It’s been a fun and eventful week. I’m sitting in a hotel room in Ha Long Bay, Vietnam. I’m going to try to get some rest over the next couple of days before gearing back up. In the meantime….
Budget or Boutique Airline?
Being around aviation my entire life, I always involuntarily end up comparing airplanes, airlines, and the like.
So without further ado, my experience on Air Asia and Bangkok Airways. Keep in mind this is just one experience.
Air Asia is known as the budget airline of….Asia. Bangkok Airways is “Asia’s Boutique Airline.” Their slogan, not mine.
So…how does a budget airline compare to a “boutique” airline?
I boarded an AirAsia flight from Hong Kong to Bangkok, Thailand on the evening of January 24, 2018.
I paid around $70 for a three hour long international flight. This included the add-ons of choosing my seat (always window), a meal, and checking my bag.
Hong Kong Airport
First off, let me say the Hong Kong Airport is simply amazing. Throughout the entire airport, the departure and arrival areas are completely separate.
This includes at the gates, which means people never get off the airplane where you are waiting to board.
Of course, this is greatly aided by the fact that there are no domestic flights at the Hong Kong airport. If there is one, something is terribly wrong.
The AirAsia flight was an Airbus A320. The seating arrangement was 3 seats, aisle, 3 seats.
During the boarding process, we were separated into 3 lines, corresponding to the 3 different zones on our boarding passes.
The first zone was the “Hot Seats”, which was the first six or so rows of the plane. The other two zones were the rest of the plane divided in half.
As soon as I boarded the plane, I was impressed by how new, clean and modern it appeared. The seats were practically brand new leather, and the lights were excellent and looked sleek.
All of the seats had adjustable headrests, which I believe is a major minimum requirement for any plane. This gives you the ability to lean your head and go to sleep!
There were four, possibly five, flight attendants on board that were all overly kind and helpful.
During the flight, my pre-booked meal was brought to me just after takeoff. It was piping hot and tasted pretty good, considering it was a pre-booked budget airline meal.
More or less, General Tso’s chicken with rice. It was good and fresh and I would eat it again.
The only downside is that my knees were touching the seat in front of me the entire trip. This was a total first for me, as I am about 5 foot 8 inches. If you are quite tall, you may have a very bad time.
All AirAsia flights fly to Bangkok’s old airport, Don Mueang International. This airport was first built in 1914, so you can imagine it is not quite up to date in all aspects. It actually reopened as Bangkok’s defacto budget airport in xxxx.
We landed on time, got off the plane quickly, and I cleared customs in less than 10 minutes. What more can be said?
Now, let’s talk about my experience with Asia’s Boutique Airline. I paid more for this ticket on purpose because I wanted to try a different airline. I also wanted to see Bangkok’s main airport, Suvanvbhumi.
My Chiang Mai to Bangkok flight was at 11am, and the Bangkok to Vientiane, Laos flight was at 4pm. This gave me a three hour layover to check out the airport, read, and relax before heading to a new country.
About ten days before my departure, I got an email saying my Bangkok to Vientiane flight had been cancelled, no reason given. Let’s assume it was due to very low demand.
My given alternative was to take a 5:55am flight from Chiang Mai, have a 60 minute connection window, and fly to Vientiane on the 8:45am flight. I emailed asking if it was possible if there was anything else they could do, and they offered me a flight on Royal Thai Airways…which arrived after midnight.
After reading various reviews online, everyone said Bangkok Airways was superior to Royal Thai Airways, so I took the annoyingly early flight. I also don’t care to arrive into a new country after midnight…
Chiang Mai Airport
I arrived at the Chiang Mai airport before 5:00 am with both eyes still closed. I was shocked to discover a metal detector literally in the threshold of the curbside door.
This made me begin to rapidly chug the water I had just opened. A guy stepped out and said “Water okay, bring inside,” motioning me to come in.
As I walked up to the curbside door, I immediately had to drop my bags on a belt and go through a metal detector. I set it off. This is awesome. Normally I am ready, but I have never been so unprepared for security. Normally it isn’t located at the entrance. I get wanded. My eyes are still blood red and sealed shut despite other efforts.
After getting through that quick mess, I go to find the check-in counter. I get up to the counter, and they say I need to go the counter in the international terminal. Huh? This flight is going to Bangkok, the screen above my head has my flight information, what am I missing?
It turns out there is a separate counter for international flights, even if you are getting on domestic flight. So I checked in at a different counter, for the same exact flight other people were checking in at the counter I started with. I digress….
I had to go through security again, and then get my passport exit stamped. Finally…
Waiting to Board
About 15 minutes passed since our scheduled boarding time, and there was absolutely nothing happening. Cool! Usually they at least tell us if we are going to be delayed.
Finally, at exactly the scheduled departure time, a hastily made announcement says our flight is boarding now. They open the door, and we all stand up and try to stomp on at once. What a great process.
As I walk onto the plane, I’m a little distraught at what I see. The seats look quite old. I realize they do not have any headrests. This is just not okay at all.
While checking in at the counter, I was asked if I was okay with an exit row seat. Sure, why not? More leg room.
It turns out that, unlike the other 200 flights I have been on, you cannot keep even the smallest bag under the seat in front of you if you are in the exit row. Despite there being more than enough room, this is a Bangkok Airways rule. A bit disappointing, but I can live with this.
Just like any other flight I had been on, I had my light fleece jacket half on my arm and shoulder, and partly over my legs. Don’t ask why I do this, for warmth, comfort, security, whatever.
While we were taxiing, the flight attendant came and said she needed to stow my jacket because I was in an exit row. What? I can’t even have my damn jacket on!? Now I was pretty annoyed with this boutique airline. I tried to adjust my headrest, but it was still not there.
The meal I received was a tiny soupy rice, that wasn’t even as good as the train food.
I didn’t expect anything, and I really don’t care, but for the purpose of this discussion the food was not near as good as Air Asia’s.
After arriving in Bangkok, I now had about 39 minutes to get from this plane to my flight to Vientiane. I still wanted to check out Bangkok Air’s Free Lounge.
Without going into too much detail, I’ll just say I’ve never had such a hard time navigating an airport as Bangkok’s Suvanabhumi. 40+ airports visited and this is the first time I was even remotely confused. First of all, I was an area known as “ICQ.” I’ve never heard of this before, but it stood for Immigration and Customs Quarantine. What a great idea!
It was a good idea, I had already gone through immigration in Chiang Mai, so it saved us the trouble of doing it here. However, I had to go through security AGAIN in Bangkok!
Three times in one flight set, that is obviously a record. Once through security again, I had to go up 3 sets of escalators to get to the floor with the international flights.
I found signs pointing to Bangkok Airway’s Lounge. After 10 minutes of walking, I was right where the lounge was located on the airport’s map. There was nothing around but white walls.
Apparently the lounge was on the opposite side of the hallway, or 10 feet behind me.
The only problem was there was a temporary wall between me and that half of the hall. Great. It took 10 minutes to loop back around to almost exactly where I started.
Here it is, I see the sign! Why does it look so dark?
Oh cool. It says the lounge is permanently closed. There is a new one located at D6.
That sounds better, as my gate is D1. So I head to the D concourse from A.
I pass my gate on the way, knowing the lounge is just several more steps from my gate.
I ended up walking, no joke, 15 minutes from D1 to D6. There was no one else around, and I was walking full steam ahead like a madman. I have never seen such massive space between gates in my wildest dreams. There was not a single moving sidewalk either!
I finally get to the lounge and show them my boarding pass. They print out a free WiFi code, and I walk. There are a few plastic chairs and a couple of tables. They also have small juice and cups, like what you would see at a motel.
My favorite part was the free croissants. They were just plain bread croissant rolls, but I quickly shoved down three of them. There was only 5 minutes until my flight was boarding.
I stormed out of the longue and sprint-walked back to my gate. There was nothing but empty white space for almost 9 minutes, as if I was on some kind of acid trip before I reached my gate.
I took the ramp down from the walkway into the waiting area. This was a unique concept that I liked, minus the horrid walking distance. The gate area is underneath the walking area. In order to enter the boarding longue (gate area with seats), you must first show your boarding pass.
After sitting in a seat for ten minutes after the scheduled boarding time, there was once again no sign of any boarding. Finally, a lady walked up with a big sign and yelled “OKAY WE BOARD VIENTIANE RIGHT NOW!”
Everyone stood up at once and swarmed the gate. God, I hate this shit. Why can’t they separate us into two groups? This is a BOUTIQUE airline?
I was hoping this plane would be nicer than the last, but this one was worse. For starters, my seat and several of the ones I noticed around me had broken parts.
The recline button was pushed in so reclining was not possible. This was the case on other seats nearby. Some of the tray tables were partially broken and one of them didn’t latch. In my seatback pocket, the inflight magazine was filled with trash and pieces of gum. I laughed.
Some of the seats had holes, and overall the aircraft was basically falling apart and very dirty. It was the complete opposite of the AirAsia flight I took. The only improvement here was that I had about two more inches of knee room.
Still no adjustable headrests. What a bummer.
AirAsia. Now Everyone Can Fly! (Their slogan….not mine..)
In the end, I will definitely choose AirAsia over Bangkok Airways. The price was 60% less and the value was 250% more. I greatly appreciate Bangkok’s effort in providing a free lounge for all of their customers however. Obviously no airline has any control on how an airport is setup.
Excellent comparison of 2 very different carriers. I have flown with both, and had pretty much the same experience.
With ‘Asia’s Boutique Airline’, there is a certain expectation that it will be a premium product, wheras most people expect very little from Air Asia and are usually very pleasantly surprised.
Bangkok Airways’ food is nearly always awful. The legroom on their A319s and A320s is average at best, though better than Air Asia’s. Taking photos or a video during taxi or takeoff is another of their no-nos.
If the price is right, I’d definitely go with Air Asia.