The last leg of our journey is upon us. And unlike the first leg of our trip, or first two-thirds really, all of our transit from here on out will be by air. We wanted to begin our Indonesian stay in the east and work our way west. But when we went to book flights, Air Asia wouldn’t let us do the many short flights in one day. So we decided to go to the offices at KL Sentral to speak to a human, thinking we could work it all out. Confusion and eventual dismay ensued.
Let me first give a little context. We are ending our time in Malaysia on Borneo, the giant island composed of:
Sabah, Malaysia’s easternmost province, The Sultanate of Brunei (which we ruled out going to because they’re not so nice to same-sex couples), Sarawak, Malaysia’s second province on the northwest corner of Borneo (west of Brunei), and Indonesian Borneo, which is everything south of those three areas above.
We had the crazy idea of entering Indonesia from the Malaysian city just north of the border with Indonesia, called Semporna, the gateway to the diving mecca of Sipidan Island. Indonesia is literally spitting distance from Semporna, so it should be pretty easy to get there. But after some research, we decided flying into Indonesia would be better and began looking into flights with Air Asia, with whom we had had positive experiences in the past.
We went to the Air Asia offices to figure out a way into Indonesia from Semporna’s Tawau airport. First we thought we could fly to Sulawesi, the island directly east of Borneo. That turned out to be impossible on the internet. Trying something else, we looked into flying to Yogyakarta, a larger city on the island of Java. Unfortunately, that involved more than 24 hours of travel, with one huge layover in Kuala Lumpur and two stops in total. If we bought the tickets separately (as in, buy one flight to KL and then another flight from KL to Yogyakarta), we would be able to do it in one day. But something on the online portal prevented us from booking the overall trip.
Our objective, then, was to have the customer service representative book these flights for us on one itinerary. Simple, right?
We entered the offices and tried to explain the situation to the greeter. She spoke decent English, but did not understand that we had done research already and we simply needed to speak with a representative. As we tried to give her the Heisman in the nicest way possible (since saying, “Get out of my face, I know what I’m doing,” is rude in Malaysia), two other people jumped us in line. We were good-natured about it, though, took our numbers and sat in the waiting room for about 20 minutes.
We sat breathless in anticipation as we watched the number ahead of us receive assistance, trying to ignore the man next to her as he badgered the rep he was working with. That wouldn’t be us, we said to ourselves silently.
Suddenly, our number was called. We raced to the counter. “Hello, can I help you?”
“We hope so!” Rebecca and I said in unison, half-jokingly.
We told the young lady that we wanted to fly from Tawau to Yogykarta. Her first response was, “That’s not a domestic flight. You have to go to Kuala Lumpur.”
“Yes, we know that much,” we respond. “We are fine flying through KL, but we want to do our travel in one day. The online interface wouldn’t let us do that.”
“Ah, ok. Let’s see.” Click click on the keyboard, a quick click of the mouse, and then silence. “Oh, I can’t do that for you. There would only be two hours between those flights on that day.”
Confused, we try adding words. “Yeah, we don’t want to be in KL overnight. We want to do it in one day. There’s two hours between the flights, so we’d only be in the airport a few hours. No problem.” This explanation elucidates nothing.
“That’s not enough time,” she responds. “You need at least four hours between flights. So that if the first flight is delayed you have enough time.”
Rebecca and I are stunned, and only slightly amused. Did she just say that we are required to spend four hours in the airport for no reason because Air Asia is admitting that they are sufficiently unreliable as to necessitate a lengthy layover for all of its passengers? Unable to hide my disbelief, I ask, “Are you telling me that Air Asia’s company policy is that there must be four hours between flights?”
“Yes,” she responds, “in case there is a delay.”
Ridiculous. We laugh in a that’s-totally-nutty kind of way. At this point, to save face, the woman should have interrupted our incredulity to figure out another way to achieve our objective of flying to Indonesia. But she didn’t, opting instead to stare at us until we walked away.
So we had wasted about 30 minutes of our time to achieve nothing, except to regard Air Asia with disdain. What kind of airline’s policy requires four hours of time between flights? In the US, you’re lucky if you get 30 minutes between flights – a one-hour layover is ideal. They cram as many people onto planes and into and out of airports as possible, since this makes them the most money. Besides, forcing people to sit in airports (not known for their engaging points of interest or culinary delights) is simply mad.
The larger point, though, is that they turned away our money by being too lazy to help us find an alternative solution. Their office setup should have been a giveaway as to the quality of service we would receive. Instead of having desks set up so that you could sit down with someone, like a travel agency, the desks were raised and the reps sat a few feet below behind a glass window. You had to stand on your toes to be heard, and they had to look up to look you in the eye. Forget promoting loyalty; this low-cost airline is going for volume, not quality.
We have flown low-cost carriers in the past with far greater customer service experience – Jetstar and Southwest immediately come to mind – so we know the two are not mutually exclusive. It’s sad that we had this experience with possibly the largest low-cost carrier in the region. But since they didn’t go out of their way to help us, we will go out of our way to avoid them. It’s that simple.