Spread out in economy class, but at what cost?

AirAsia and its long-haul cousin, AirAsia X, seem to have been able to duck much of the flack consumer that’s been suffered by the most aggressive of the low-cost airline ancillary fee regimes offered by the likes of Tiger Airways in the Asia Pacific, Ryanair in Europe and Spirit Airlines in the US.

Nevertheless, the Malaysia-based group continues to be among the ancillary fee leaders in the airline world in terms of ancillaries paid per passenger.

Its latest idea for taking extra money from customers is what it calls its empty seat option (ESo), developed for the airline by a company called Optiontown, which promises “a chance to get all three seats in a row for a nominal fee”.

It sounds like a poor man’s version of Air New Zealand’s “cuddle class” SkyCouch, which allows a couple to spread out across three economy seats fitted with a fold-out section that widens the seats into a bed of sorts.

My initial examination of the Air NZ suggested you could buy the “cuddle class” option for a premium economy price of around $4000-$6000 per person for a return trip to the US.

But AAX’s ESo program, available from last month, is more vague about what the product actually is and what it costs.

“AirAsia X is the first airline in Asia Pacific to offer its guests travelling in Economy, an option which provides a chance to get all three seats in a row for a nominal fee,” the blurb says.

“Empty Seat Option (ESo) is AirAsia X’s second successful ancillary offering introduced in partnership with Optiontown after the success of its Upgrade Travel Option (UTo) service, launched in 2011.

“The UTo provides AirAsia X’s guests the opportunity to upgrade to AirAsia X’s Premium Flatbed seats. The UTo has helped to significantly increase AirAsia X's premium class load factor (by over 22 per cent) and upgrade yield (by over 60 per cent). Options are limited by flight to ensure a reasonable probability of successful upgrades. Each option is dynamically priced.”


 “AirAsia X has revolutionised air travel in many ways and we are constantly on the lookout for current innovative trends to ensure that our guests’ comfort are looked after when onboard our flights, “says AirAsia X chief executive Azran Osman-Rani.

“We offer them the option to purchase only what is required depending on individual needs rather than bundling the cost to our fare offerings. This way, guests are able to enjoy continuous low fares from the airline.

“Feedback from passengers has been resoundingly positive as this service provides a clear comfort value for our passengers, and we’re delighted to expand our product offering to include ESo now, and other flexibility options in the near future.” Osman-Rani estimates ESo could earn up to US$1 million in 2012.

To select ESo, customers who have already booked with the airline can log onto www.airasia.com and select “Upgrade with Optiontown” under the “Flight Information” section.

Next, click on “Optiontown” and select Empty Seat Option (ESo), then enter your current flight booking number and select flight for ESo.

Then you pay a sign-up fee of about $A1 (three Malaysian Ringgit) and an unspecified nominal empty seat fee.

The airline says empty seat(s) availability status will be emailed to the customer between four and 72 hours before flight departure. If empty seat(s) are not assigned due to unavailability, the empty seat fee will be refunded automatically to the customer.

AirAsia X says  it can't be more precise about the cost of the service because pricing is "dynamic" - in other words, in airline-speak, it's a yield-management exercise, where available spare seating capacity is priced according to demand and, on some popular services, the "product" is not available at all.

The boast that ESo has increased "upgrade yield" by 60 per cent sounds bad from a consumer point of view, but a likely explanation is that the airline has only just begun trying to maximise its return per seat in its flat-bed seats, so its 60 per cent more than SFA.

However, both Azran Osman-Rani and AirAsia founder Tony Fernandes seem to me to be switched-on individuals with an enlightened attitude to the punters who use their products and don't see them as a nuisance, which some airlines do. I'm keen to get reports of how this new "product" is faring.

Would you pay extra to secure empty seats next to you? Are you one of the AirAsia X customers “resoundingly positive” about the empty seat option according to Azran Osman-Rani? Have you tried the Air New Zealand “cuddle class” option? What did you pay and was it worth the money? Can you live with the new airline ancillary revenue craze in view of the low fares on offer?

UPDATE: AirAsia X says that, for services from Kuala Lumpur, Empty Seat Option prices start from 30 Malaysian Ringgit ($A10) for one extra seat and 40 Ringgit ($A13) for two extra seats on routes to China and Japan; and 40 Ringgit ($13) for one extra seat and 50 Ringgit ($17) for two extra seats on routes to Australia and New Zealand.