Each seat also has an individual reading light hanging on flexible cables.
The console between each seat also has universal charging ports, though as you can see from the red light one of these wasn't functioning properly (of course it was the one I was using and didn't realize till halfway through the flight....).
A small cubby in the area of the console by my shoulder had a small alcove where a standard sized bottle of water was tucked away.
My overall assessment of the seat is that it's an amazing deal for the price I was asked to pay, but definitely falls short of the level of comfort you'd find on a full service carrier. While much more spacious than an economy seat, it did lack a variety of amenities you'd normally see on full service competitors like Singapore Airlines, Malaysia Airlines, and Thai Airways. Things like fully reclining seats, spacious leg room, in-flight entertainment (only available on a portable device by payment on AirAsia premium), amenity kits, or even access to a pre-flight lounge all stand out as evidence that while nice, it's not exactly a peer to a true business class product.
Now on to the meal and service!
Once we were in the air headed toward Kathmandu the flight attendants pulled the curtains at the front of the cabin where they were working in the galley and also the curtains directly behind my row which separated the premium cabin from the economy cabin.
They also dropped by quickly to give me a refreshing hot towel.
There really isn't much "service" to discuss because unlike full service business class there isn't much in terms of food, drink, and other amenities which would have the crew coming into contact with passengers. After drawing the curtains I didn't see any crew members for another twenty minutes when the male flight attendant appeared and dropped off my meal.
If you're flying in premium class, AirAsia lets you pre-order your meal from their full standard menu which can be found online here. I've flown AirAsia quite a bit in economy class and with meals being so cheap on board (average of $4 USD) I have tried and been happy with just about everything they sell. The meals might not always look the most appetizing, but the flavor hasn't disappointed me yet.
I went with an old favorite - Nesi Lemak. Widely considered Malaysia's national dish, AirAsia's riff on this plate features spicy chicken bits, sambal (chili paste), a hard boiled egg, deep fried crispy anchovies, and roasted peanuts all paired with rice cooked in coconut milk with pandan leaf. One thing to note - it seems despite saying you only get your pre-ordered meal and water, AirAsia does try to elevate the offering over what they provide in the back of the plane. The meal comes in its metal tin like it does in economy class but is presented on a tray with additional items that aren't provided when the same meal is ordered in back. Things like a bread roll, butter, and a small bite size chocolate bar.
The side dish was an odd container of diced green apples with herbs. I hard passed on this. It was flat out weird, and I'm a very adventurous eater.
The flight attendants also seemed okay with providing an endless stream of mini juice cups despite the descriptions of the service saying only a bottle of water would be provided free of charge. Other beverages like Coke or beer were definitely not being offered without some ringgit being handed over.
Other than picking up my tray, I really didn't see much more of the flight attendants until we were coming in for landing and they checked to make sure my seat was upright and seatbelt buckled. As with all my other AirAsia flights, the crew were courteous and friendly. They didn't make themselves super available but why would they? Drinks and food weren't free and anything I needed I would have to pay for. They provided the service as required and did it with a smile. Can't ask for more than that!
Not much else to comment on for the flight as I didn't purchase any entertainment and I simply passed my time watching the world sail by while I read from my Kindle and listened to a few tunes on my phone. The sunset scenery as we descended into the Kathmandu valley was pretty spectacular though.
When we finally landed in Kathmandu the airfield was largely deserted other than a plane with the United Nations logo plastered across the side. We parked at a remote stand and took a bus to the main terminal where the immigration process was in all honesty a complete cluster fuck. Too many conflicting pieces of information being given by various airport staff, no pens provided to fill out immigration forms, and an urgency to process the planeload of passengers that would best be described as lackadaisical translated into a 45 minute process to get stamped into Nepal despite being the only arriving passengers at that time. Even with the delayed entry into the country, luggage had not arrived from the plane yet and it was another 15 minutes before it did started to arrive. Despite being the only premium cabin passenger my baggage that was supposedly supposed to be delivered first came out toward the tail end of delivery. Not the end of the world, but needless to say Nepal didn't welcome me with efficiency.
Which is just fine with me - Nepal's charms far outweigh its flaws!
So that, folks, is my experience with AirAsia's premium class. A great value overall but definitely not a peer to what would be considered a more traditional business class offering. Still, for the price point I have absolutely zero complaints - I pretty much felt like I was robbing them based on how little I paid for the upgrade. If you're paying outright for the service at booking, the value proposition becomes a bit murkier. It's definitely priced a bit higher than my bidding offer, and with the fierce competition happening between Southeast Asian carriers it's actually not really offered at a significant discount over full service airlines very consistently. There have actually been times where I've seen AirAsia's premium cabin priced higher than full service airline business class. Which is my way of saying it's a great deal if you find it in the right situations - but don't go blindly booking it without shopping first.
If you've flown AirAsia's premium cabin, I'd love to hear your thoughts! Happy flying!