Spacious lie-flat seating in business class but denser accommodation in economy class are on the cards for passengers booking medium and long-haul Air AsiaX flights in the coming months.
The Malaysian budget carrier has begun retrofitting its eight-strong fleet of Airbus A330s and A340s with the new seating at a cost of US$10 million. The programme will be finished by June and will cover routes linking the Malaysian capital of Kuala Lumpur with destinations in Australia, India, Taiwan, mainland China and the UK (London Stansted).
Business class passengers will be in for a treat. Air AsiaX claims it is the first budget airline to offer premium passengers the space and comfort of a lie-flat seat. However the seats are not fully lie-flat as you would find with British Airways or Virgin Atlantic. When questioned by Business Traveller, Tim Claydon, commercial advisor for Air AsiaX admitted that “the seat is slightly angled, it’s not 180 degree flat.” There will be 12 business seats on the A330s with 18 on the A340s.
“We feel this new product will be very attractive,” says Tim Claydon, “we believe it will steer passengers away from other carriers’ premium economy classes. We now have a seat which allows us to gain a share of the lower end business segment.”
Economy passengers will find themselves accommodated nine across (3-3-3) on both the twin-engined A330 (where the legroom will be 31 ins) and the four-engined A340 (legroom 32 ins). Both plane types have the same cabin width. To the best of our knowledge, conventional carriers operate these plane types in an eight across (2-4-2) configuration.How will passengers feel about this denser layout in the back cabins?
The six A330s serve medium and long-haul destinations within nine hours flying time of Kuala Lumpur. They are already disposed 3-3-3 in economy class so passengers are used to the layout. But the two A340s are reserved for the daily 12-hour London Stansted service and, as you can see from the pictures, the plane’s aisles appear to be narrow which will make it difficult to move around the cabin.
On the London route, Air AsiaX will reduce the current 30 “recliner” business class seats (configured 2-2-2) to 18 lie-flat seats which will also be 2-2-2. In economy the new accommodation means the cabin will now accommodate 309 passengers disposed 3-3-3. This is 53 more then the existing layout where 256 passengers have a more spacious eight across 2-4-2 layout.
It is airline economics that have prompted Air AsiaX to change the A340’s seating layout. Being four-engined and having relatively spacious seating (unchanged from the days of Air Canada, the A340s’ previous owner) they are expensive for a budget carrier to operate.
Air AsiaX CEO, Azran Osman Rani maintains that denser seating is essential for budget airline profitability. Speaking to Hong Kong newspaper The Standard, he said “A sustainable low-cost long-haul airline [business] model must stick to core principles of high aircraft utilisation and high seat density.”
His views were echoed by Tim Claydon, “[the nine across seating] ensures we improve the overall economics of operating this aircraft [the A340] to maintain the lowest possible fares.”
Tim Claydon does not believe London route passengers will complain about the nine across seating “when they see what a good value product they are getting.”
Unusually the new seating will not be fitted with individual IFE (inflight entertainment). Says CEO Azran Osman Rani, “We’ve decided to move away from IFE screens on the seat backs. Demand simply isn’t there to cover the massive cost of the system, the Hollywood content and the extra weight and complexity of the wiring. We think portable units [these will be available for rental] are the way forward and we are hoping to debut these by mid-year.”
Says Tim Claydon, “In years to come we also feel that there will be an increase in customers bringing their own entertainment devices on board.”
Economy fares should remain unchanged but Azran Osman Rani confirms that business fares will rise. Speaking to Malaysian newspaper The Star he says, “[Even after the increase] the new [business] fares will be a third of what full service carriers are charging for [normal price] business class. They will be at par with conventional carriers’ [full] economy class fares.”
The A330s will be the first planes to get the new seating. The A340s will be retrofitted throughout May and June during the period when Air AsiaX cuts its daily Stansted-Kuala Lumpur service from seven to five flights a week.
For more information visit airasia.com.
Report by Alex McWhirter