A day before Air Asia X starts its Sydney-Kuala Lumpur flights a valid fare comparison on the Air Asia Not Me website suggests that the airline will struggle to convince all but the laziest of shoppers that it is consistently cheaper at various value points.

That comparison is supported by the screen grabs on the Air Asia Not Me site, never mind its reference to myself.

Consumers need to think this through, in any fare search, on any route, and between all airlines and indeed third party retail sites, and shop front travel agencies.

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The claims made in PR handouts and public protestations by airline executives must be tested. It’s your money. Do the comparisons for yourselves.

Air Asia X may indeed be the best value, whether upfront or in the small seats, on the day you wish to travel.  But you can’t ever afford to assume that any airline is necessarily cheaper, and this applies as well to so called low cost and full service formats.

Qantas is often the best value on a domestic flight because it routinely undercuts Jetstar’s top fares, and comes with inclusions that may be excluded by the Jetstar fare, especially your legs.

But there is always a missing metric when consumers search for a fare, which is availability. The Australian carrier sites do the right thing these days by indicating ‘few seats’ or a similar warning when there are almost no seats left at a particular fare level on a specific flight, and that incidentally also includes their premium seats, which because they are fewer in number compared to economy seats, may well sell out at 8 am for an east coast intercity route really quickly.

However the airlines never show you exactly how many seats they might offer at a low fare on a specific flight, so you are in the dark if you are trying to fit a family of four on a flight if in fact there are only two seats left at the cheapest fare.

The airlines have a reason for doing this. If they showed that on a 10 am flight to somewhere they had 10 cheap seats on offer the screen jockey yield managers in the competition might decide it is worth posting something for $10 less just to attract more punters to their offerings. They might even buy the competitor’s cheap seats  just to get them off the comparative fare radar, and never turn up, since losing those fares might be worth more to their airline’s overall sales. (Caution: I have no evidence that this has ever been done, but there doesn’t appear to be anything that would prevent it happening if they knew how much capacity at what price their opponents were offering, they had real names and real credit card details at the ready, since Virgin Australia and Qantas don’t know who they sell fares to are working for, nor care, as what counts is the sale.)

In short, a prompt and alert buyer can often fly better for less. And on international routes where the fare runs into the thousands, think carefully about using your credit card. A retailer can in law impose a credit card service fee on a purchase in addition to an airline imposed per sector credit card charge, since the merchant fee to the card company can vary between less than one percent to more than 4%, and no amount of so called reward points from a card company are worth it if you can offer not to use your card to screw a lower price for cash! Think of it as a cash discount card. Score a win against the banks, and consumer fees in general.

The notion that getting even 10,000 points for a $10,000 purchase is value is mathematically absurd, because when you go to convert those expensive points into a reward fare, you are going to need far more of them to even get to the next city in Australia, and you are almost certainly going to have to pay in the hundreds or thousands of dollars in fuel and statutory charges that airlines generally refuse to include in a reward transaction if you are picking up a supposedly free international flight.

At the end of the day, buying a bargain fare outright is generally far cheaper than spending $100,000 on merchandise or services to qualify for a reward fare which comes with $$$ of mandatory extras, and may not be available anyhow.

But back to Air Asia. Do not take ‘we are cheapest’ claims as being true without doing your own comparative shopping. Air Asia is a force for competitive good, but that alone isn’t a reason to buy their fares without a much broader inquiry into who is selling what sort of product at what price, and at what times they fly, and what they include, and whether or not in combination with a holiday package there is a residual advantage.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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