Nok knocks around the fares
CHIANG RAI, 25 July 2012: After travelling on Nok Air for the first time, last week, I am not sure what category it fits. Is it a low-cost airline? Well it looks that way until the cabin attendants hand out free Auntie Anne’s snacks in a brown paper bag identified as Nok Khanom (sweets in Thai).
You could vomit in the bag too if you suffer from air sickness along way.
Nok cannot claim light premium status. That would beg the question why on earth would its main shareholder invest create yet another competitor. Thai Airways International’s Thai Smile will officially launch this Monday and it calls itself a light premium airline.
I am sitting comfortably on the Nok Air flight from Chiang Rai to Bangkok, mulling over the fact that is the first time in years I have bothered to go online to buy a fare and that I ended up buying Nok Air.
Was it really a good deal after all? Sure it was around Bt2,000 cheaper than the THAI flight that left 20 minutes earlier.
THAI is using an ancient Airbus A300-600 on the route, but I noted despite the higher fares it left packed to the gills with passengers.
Nok Air uses a newer Boeing 737-800 with imitation leather seats that were remarkably comfortable even if we were packed like sardines in a can. If you were a lanky six footer, or an American football star you would have to hold your breath and hope you could squeeze in between the rows. Exiting the seat would be another matter. Probably requires a set of tire levers and some gentle prising by the canary yellow cabin attendants.
As soon as I authorised the credit card payment for the roundtrip ticket, I knew why I dislike going online and booking airlines of the ilk of Nok Air. They are never up-front with the bottom line fare. The internet page said the damage was Bt4,600 return, but when I finally click the pay button the fare is Bt5,580. Hello consumer protection board are you working today?
The feeling that I had been duped cast a shadow over my day. This is why I avoid so-called happy bargain airlines. They suck you in with a promise of a great deal and then by chips and snips add a few more hundred baht to the price by the time you are ready to hit the pay button.
Nok tests your resolve early on in the process with two little boxes that are already ticked that will add a few more baht for insurance because you are very old or you have the audacity to travel with luggage. I thought only refugees travel with a biscuit tin under their arms. You have to make the effort and blank the boxes before moving on. I managed that quite successfully.
The rest of the surcharges are not identified until it is time to pay and you have already made the booking. They are small niggling additions such as a Bt50 insurance fee, a Bt50 administration charge, VAT tax and airport tax.
Now you discover the Bt2,000 gap between THAI and Nok has diminished to around Bt1,500. Not much to complain about you might say, but then who likes being short changed. If I want to give Nok Air Bt50 to cover the cost of serving me then there should be a tip box online at the exit door.
THAI identifies all of its fares inclusive of tax and other charges so there is no suck-you-in strategy that uses a teaser price line.
I almost booked Thai Air Asia that quoted a fare of Bt4,160, but gave it a miss because it flies to Suvarnabhumi Airport. Who needs delays landing, a long walk to the baggage carousel and taxis that charge Bt800 to transfer your home in Rangsit?
Don Mueang is the place for me, cheap and comfy.
So is Nok Air a low-cost airline of the ilk of Ryan Air and Air Asia? Not exactly as it makes quirky concessions to the full-service business model, like carrying weighty inflight magazines that no one seems to read.
There are no newspaper trolleys or Mr Bean comedies on overhead TV screens. Not even a live route map display with a shaky little aircraft hovering over Nakhon Nowhere.
Cabin attendants handed out a free snack and water and mumble something about coffee and tea when they make a second sortie down the aisle. It was never really clear if the coffee was free.
But when all the advertising hype ends Nok Air still tries to ape the Air Asia business model. It has a copy-cat trolley packed with giveaways that the airline thinks it can off load to passengers for a few hundred baht. Do we fly to buy a cheap plastic watch, or grab a garish Nok Air golf hat? I think cabin attendants must get a commission for every tacky watch they sell. It was a slow sales day on both sectors.
The Boeing 737-800 looked pretty smart and superior to any of the THAI domestic aircraft. It did the job, got us to Bangkok and even made up some time for the 20 minute delay departing from Chiang Rai.
How on earth can an airline delay a flight for 20 minutes when the flight time is only one hour and five minutes from a home base that is as quiet as a convent?
I don’t think the domestic airline experience has improved over the 40 years I have travelled its network. I recall Thai Airways (TAC), the parent company of TG that concentrated on domestic services, serving up quite a tasty meal on a flight to Chiang Rai. It was usually a curry puff with fresh pineapple juice, real coffee and genuine Thai khanom. Admittedly it took two hours and 10 minutes to complete the trip, but the propellers got us there safely except for a couple of incidents when TAC ploughed the Avro into a paddy field by mistake.
There is nothing that will really impress us about domestic air travel, except perhaps Nok Air’s bright canary uniforms and they are very bright. Yes, the cabin attendants shine too like soap opera stars who are holding down a second job or hoping for a call from a movie director.
It was all very pleasing and gracious service, perhaps a few notches better than THAI can deliver as most of its cabin attendants on domestic service are sure they are being punished for some grievous omission. They dream of a speedy release so they fly the world on fat travel allowances that go with long-haul flight assignments. Dream on.
Orient Thai flies the Chiang Rai route and so does Thai Air Asia. It is probably a toss of the coin between Thai Air Asia and Nok Air price wise. Eventually, you work out the extras and know that the fare they flash across the screen is a teaser.
I think the Nok Air anniversary fare is pretty dubious too. Try booking it on online? I failed miserably to catch even the slightest whiff of a bargain. It was so elusive I just moved on and settled for the Bt5,000 plus fare. Now that is exactly what the airline wants us to do. Take the bait and before we know it the airline has hauled us in to the point we pay more than we originally anticipated.
I will probably fly Nok Air again on a route north. It’s the closest you can get to what THAI offered on domestic services when it cared about local business. It even has a couple of old THAI 737-400s that still sport seats in three colours – mauve, mustard and purple.
However, in hindsight I think, Thai Air Asia might have the edge over its competitors and it will be interesting to see if can continue to dominate from its new home base at Don Mueang Airport come October.