Simon Calder: Anyone for a midnight plane from Stansted?
Saturday 07 March 2009
Travel polls can be compelling, not least because a holiday hit parade that inspires visions of sea, sun and cities provides a welcome escape from gloom, doom and despondency. Not always, mind; when, last Wednesday, I searched for a bed on LateRooms.com, I happened upon the company's "Top Destinations". The top 10 began enticingly enough with Madrid and Seville in 10th and eighth positions respectively. Yet Florence – that gracious Tuscan city, overflowing with fine food and finer art – was pipped for top place.
The planet's leading destination, at least according to the discount hotels website, stands on the Tees, not the Arno: it is Middlesbrough.
At least the contenders in an online opinion survey from Virgin Media online look more familiar: the "hottest city" category, when I checked, was topped by New York, just ahead of Barcelona. "Most appealing destination in a movie" by a country mile was the Greek Islands, thanks to the screen success of Mamma Mia!. But one category is curious, given the aviation connections of the Virgin group. Users are invited to nominate the "collapsed airline you'll miss the most". All the candidates folded last year: Oasis Hong Kong Airlines, Zoom and Silverjet are listed, with top place going to XL Airways. And all these failures stranded passengers at airports around the globe.
On Wednesday another bid to make a success of long-haul, low-cost flying takes off from Stansted, destination Kuala Lumpur. AirAsia X has been selling seats for as little as £99 each way, though after making a series of test bookings it seems a more likely one-way fare is £200. In true low-cost fashion, "you're only buying the flying". Checked luggage costs £12 each way for a 20kg case, with meals a further £7 per flight.
The operation shares a couple of other features with no-frills flying: high aircraft utilisation and strange flight times. Those two are entwined: with a flight time eastbound of 13 hours, and westbound 14 hours, the single Airbus A340 cannot operate a "rotation" – a there-and-back flight – within a 24-hour day. Therefore AirAsia X will fly back and forth five times a week, with departure and arrival times shifting from one day to the next – testing the travelling public's appetite for cheap flights.
Book on the Monday flight, for example, and your departure time is "00.00", leaving plenty of scope for confusion. The airline happens to mean the Cinderella hour at the end of Sunday, rather than the moment when Monday changes to Tuesday.
There's certainly room for error; in the olden days when people booked in person or by phone, a good travel agent would carefully spell out that the Monday flight was actually a Sunday night departure; these days, online buyer beware. Other airlines minimise ambiguity by avoiding 00.00, instead using 23.59 or 00.01 to indicate which day they mean.
Coming back, the Sunday and Thursday flights from Kuala Lumpur leave at a very civilised 4.30pm – but that means they land at 10.30pm at the Essex airport. By the time the passengers have cleared immigration and customs, amid the last crowded wave of no-frills flight from Europe, most public transport from Stansted will have disappeared.
The website Sleepinginairports. net can expect more hits; one user describes Stansted as "a refugee camp". The site's worst-airport poll, incidentally, is topped by Heathrow (3), Moscow Sheremetyevo (2) and Paris Charles de Gaulle (1).
Will Airasia X soar? The airline can expect ferocious competition from the incumbent carrier on the London-KL route, Malaysia Airlines, whose fares are only marginally higher. In the newcomer's favour is a premium cabin costing around £200 more than economy.
Given the airline collapse that happened six months to the day before Air Asia X's London launch, this cabin has a brave choice of name: XL.
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