Discount Airlines of the Middle East

As you are probably aware, the discount airline / low cost carrier (LCC) phenomenon is in full bloom around the world. While planning for our trip I became acquainted with some Middle Eastern low cost carriers, and thought that I would do a brief review. Middle Eastern carriers are not only useful for getting around the region cheaply, but for connecting Europe and South Asia, taking advantage of the Middle East’s strategic location. [Important note: LCCs are critically important to the backpacker not only because of their generally low fares, but for their one-way pricing, allowing the budget traveler to retain maximum flexibility as compared to buying discount round trip fares on conventional airlines.]

Air Arabia, based in Sharjah, is probably the most important LCC in the MIddle East. Based in the emirate of Sharjah in the UAE, which is located just miles from Dubai, Air Arabia has a terrific network reaching European cities such as Athens and Istanbul all the way to a full complement of South Asian destinations. With cheap fares, a new fleet and a website that is fairly easy to use, as well as the appeal of a Dubai stopover (Dubai isn’t the most interesting place in the world, but is definitely worth a long layover), Air Arabia has proven useful to us several times, including most recently to travel from Bombay to Damascus, with a UAE/Oman detour (see posts of 2008.04.04, 04.05 and 04.06). The seats are comfortable, the food and service not bad and free water provided (unlike certain Southeast Asian LCCs).

The second Middle Eastern LCC we flew on on our trip was Jazeera Airways, based in Kuwait, from Amman to Kuwait City. I wouldn’t put it quite on the same level as Air Arabia, but the fares were quite competitive, and the flight was fine. A third carrier is Bahrain Air, which we did not take. GIven how poor a stopover destination Kuwait City is (Bahrain is moderately interesting), I would probably opt to take Bahrain Air, were I to choose between the two airlines in the future. (See post of 2008.05.07.) Both Bahrain and Kuwait do suffer from visa fees, which adds a bit of additional cost should you choose to stopover in these countries.

In addition to the “typical” LCCs described above, the Middle East of late is suffering from something of a glut of airlines, from which the traveler has everything to benefit. The Bahraini flag carrier Gulf Air, for example, is not a low cost carrier, but offers its terrific network at quite low rates, often competing with LCCs. Gulf Air’s Hong Kong – Bangkok flight was often the cheapest, while we were living in Hong Kong. Gulf Air is also somewhat associated with Oneworld and certain Oneworld airlines, making it the best-allianced Gulf-based carrier. Kuwait Airways (one hears not the greatest airline) offers terrific rates from North America and Europe to South Asia, as does Qatar Airways (which is a good airline). Etihad and Emirates, the two flag carriers of the UAE, are usually not as competitive on price.

Especially because the actual LCCs such as Air Arabia do not usually show up on internet booking sites, it’s important to keep them in mind whenever traveling from Europe to South Asia or around the Middle East. If you try any of these carriers, share your experiences!

Changi Layover

We’ve been through Singapore’s Changi Airport many times, both on trips to Singapore and on layovers, but never really understood why it is ranked as one of the world’s greatest. From what we saw, the old-fashioned design of Terminals 1 and 2 put Changi squarely among the older airports of the U.S. rather than the likes of Hong Kong or Incheon, and while the subway access is convenient Changi didn’t seem particularly more efficient than many other, newer airports, either. Faced with a 13 hour layover in Singapore on our way from Hong Kong to Indonesia, we thought that we would put Changi up for a test–we spent the entire layover in the airport. Final assessment? Changi is indeed something special–perhaps not quite as streamlined Hong Kong or Incheon, or Beijing’s new Terminal 3, but very much a self-contained city with an outstanding range of spaces and services for travelers.

Changi is unique among the airports I can think of for having people movers on both the “land” and “air” sides of each terminal, making it easy to change terminals not only for connections but also simply to visit a store or amenity in another terminal. The Skytrains are fast and frequent.

Changi’s Terminal 3 opened in early 2008. I think the design is just as beautiful as other new airports around the world, but it shares with the other Singapore terminals a certain “closedness,” compared to other new airport designs that focus on maximizing window area throughout the terminal. This may be to promote energy efficiency (Singapore being a hot and sunny place) or to create a more controlled, “mall-like” interior where time stands still, day merging into night (cf. my post of 3.29 on air conditioning).

One of the nice design elements of Changi is extravagant use of plant life. This “fern garden” is in Terminal 2. (There are also orchid, cactus and sunflower gardens.)

Singapore has a larger number of facilities and services for travelers than any other airport I can think of.

There’s plenty of food, some open 24 hours. I’m not sure whether Changi is a starter or follower of the trend, but most food is priced as it would be in town–no airport surcharge (cf. post of 7.30 on expensive coffee). Singapore of course has some of the tastiest varieties of food in the world, and so does its airport.

The most comfortable free sleeping space of any airport I know, a feature that justifies Changi’s high ranking at Sure beats rolling out our sleeping bags and getting bitten by mosquitoes in Nairobi’s airport!

Singapore also takes the prize in the largest number of free internet terminals–they are everywhere. There are also laptop stations with live power and ethernet plugs (BYOC). But thumbs down on the free Wi-Fi–we had trouble getting registered on the principal airport-wide system, although we were able to find other open networks here and there.

A rubbing to pass the time!

In Terminal 3, a free movie theater, playing a decent selection of relatively recent movies

In addition to all of the free facilities and services, there are many fee services at Changi. There is a pay lounge which offers, as the list on the right states: lounge use, massage, hair services, aqua massage spa, foot reflexology, nail services, gym, shower and nap room. The prices are not cheap, but not unreasonable.

And, would you believe it–there’s a (pay) pool in T1.

For a solid night’s sleep, the Ambassador Transit Hotel offers rooms within each terminal. Even if you are not able to get a reservation, try dropping by–there may be space available. The rate is around SGD 80 (~USD 42) for six hours, a pretty good deal for an airport transit hotel, especially in a city as expensive as Singapore.

If you want to leave the airport, there are free city tours as well as shuttle services into town for transit passengers.

How did our 13 hours go? We made good use of the internet, saw a movie, ate well and slept comfortably. When it was time to catch our flight, it was without the sense of relief that one might have expected, and we were certainly more rested than when we had arrived. If Changi itself were a destination, it certainly would beat many other places we’ve been!

Terminal 2 is a fraud!

Going through Incheon International Airport recently, Derek heard the opinion of a Korean pilot that Incheon is the best designed airport in the world. Incheon, of course, is fairly new and pretty nice, but living in Hong Kong, one develops quite an appreciation for the sheer simplicity and beauty of design and, moreover, efficiency of Hong Kong International Airport. No other busy airport in the world feels so spacious and relaxed, and for no other airport its traffic capacity is it easier to get from city to airport to gate. The public transportation is seemless (no need to take even an escalator from leaving Airport Express through check-in and immigration), and immigration (for residents, both local or expat) automated through biometrics.

It is worth noting, though, the patriotic pilot’s complaint—Hong Kong airport, for all its otherwise streamlined passenger flow, forces everyone to walk through a mall between immigration and the gates. Now, I will acknowledge that most airports do this in some form. After all, the government, in building and operating an airport, needs to generate revenue through leasing, and some amount of restaurants and shopping is an expected amenity for travelers. But what makes Hong Kong somewhat unusual is that not only do stores line a hallway that you would otherwise walk along, but the route to your gate seems designed slightly to confuse and visually lead you to as many stores as possible.

Terminal 2 of HKIA takes this to a new level. When I started seeing signs go up for Terminal 2, I was a bit puzzled because I didn’t recall seeing extensive construction at the airport. But I was relatively new to Hong Kong, and so who was I to say that HKIA was not in the midst of a big expansion project—it would certainly makes sense if it were opening a new terminal, given that air traffic in Asia will no doubt explode over the coming decades. When Terminal 2 opened, I noticed that it was sometimes referred to as SkyPlaza, to distinguish its retail offerings from Terminal 1’s SkyMart. But that didn’t seem remarkable either. Nor did it seem odd that Terminal 2 only serviced three airlines—the international budget Oasis Hong Kong Airlines, Qantas-owned Singapore-based budget JetStar Airways and Emirates.

Flying Emirates this weekend to Bangkok, I as a slight public works junky was excited to check out Terminal 2. The first sign that something was wrong was when we saw that there were only three rows of check-in counters (N, P and Q), compared to Terminal 1’s 10 (A-K, no I). The few check-in counters seemed like an afterthought, lost in a sea of stores, in the place, say, Sunglass Hut would be in an American mall (all of the blue boxes in the picture below being retail). The final answer came to us as we approached our gate. HKIA has a little train that goes from the area after immigration and security to the more distant gates. Terminal 2 also has a train after immigration and security, which goes to “All Gates, 1-80.” It hit us then that Terminal 2 is not an entire terminal at all, in the sense of, say, JFK or most airports in the world, where each terminal is a sort of self-contained mini-airport, which its own check-in counters and gates, nor is it like the Concourses/Satellites of Sea-Tac Airport, which are in essence sets of gates fed by a unified set of check-in counters. No—Terminal 2 is a shopping center, which happens to have a few check-in counters moved from Terminal 1, along with immigration and security, which then is connected by train to the gates in Terminal 1.

All there is.

Unlike other frauds, there are no victims here, but for perhaps the tenants of Terminal 1, whose precious foot traffic is being rerouted through the Terminal 2 SkyPlaza. The Terminal 2 tenants knew what they were getting into (though I can’t imagine that the 4D Extreme Screen Cinema is going to do very well). It’s a minor inconvenience for passengers of the budget airlines (Emirates operates as a quasi-budget airline in Hong Kong, at least with respect to the HKG-BKK runs), but the whole process is still pretty efficient.

That said, isn’t something happening here that is violating decency? Isn’t there enough shopping in Hong Kong, what with each subway station serving as a sort of mini-mall, often connected to a big mall? Even at the linguistic level, Terminal 2 is wrong, as it’s not a terminus at all—your flights always “terminate” in Terminal 1, which contains all of the arrival facilities. Does Terminal 2 even create extra capacity for the airport?