Express boarding - Air Asia style

I arrived in Shenzhen last night. It was my first flight on the Asian budget airline, Air Asia. Although I’ve flown on a few European budget airlines (and had no complaints with any of those) I’d avoided Air Asia up until now because I had heard so many horror stories of the mad scramble for seats when boarding their planes. Unlike many European budget airlines that offer advance seat allocation (and with some you can even choose your seat online), Air Asia has a free seating policy.

Two things prompted me to fly Air Asia on this occasion. One was that there are only two direct flights from Kuala Lumpur to Shenzhen each day – one at 8.00 am with Shenzhen Airlines and one at 4.15 pm with Air Asia. I’m not an early riser, and didn’t fancy getting up at 4.00 am in order to get a taxi to the airport at 5.00 am. So that was the main reason. The other was that Air Asia recently introduced an ‘express boarding’ scheme, whereby if you paid an extra RM10 (less than US$3), you get to board first so that you have a greater choice of seats.

After buying my Air Asia ticket online (which actually turned out to be not much cheaper than Shenzhen Airlines which is a full service airline) I said to a Chinese friend that I wondered what would happen if everybody bought the express boarding option. My friend said she didn’t think that would happen because to a destination like Shenzhen, most of the passengers would be Chinese, “and Chinese don’t like to pay anything extra if they can avoid it – they would rather fight for their seats”.

She was right. When I got to the boarding gate yesterday afternoon, and they called for those with express boarding tickets, only my wife and I, and a Malaysian family of four stepped forward. Nearly all of the rest of the passengers were Chinese, and none of those stepped forward – except until the PA announced that senior citizens over the age of 65 could join the express boarding queue. Then there was a rush of about 30-40 senior citizens towards our door, and the ground staff had push them back. They started to check their passports, and found that most of them weren’t over the age of 65, so they sent them back to the other line, which caused a lot of grumbling. There were about 10-12 that were over 65, and they started to push their way to the front of the queue. Three grannies had elbowed their way in front of me by the time the ground staff opened the door and shouted “Okay, go!”

At that stage there were already eight in front of me – the Malaysian family, my wife and the three grannies. As we pushed our way through the door, two more senior citizens stood on my foot and elbowed their way past, so I was eleventh out of the door. As we headed towards the plane, the family at the front put on a sprint, and the senior citizens picked up speed behind them. I guessed what they were racing for – the front seats. I’d heard that the bulkhead seats have more legroom than all the other seats on Air Asia planes – so that would be the prize for the first to reach the plane.

We had to walk along three covered walkways and then across the tarmac to the plane. I picked up speed myself, and as we turned the corner at the end of the first walkway, I’d already passed my wife and two of the Malaysian family members. My wife shouted a few words of encouragement as I sprinted down the second walkway, this time overtaking all of the senior citizens except one – a very sprightly granny who was gunning for the tarmac with a determined look on her face. But as we exited the third walkway onto the tarmac, I cut inside her and pulled ahead, leaving only two of the Malaysians in front. They cast a glance over their shoulders and saw me narrowing the gap, so they put on more speed and made it to the aircraft steps ahead of me. As expected, they grabbed the front row, and threw their bags down on two of the other seats to reserve them for the family members trailing behind. I thought they might go for the window and aisle seats, to discourage anyone sitting in the middle, but they didn’t – they took three seats on one side and the aisle seat on the other side. That left a window and a middle seat for my wife and me, which was fine.

The senior citizens were next to board, and they scowled at us when they saw the front seats were gone, so they all settled into the two or three rows behind us.

The four hour flight to Shenzhen was uneventful. We had a nice fiery sunset on the way as we were flying over the South China Sea:

The plane was new and the flight attendants worked hard throughout the flight as it was nearly full. The food that you could buy onboard wasn’t as good as I’ve had on some European budget airlines, but apart from that I had no complaints about the flight. At Shenzhen we used an aerobridge and our baggage was already on the carousel by the time we got to the baggage hall. We were through immigration and customs in less than five minutes, so all that was very painless.

So my first experience with Air Asia wasn't too bad an experience – and now I know that 'express' boarding means that if you can run a four minute mile, you have a chance of getting a good seat.

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