Air travel with children is stressful. Will they need to use the bathroom during the agonisingly long period that the seat belt sign is on? Have you packed enough snacks? Will the things you’ve brought to keep them occupied by enough for the journey? Will the airline remember that you asked for the stroller back at the gate (because you know that your changeover airport is huge and little legs without wheels mean that you may not make your connection)? So add into that Air Asia’s ‘No Guarantees’ and you have a recipe for substantial stress.
I’ve never understood why travelling with children can mean so many ‘no guarantees’ terms and conditions. The airline can’t guarantee the availability of a children’s meal, the hotel can’t guarantee the availability of a cot even if you book one months in advance, the ticketing counter can’t guarantee a bassinet seat if you’re travelling with a baby. The whole process seems to be designed to make your holiday difficult. And whilst I will admit that most of the time these ‘no guarantees’ issues resolve themselves, there is always significant uncertainty travelling with children.
We recently flew to Kuala Lumpur with Air Asia and discovered an even more stressful variety of the ‘No Guarantees’ policies that airlines employ.
Like most budget airlines, Air Asia offer the chance to pay to reserve seats at the time you purchase your tickets. However, unlike other airlines, their website in China is incredibly clunky and slow to use. Whether this is due to the ‘great firewall’ or Air Asia itself, I don’t know, but the upshot of this is that when you book via the website, quite a few of the buttons don’t load. Long story short, although the baggage button appeared and we bought copious amounts, the seat reservation button didn’t and so we didn’t know this service was available.
Credit to Air Asia, the charge for reserving seats is very reasonable compared with many airlines and when we found out about it several weeks later I headed straight to the website to avail of the service. Sadly, as the flight was just prior to Chinese New Year, the flight was fully booked by this time and so no further seats were available.
Here then, is where Air Asia’s policy of blackmailing families comes to the fore.
With Air Asia, if you don’t purchase your seats in advance, they randomly assign seats to your party. They don’t do this intelligently, it genuinely is random. Each person from your party is given a seat somewhere on the plane and from the seats we were randomly assigned it appears no thought is given to the process at all. I was given seat 15F, my wife was in seat 19A and our 3 year old daughter was in seat 5A, 14 rows away from my wife and on the other side of the aircraft 10 rows away from me. Time for customer service.
Air Asia offer a live chat customer service online and being in China (and it being past the time that the office closed) I joined a queue of 38 others, ‘estimated waiting time 52 minutes’. After a wait of almost an hour, Sobri connected with me and asked what my problem was. I explained and after being told the flight was full, was promptly advised that the issue was my own fault; ‘as per your ticket, you could have chosen to buy seats in advance, as you chose not to, your seats have been randomly assigned’. This was compacted by his insistence that my 3 year old would not be flying unaccompanied as we were on the same booking and on the same flight. And then the old classic that other travel blogs had told me to expect ‘it is your responsibility to ask another passenger if they will change seats with you’ #sigh#
My logic now told me that the people at check-in would be a better bet. My wife had a seat next to my son, the people next to my 3 year old daughter had seats together. Common sense told me that it would be pretty easy to swap these around so that my daughter, wife and son were sat together and the people next to my daughter were seated together, albeit on a different row. Not to worry.
Unfortunately the check-in desk was just as helpful and money clearly talks with Air Asia as the only advice they offered was ‘if you wanted to sit together why didn’t you pay for seats?’ They also advised that we ask another passenger to swap places with us on the plane but stressed that this would be our responsibility. Stressing that we didn’t speak the same language as many of the people on our flight from Guangzhou to KL resulted in a conclusive shrug of the shoulders.
In a last ditch attempt to resolve the issue before boarding I decided to play the confidence man at the check-in gate and, strolling over with a big smile on my face, proceeded to tell the lady that we’d been told by the nice lady at check-in that the boarding staff would arrange for one of us to sit next to my daughter. The lady at the gate took my tickets and moved my seat so we were sat together. It really was that simple. I assume we were given the seats of somebody who hadn’t arrived for the flight but this reassurance earlier in the process would have made the trip so much less stressful.
There is money to be made somewhere in hassle free family travel. Simple guarantees that reduce stress for people who are already stressed enough as it is. As parents we spend a lot of time planning for hypothetical situations that may occur whilst travelling without having to worry about these ‘no guarantees’ policies from airlines and hotels. I suffer from nightmares weeks before flying simply worrying about whether my children are going to disturb other people. Is my son annoying the person in front of him by pressing the screen too hard when he selects a movie? Are people being disturbed by my daughter who cries at enormous volume because she suffers so badly with her ears at take-off and landing? How do I stop them standing on their seats and glaring at the people in the row behind whilst we’re waiting to taxi to the run-way? I loose sleep over these things.
It’s a shame then that airlines like Air Asia add questions like ‘who will help my 3 year old with her oxygen mask?’ and ‘who will hold her hand when she’s crying from the pain in her ears?’ into the mix simply because you were unable to pay for priority seating at the time of booking. It just seems like a complete failure for common sense.
If the lesson Air Asia wanted me to learn from this experience was that failure to pay would result in the airline ‘randomly’ assigning us seats all over the aircraft then I’m afraid they failed. The only lesson I learned was to avoid Air Asia.