One of the best things to have happened in this region over the past decade has been the successful launch of AirAsia.
The Malaysia-based budget carrier, which marked its 10th anniversary last month, flies to every country in Southeast Asia and at a cost that plain folks can afford.
Helmed by its dynamic boss and founder Tony Fernandes, it has been a regional unifier as well as a highly profitable enterprise.
My own reasons for being an AirAsia patron are simple: there is a great selection of flights to a great variety of cities across Asia, the service is efficient, the planes usually new and there are relatively few delays.
Most important of all, it is cheap. AirAsia’s fares are invariably the lowest available.
That is why the first port of call for most regional travellers planning any trip in these parts is the AirAsia website.
And therein lies a problem.
It is a decent site, but a deceptively tricky one. And that trickiness, which also extends to AirAsia’s promotional campaigns, has landed the airline in hot water.
Last week, it was hit with a law suit in one of its key markets, Australia, due to its infuriating policy of failing to reveal the full ticket price in its adverts and on its website.
The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission claimed that many of AirAsia’s so-called “all in” fares neglect to include all taxes, duties, fees and other charges.
Quite rightly, the watchdog body wants an injunction “to restrain AirAsia from engaging in misleading conduct in the future”.
AirAsia reacted quickly and on Thursday reported that “corrective action” had already been taken to “constructively resolve the matter”.
The carrier added: “AirAsia always seeks to conduct its business fairly and in an ethical and proper manner and in full compliance with all applicable laws.”
Well, sure, and McDonald’s coddles its cows.
AirAsia may technically comply with the law, but like many other airlines, it often does not behave in “an ethical and proper manner”.
Indeed, because of this, the United States has recently made it a criminal offence for airlines not to show all taxes and other surcharges in their advertised fares.
As well, airlines flying in the US can no longer use “opt-out” provisions whereby they automatically charge for optional items unless the customer specifically rejects them.
It is in its opt-outs that AirAsia’s trickiness has reached a fine art.
Customers must be on high alert throughout the booking process or else they will be charged for checked baggage, priority seat assignments and insurance among other things, all of which they may not want.
Even declining these options is tricky, because then another window pops up to caution customers and ask if they are really sure they want to decline.
And the trickiness continues when customers who want to say that yes, they really are sure, must not hit “ok” but instead “cancel” – as if, in fact, they are not sure and want to cancel their refusal and accept the option.
It is all shockingly and deliberately designed to catch customers out.
Just like the absurdly named “convenience fee” charged for using a credit card to buy a ticket, when it is for the airline’s convenience that customers do this.
The last thing cost-conscious AirAsia wants is for clients to decide to pay in cash, because then it would have to reopen retail offices and hire more staff.
Besides, since this is imposed as a standard fee, why can’t it be included in the advertised fare?
As for the insurance charged unless customers carefully follow a two stage opt-out, it is a scam since all airlines under international conventions must insure and compensate passengers for accidents and lost baggage.
Such practices, which drive long-time AirAsia patrons crazy, must be stopped so that when ASEAN completes its liberalisation of the region’s airspace by 2015, an advertised “all in” fare is just that and nothing more.