Flights Used To Be Very Expensive; How Did Budget Airlines Make Them Cheaper?

If you’re an avid Malaysian football fan, you might have encountered this meme:

If you’re not, let us fill you in. Malaysia had a very important football match against Vietnam, and we have very passionate fans called the Ultras. Since the match was held in Hanoi, AirAsia announced a special flight to send our fans there, then Petronas chipped in with free fuel. Alas, Malaysia Airports still charged the passengers MYR35 airport tax per person.

Now, these three elements are important to what travel360 is going to talk about today, which is… how did budget airlines manage to make flights affordable in the first place? And the answers are not as simple as what most people would think. Let’s start with…

1. Flights used to be for the rich, so budget airlines stripped the services to the essentials

The proposed interior for Boeing 747. Image credit: Gizmodo.

Back in the 70s, flying used to be a luxury. There were buffets, free-flowing booze, fresh-cut flowers on your tray tables, even a piano lounge on board! These luxuries weren’t provided just so that airlines could charge higher, but also because at that time, flights were often very long and tiresome. If they could, they would’ve fit an entire tennis court inside.

But what might shock you is – smoking inside the flight was very common back then!. Imagine being in a room full of smoke for 12 hours straight. By the time you exited the aircraft, not only would you have to clean your clothes of the smell, but you might also have to cleanse your soul after seeing the lavish lifestyle of cigar-chomping, pipe-blowing businessmen.

So when budget airlines first broke out in Europe, they changed their strategy. Instead of providing more services to justify the expensive fare, they stripped their services to the bare minimum so flying would be affordable for the masses. Y’know, for people who couldn’t afford to buy cigars on a daily basis.

However, in-flight services aren’t the only thing that hikes up the fares. One factor that costs the most is actually…

2. Budget airlines saves A LOT on crew training and maintenance

But first, they have to save on fuel. Image credit: Flickr

When Petronas decided to sponsor the fuel for the flight to Hanoi, it was such a big deal for our fans. Why?

Anyone who owns a car or motorbike would know – the single biggest cost to run them is fuel. The same goes with flying a plane. The only difference is that a plane doesn’t have to pay for tolls, because it would be inconvenient for pilots to roll down the window and tap their Touch N’ Go cards.

So how do budget airlines counter this fuel problem? The answer is by using one type of aircraft. This means pilots, cabin crew, engineers, mechanics and operations personnel can specialise in a single type of aircraft, eliminating costly staff retraining, stocking of parts for different aircraft types, and maintaining different skills and certification to operate multiple types of aircraft. This saves A LOT of costs.

Budget airline planes are also typically only a few years old, and tend to be more fuel-efficient compared to the older planes used by full-service carriers.

Not to mention that an airline can buy these aircraft in bulk to get discounts! It’s just like when you go to a wholesale emporium, except that buying aircraft doesn’t require plastic bags so they saved on that, too.

Then there’s the third factor…

3. By using a low-cost terminal (like klia2 – which is NOT under AirAsia control btw)

The old LCCT. Image credit: Wikimedia Commons.

The most common misconception people have is that an airline company runs the airport, especially when that airline takes up the bulk of that airport.

In actuality, it’s the airline operator who runs airports. In Malaysia, it’s MAHB who’s responsible to build, own and operate airports across the country, including KLIA and klia2. And here’s where we get into a bit of a mess…

Airline operators charge a tax from every passenger called Passenger Service Charge (PSC) for use of airport facilities. For now, MAHB collects MYR35 per passenger for both KLIA and klia2 (for Asean rate). AirAsia pointed out that this is unfair since KLIA is a full-service terminal, while klia2 is a low-cost terminal.

This MYR35 might sound insignificant, but it can contribute to a big chunk of the full ticket price depending on the destination. And to a cost-conscious traveler, every ringgit counts.

To add to the dissatisfaction, people are complaining about the way klia2 was built by MAHB. Passengers have to walk far to the boarding gates due to the poor layout while the travelators are elevated and sit right in the middle of the walkway. There are also maintenance problems such as flooding and closure of runways, which affects an airline’s performance and punctuality.

A low-cost terminal is supposed to save cost with features such as short distance to gate and simplified layout, unfortunately klia2 is poorly designed to give passengers such benefits.

The airline industry has come a long way. Can we do more?

Flying used to be a privilege for the upper-middle class, not for the everyman. In fact, back then when Muslims needed to perform Hajj in Mecca, they had to board ships and sail for months!

Thankfully today, flying is accessible to the rakyat jelata like you and me. Travelling isn’t simply a break to escape the stress of work, but also a tool to explore and learn more about the world, to instil empathy with humans of all cultures.

But we can do much more. The current friction between MAHB and AirAsia might be discouraging, knowing that the industry can do better to provide for the people, for tourism and for the economy as a whole. Hopefully, with the news that the Malaysian Minister of Transport, Anthony Loke, is stepping in to be a mediator, we can expect a change to happen.

With that said, has the introduction of budget airlines affected the way you live and travel? How is your experience using klia2 so far? Share this article and your thoughts on social media!

What do you think?

Written by MK Zainal

MK was once involved in a magic gig. You know the trick where they cut a person into half? He was one of the halves.

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