In a recent post I described with ebullience the delightful experience of flying Cathay Pacific’s marvelous Premium Economy JFK to Hong Kong.  This was originally an itinerary planned on Delta, but changed at the last minute to Cathay due to Delta rez system’s maddening, multiple, involuntary seat reassignments (described here). My onward flight Hong Kong to Singapore might have therefore been on Cathay had I not first booked DL, but, as it was, Delta doesn’t fly between HKG and SIN, and I thus had booked on Jetstar several months in advance.

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It’s just a 2.5 hour flight to Singapore, so I chose the least expensive (nonrefundable, of course) fare I could find using Jetstar’s online engine: a mere $135 one way, priced and paid for on my Amex card in Hong Kong dollars.  This low price included the extra cost of 20 kgs of checked luggage per person and a hot meal, both selected from a menu of additional services presented when I made the booking.

Though usually I carry on all my bags, I couldn’t find Jetstar’s carryon policies online and purchased the checked luggage option as an insurance policy. My decision to buy meals was driven by the time of day (late afternoon flight) and traveling with my wife and two kids.  It’s never a good idea to risk one’s children going hungry flying into dinnertime.

Jetstar, I knew, was the low cost carrier owned by QANTAS, and my expectations of its service were accordingly low.  Like Air Asia and other Asian LCCs, Jetstar charges a la carte, and I had visions of hellish service like that attributed to bare bones, mean-spirited RyanAir.  Perhaps not expecting much contributed in part to the reasonably happy experience my family of four enjoyed with Jetstar.

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Arriving at Hong Kong Airport’s Terminal 2 to check in, I noticed that Jetstar had several flights posted, including ours to Singapore and an earlier departure to Hanoi, but the actual check-in counters were not shown.  I asked the friendly airport information staff which counters would be used for Singapore, and they could not tell me.  Their uncertainty was more surprising to them than to me, and it took the better part of an hour for them to verify where to check in.

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Later I found out the source of their confusion:  Jetstar is actually four separate operations, each one an independent company:  (1) intra-Japan/international Japan, (2) intra-Vietnam/international Vietnam, (3) intra-Australia/New Zealand/international Australia/NZ (to HNL), and (4) international Asia (based in SIN).  We were flying the latter Jetstar manifestation.  Looking at it from the passenger point of view, it seems overly complex, but Qantas has their reasons for walling off each carrier, each one legally separate for tax, joint venture, and contract reasons.

Since all four airline operations share the same name and logo, Hong Kong airport staff was understandably baffled trying to identify one Jetstar from another. They finally grasped, as I did, that each carrier was unique, but we still had trouble confirming what counters would be open to check us in to Singapore.  Meanwhile, the Vietnam version of Jetstar began checking in for the Hanoi flight.

When the counters began checking in for our Singapore version of Jetstar, it was a fast, efficient, and friendly process.  I was impressed.  I had a printed version of my receipt in hand, but counter agents found our four reservations simply by my passport and handed me four boarding passes.  I asked about carryon allowances, and they gave the green light to take on all we wanted and were astonished that I chose not to check the 80 kgs of luggage that I had paid for.

After clearing immigration, we found the downstairs boarding gate with a bus that would take us to the plane parked out on the ramp.  Jetstar is too cheap to pay for a Jetway.  We waited in a very long line to board the bus, but again Jetstar gate staff did a great job of walking the queue to check every person’s boarding pass and to match it to their passport.  A mark was made on the boarding passes that would verify our identity as staff at the door let us through to get on the bus.

I guess Jetstar didn’t fancy the added expense of a second bus, somehow shoehorning close to 180 passengers onto a single vehicle, a sardine-like feeling that was the low point of the entire Jetstar experience. Qantas is reputed to go out of its way to remind its Jetstar passengers that there are no perks if you didn’t pay for any.  Sadly, there were no perks for sale to exempt passengers from the jammed-in crowding of the tarmac bus ride, or else I might have sprung for the option.

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Once on the ramp, embarking upon the all-coach Airbus A320 was surprisingly orderly in the old-fashioned manner of walking up a boarding stair. We found our seats in row 6 quickly, and there was plenty of overhead space for all our bags.  Most people had checked their luggage, which meant little competition in the compartments.

The plane departed slightly behind schedule and was 10 minutes late at the gate in Singapore (a real gate—no ramp parking cum bus ride this time).  Again, I was pleased with Jetstar.  En route hot meals were handed out based on who had ordered in advance, and we were surprised to find them very tasty.  I was able to pay for a beer on board for five Singapore dollars (about US$3.50), a Dester (actually a malt liquor) brewed on Sarawak. On board service was friendly, fast, and efficient, much like the ground staff had been, and the cockpit crew kept us informed of our progress.

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Overall, Jetstar service was fine and good value for the cheap fare we paid.  Yes, it was a cattle car, not by any means the Cathay Pacific experience which I raved about.  However, no complaints except for the hard seat which would have been painful to endure on a longer flight.

Welcome to the new world of flying? Before trying Jetstar, I thought that I’d prefer the American full service airline model that doesn’t price everything a la carte. That said, more and more U.S. airlines seem to be drifting in that direction, parsing economy compartments into separate fare buckets that push those who pay the least to back of the plane and condemning them to little, if any, service unless they pay for individual perks.  In the sense that Jetstar’s one class service treats every passenger the same, I now think it’s a model I prefer to the one that Delta, for instance, is moving to.

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