Budget airlines are tricky creatures. Bless them for bringing extra competition to the market, but my goodness can they be sneaky. AirAsia, who I fly with regularly, have some sneaky tendencies as their web-booking system attempts to sneak a few sneaky hidden charges past you as you blithely click through - but I have found it to be mostly harmless, if a bit too sneaky.
This past weekend I flew Tiger Airways for the first time. And probably the last.
A scan through the interwebs will reveal a variety of complaints - poor service, delays, cancellations, hidden charges - about Tiger, which is based in Singapore but runs many domestic flights throughout Australia. What put me in a foul mood for a sizeable chunk of my weekend was Tiger's online check-in policy. Lots of airlines offer online check-in option these days, and generally it's a good thing which can save you time you might otherwise spend in a queue. But Tiger give it a twist and charge you money if you don't check in online.
Turn up to their counter without having checked in, and they slug you with a fee of $25. According to this news story, it was only $15 barely 8 months ago. (And yes, I wish I hadn't only read that article just now.) Now technically speaking, this information is available when you book the flight, but it's not completely obvious - it's unclear enough for lots of people to miss it, anyway. And given that most people book flights more than a week in advance, it is easy to forget that there even was an online check-in option, which is what happened in my case.
So my very first experience of walking into a Tiger terminal was being hit up for an unexpected $25. I'm sure you'll agree it's not a good first impression. I hadn't even got on board the plane yet and already I was vowing never to fly with them again. And if you are thinking that perhaps I'm the only fool to get caught with this fee, the person at the counter next to me also got stung, as did the couple in front of me on the return leg. I saw the wallets come out, and the looks of bewilderment and disgust on their faces.
Now $25 is not all that much money, you might say. And Tiger has every right to have this as their policy if they wish. Fair enough.
I just don't like businesses that treat their customers with contempt. Because no matter how Tiger's Australian Managing Director might mouth things like "It's about unbundling all the extras and being transparent about all charges to allow customers to tailor their travel needs to their budget", the web check-in is ultimately just a trick to bleed some extra money from unsuspecting customers. And those are customers who will feel cheated, start their journey on a sour note and be less likely to fly with Tiger in the future.
The thing is, Tiger clearly thinks that making that $25 is worth that horrible first impression. And that ethos fills me with contempt. For all AirAsia's hidden charges, they still itemise it for you before you decide to pay, so you can see what you have unknowingly upgraded to, so they are not all that hidden.
I also experienced delays on both of my flights this past weekend. About 30 and 45 minutes, which is not horrible in the scheme of things. But given that Tiger staff are well-known to be obsessively rigid in punishing anyone who turns up even a minute after the designated check-in time, it's kinda poor form for them to routinely have late departure times. If I turn up late for check-in and simply said "I apologise for the inconvenience caused", would their staff accept me with the same shrug of their shoulders with which I am expected to accept their apologetic voiceover?
My colleague and his family once flew Tiger to his holiday destination, and for the return journey turned up to the check-in counter 5 minutes late (he'd rushed there from a medical clinic because he'd been bleeding out of his ear). No amount of negotiation or begging would convince the Tiger staff to let them check in, which meant their tickets were wasted. (I'll bet as well the plane was delayed more than 5 minutes, btw.) To get home in a timely fashion, they had to purchase tickets with another airline, which cost my colleague over $1000 extra. Now, it is not uncommon for airlines to enforce this cut-off time with some rigidity, but you have to wonder. They didn't really gain anything by forbidding these people from boarding - the seats had already been paid for, and now they would just be empty. But the cost to them is that one family will certainly never fly with them again, and each member will undoubtedly spread the bad word to friends and acquaintances (unfortunately, not to me - I only heard this story after venting my own annoyance with the airline).
It seems to be terrible business practice, but one that is totally consistent with Tiger's way of doing things.
I'll say in fairness that while a couple of the Tiger staff I dealt with on the plane and on the ground were surly, the rest seemed pleasant. And Tiger does still fill a purpose - it has a slight lowering effect on the prices of other airlines through the power of competition.
All budget airline tickets need to be purchased with care - sometimes it does pay to read the fine print. As I said, they are a tricky species. But Tiger seems to be vying for the title of the trickiest of them all. Perhaps, as the saying goes, you get what you pay for after all. Caveat emptor.