A cold, squally day here in The World’s Most Liveable City, so I thought I would dust off this unpublished 2008 story. The recent grounding of Tiger Airways’ Australian operations adds a new dimension to this sorry tale.
It’s pure Abbott and Costello: Tiger Airways’ big bird is parked outside and would-be passengers watch as a pilot pushes open the cockpit window to poke his head out and gesticulate forcefully at the mechanics milling around. It would be funny had we not been standing in the boarding queue for three quarters of an hour – no explanation, now or ever – waiting to take to the skies in the same aircraft.
You can’t help wondering about safety when maintenance appears to be so hit-or-miss fashion. Nor is it reassuring to encounter cabin crew who can barely sell you a drink in English, let alone deal with any emergency.
If you thought Jetstar were mean in making you pay for dinner, wait until the Singapore-owned Tiger gets its claws into you. “May I have some water please?… Two dollar.”
“Tiger disallows own food” the notice declares (once on board) and, amazingly, “don’t deprive our staff of their commissions”. Since the cabin crew won’t accept correct money (such as the stated price of six dollars for a packet of sandwiches) or return correct change in the same currency, somebody is pocketing more than just commissions.
You want to fly out in January? That’ll be two thousand and up, they said. Time to check out the new kids on the block, the Asian-based budget carriers. But how does the no-frills, point-to-point model stand up on long-haul flights across and beyond the Australian continent?
At Melbourne Airport, the Tiger experience begins by locating the new carrier’s bare-bones terminal out amongst the freight yards – look for the black-and-orange striped water tower. Trudging across the tarmac between rows of crash barriers, we reach the Airbus A320 and squeeze into six-across seating. In the aisle there’s barely room for two people to pass. My knees are wedged tight (I am average height); the seat simply does not recline.
Darwin at midnight, four hours later: now the fun really starts. We have just two hours to reclaim our bags, to join a lengthy queue and check-in yet again for the next leg, then clear the hand luggage inspection and submit to the scrutiny of one solitary immigration inspector. Most passengers are continuing through from Melbourne, so how can the airline reduce costs by insisting on this double handling? According to spokesman Matt Hobbs, the operational barrier between Tiger Asia and Tiger Australia makes it uneconomic to shortcut this process.
The cabin crew’s inexperience is palpable: departing Darwin, the three stewards includes two young Chinese women with hair flopping across their faces who are far from fluent in English.
Melbourne businesswoman Grace Lim recalls the exhaustive induction she underwent to become a Singapore Airlines flight attendant twenty years ago, including three months 9 to 5 classroom training: these Tiger cubs were barely ready to leave the litter.
Oddly enough, Air Asia slugged us around A$30 to check in the same bags which would pass a Tiger Airways check-in without comment, three hours later.
There’s another trap for young travellers, too. In many destinations the budget carriers utilise out-of-the-way terminals. The Budget Terminal in Singapore lies some kilometres beyond the main complex used by Air Asia and Jetstar, so that to connect between carriers you wheel your baggage down the length of the terminal concourse, on and off a ‘skytrain’ then down into a basement to board a shuttle bus. You feel pretty lousy…
Back in Melbourne, Tiger’s arriving passengers are channelled to an open-walled unloading bay with Portaloo toilets: welcome indeed to the World’s Most Liveable City.