Why Flying in Asia Puts US Domestic Service to Shame

Apr 22, 2015

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Sometimes it seems like domestic airlines are racing to see which one can offer the worst service. Today, TPG Contributor Richard Kerr explains how vastly different things are across the Pacific.

Living in Japan has some incredible perks. There are aspects of Japanese society that I dearly wish were incorporated into the American way of life. For instance, each morning while riding my bike to work, I pass line after line of kindergarten and elementary school aged children taking the bus, train, and walking to school – all by themselves. It’s an incredibly safe and beautiful place to live. Since TPG is currently on a jaunt to the Far East, it seems like an appropriate time to focus on another aspect of life here that I wish we could emulate in America: the bliss of flying within Asia.

I have been fortunate to hop around the continent the last two years on many different Asian airlines: Air Asia, Korean, Japan Airlines, ANA, Asiana, Air China, Thai, Singapore, Malaysian, Vietnam Airlines, and China Airlines, among others. In this post I’ll share a few of the reasons why I love taking short and medium-haul flights on these airlines, and how I think we could improve the experience back home.

Airport Experience

Airport check-in counters and security lines are much more efficient at major airports in Asia than their counterparts in the US. I’ve flown out of Haneda and Narita over 25 times and never waited more than 10 minutes to get through security at any terminal. When flying domestic out of Haneda, the wait has never been more than 3 minutes. I believe the system of allowing passengers to scan their own boarding passes to reach security screening (instead of having an agent manually verify your boarding pass and ID) saves tremendous time, though it might be considered too much of a security threat in the US. Security agents are courteous, yet there’s no denying their seriousness if they feel you or your bag need a second check.

Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Gold Lounge Entrance
Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer Gold Lounge Entrance

While there are still gate lice in Asia, there’s not a full born plague of them like in the US. Usually passengers don’t appear until just before boarding time. In Asia, I always have to double check my gate, since my wife and I show up at the American time of 1 hour before departure to find a completely vacant space. Personally, I think my Asian amigos spend as much time in the duty free shop as possible, but that’s a story for a different day.

At boarding time, a long line forms and moves at the speed of light. We board 747s and 777s with 500 seats in under 20 minutes from start to boarding door closure. Again, the automatic boarding gates (where passengers scan their boarding passes and an agent is there to ensure everyone scans) seem to move the line along. I hope more airports continue to adopt such systems.

Boarding 500 people on a 777 in 20 minutes at Tokyo Haneda Airport
Boarding 500 people on a 777 in 20 minutes at Tokyo Haneda Airport

The best part of the airport experience? You flight leaves on time. Apart from a few outliers, your flights in Asia have a much better on-time performance than domestic US flights. Across 2 years of short-haul flights on Asian airlines, I’ve been delayed exactly 2 times, both when flying in or out of Beijing’s Capital Airport. I’ve flown United from Narita to Guam 3 times, and been delayed all 3 times. Perhaps that’s just an inconvenient coincidence, but it fits the bill nonetheless. The Japanese, Koreans, Singaporeans, and others have honed their train scheduling expertise, maintenance processes, and punctuality, and skillfully applied it to airlines.

Finally, many people ask me if Asian airport lounges live up to the hype, and the clear answer is yes. Head to a run-of-the-mill Delta SkyClub in Atlanta and then enter a Cathay Pacific lounge in Hong Kong, a JAL Sakura lounge in Tokyo, or a Royal Thai lounge in Bangkok. It’s like comparing a middle school football team to Ohio State.

ANA’s sake tasting bar in their lounges at Narita and Haneda are one of my favorite amenities.
ANA’s saké tasting bars in lounges at Narita and Haneda are some of my favorite lounge amenities.

 Onboard

The in-flight experience is just as superb as the ground experience. My favorite part is the large planes. Domestic Japanese flights only 45 minutes long are still operated by 767s, 777s, and 787s. My wife flew Asiana’s A380 from Tokyo to Seoul for just 2 hours last year. She had a foot rest, eye mask, and slippers in economy.  The fleets seem to be much newer, and have significantly fewer regional jets than the US counterparts.

I found Japan Airline's new domestic interior configuration very comfortable.
I found Japan Airlines’ new domestic interior configuration very comfortable.

Food and drinks are complimentary on most flights, regardless of class. I flew Malaysian Airlines 35 minutes from Kuala Lumpur to Singapore in 2014 and this year, and received a hot meal both times. When I fly Japan Airlines 45 minutes to Osaka I always get a cool glass of delicious kiwi juice. Imagine getting on the San Diego to Los Angeles rotator and having American serve you a hot breakfast. That’d be the day.

Asian cabin staff and ground staff seem much more put together, presentable, and “squared away” than US staff. They are 100% professional, courteous, and have a respectable service acumen that makes me feel like I should be a better person worthy of their hospitality skills.

Asian airlines attract young, bright applicants and select only the best. Photo courtesy of Shutterstock.

I flew Korean Airlines 40 minutes from tiny Jinju Airport to Seoul Gimpo last year. The flight was operated by a 737, and there were perhaps 10 passengers on the flight. I was offered breakfast and hot tea 3 times during that flight by an impeccably dressed and put together stewardess who took as much pride in her job as an artisan stitching a royal tapestry. I would count her dedication and demeanor as the exception to the rule in the US.

For premium products, the comparison between Asian airlines and their US counterparts again just isn’t fair. I’ve flown business class for 3 hours or less on Singapore, Malaysian, Thai, Vietnam, ANA, and Japan airlines, and medium-haul business on all those plus China Airlines. While the cost difference is marginal compared to the difference between US First Class (ha!) and economy, you get 10 times the product of an American, United, or Delta domestic premium cabin.

A Singapore Airlines First Class Suite bed on the A380.
A Singapore Airlines First Class Suite bed on the A380

How to Better Our Situation

I believe the key to making US domestic flying as enjoyable as Asian flying is the passengers themselves. Every now and then a few Chinese passengers make the news for misbehaving, but for the most part there’s no arguing in the airports here. There are no passengers making scenes that will be nominated for Academy Awards. Everyone seems to have a communal mindset, understanding what lies before them and that they will get through it together. If all of us in the US could take a deep breath and just bear to get from point A to point B (which most of the time takes less than 3 hours), we’d really be doing all of our fellow passengers a favor.

That being said, domestic US products aren’t doing anything to foster a good attitude. The TSA, old planes, cramped CRJs, little service, and continual devaluations of frequent flyer programs don’t get my mornings off to a “More Ovaltine Please!” kind of start. Flying in Asia is truly a delight. I’m looking forward to moving back home to the US, but not so much to the domestic flights that await me there.

What do you like best about flying in Asia?

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