Airlines in Asia: Thoughts on Malaysia Airlines, Air Asia, China Southern and China Eastern Airlines
On recent trips to Indonesia, Thailand, Singapore, Europe, and other spots, I’ve had some interesting experiences on various Asian airlines. Here are some thoughts and travel tips based on this experience.
First, I’m delighted with Malaysia Airlines. After their disasters a few years ago, they have clearly taken remarkable steps to rebuild their reputation and attract customers. If Malaysian Airlines is going your way, you may find low prices, good planes and helpful staff, with some of the best customer service I’ve seen. This week I had to fly from Shanghai to Jakarta. Malaysia Airlines offered surprisingly inexpensive round trip ticket (2400 RMB, about $350) with a stop in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I called customer service to make seat assignments. For major US airlines like United and Delta, this is a painful experience because you are likely to wait 30 to 50 minutes to reach anybody, and sometimes it takes over an hour. I called Malaysia Airlines twice, and in both cases I was able to reach an English speaking agent within about 2 minutes or less. Astonishing. And unlike China Eastern or several other airlines in China, I didn’t get some spiel about how you can only make seat assignment more than 3 days before the flight or only on the day of the flight or some other annoying story, Malaysia Airlines simply helped me on the spot. In fact, they explained to me that I could also check in right then and print out a boarding pass. This was wonderful because with my printed boarding pass, I did not need to wait in line to get my ticket (if you want to check baggage, you’ll need to queue) and could go straight to security. So nice.
Air Asia, also based out of Malaysia, is on the other end of the spectrum for customer service. It is very difficult to find a phone number to call (I don’t think it is listed on their website). When we did find a number, it took a long time to reach anyone and in the end they were not helpful. Their system wants you to do everything online, but this requires being a registered user with your ticket linked to your account. Because we had bought our tickets through OneTravel.com, we could not link our tickets to our account and their customer service agents could do nothing to overcome this bureaucratic snafu. Further, because of that problem, their system would not send us email to notify us of changes in the flight. They supposedly emailed OneTravel, but OneTravel knew nothing about this. This became a near disaster, for our flights from Shanghai to Krabi, Thailand (via Kuala Lumpur) that we bought in August 2016 for the end of January 2017 were moved to 12 hours EARLIER than what our booking confirmation showed. EARLIER. And they didn’t bother to contact us to let us know.
Fortunately, we had friends on the same flight who were notified of the change and these friends let us know. If it weren’t for them, we would have showed up at the airport only to learn that our flight have left the night before. And I bet the airline would have washed their hands of that and said it was our fault.
When we reached customer service to ask why they had not let us know, they had no good answer. Claiming they had sent another company an email does not explain why they didn’t try to reach us directly. How is a customer supposed to know? Don’t book a ticket on Air Asia unless you do it directly on their website. Going through a third-party will cause trouble for their antiquated computer system.
Air Asia had the worst seats I’ve seen in terms of leg space. I literally could not fit into my seat. Fortunately, a helpful crew member found another seat for me with an empty seat next to it so I had a place to put my legs. But if you are over 6 feet tall, I suggest avoiding Air Asia. The airline does has great food on their flight that you can order for a price, but unless you want to pick one of two default items, you should place your order online at least 24 hours before. Great food, actually, but that does not compensate for the other problems.
Chinese airlines such as China Eastern and China Southern are generally quite good, but calling service for help might be a bit frustrating at times. Make sure you know their policies on how to get seat assignments before you book with them. More details to follow.