OK, I got to meet the new CEO on board. But that aside, on its first flight out of Sydney since being grounded, Tiger's domestic offering seems unchanged.
On the ground
I mentioned in my earlier pre-boarding post that the TV crews were beginning to mill around collecting video for the nightly newscast. Their behaviour is predictable: they quiz passengers waiting to board about whether they're frightened, film the aircraft that has landed from Melbourne, and gather footage of the passengers who are getting off the plane. The plane doesn't seem to have been entirely full, but nor does it look empty. I'd guess there might have been 80-100 passengers on board, but I don't have great crowd counting skills, and it's hard to see everyone between all the camera operators.
There seem to be around 60 people waiting to board the flight, and within 15 minutes of offloading the inbound passengers, we're told boarding will commence shortly. First off the rank are people who paid $6 for the privilege of boarding first and those who sprung $25 for an exit row seat. Then it's all-in for the rest of us. Evidence that cheap flyers often aren't regular flyers: one gentleman tries to board our flight, only to be told he's on the next one 90 minutes later.
The one thing that strikes me pre-boarding is the firm suggestion that all cabin baggage must be placed under the seat in front of you, unless you're in an exit row or have a particularly large item. Everyone should only have one piece (unlike, say, Qantas), so that's a fairly strict rule, even if it's not really needed on a half-empty flight. It reinforces the impression that an earlier hand baggage weigh-in gave that in the "new" Tiger, baggage limits are going to be very strictly enforced.
I don't have anything other than my small 3.9kg bag, so that's not a drama. As my ticket is being scanned for boarding, I notice the gate operator makes a point of saying each passenger's name. It's a nice touch, but my cynical side wonders how long it will last.
Eating in the air
TV crews can have unexpected impacts other than causing a blockage. Once on board, I'm shamelessly listening in to gossip amongst the Tiger executives also on the plane; unsurprisingly, several of its senior managers, including CEO Tony Davis, are making the first return journey. One female executive mentions that a man on the flight up from Melbourne had actually chucked a sickie so he could be on board. That meant he couldn't risk being filmed as it might expose his behaviour to his boss, so he had to hang back until pretty much everyone had left the flight and the TV crews were busy interviewing opportunistic tourists.
The A320 experience is very much how I remember it: not a massive amount of leg room, but enough space to slide out your tray and use a netbook computer. I decide that in the spirit of full comparison, I had better try some of the on board catering. One scary note: the menu warns you that if you provide a credit card which is declined due to lack of funds, you'll be slugged with a $25 administration fee on the same card.
Last time I flew Tiger, I tried the frankly indifferent instant cappuccino, so this time around I elect to sample the red wine and cheese and crackers. The wine is a 2010 shiraz from Firestick, with packaging that ominously proclaims "this wine is a rock star". It's no connoisseur's delight, but it doesn't taste like rat vinegar either. I'm conscious that at $7, it's probably the main source of profit on the flight, but these sacrifices have to be made. An interesting side note: I get handed a receipt for the purchase even though I paid cash, something which I can't remember ever getting offered on a flight ever before.
One thing I've also noticed is that there's been no conscious mention onboard by the crew of this being an unusual flight. I wouldn't have been surprised to have some kind of "welcome back" commentary from the captain, but it's very much business as usual. Or at least it would be if the CEO didn't then stand up and endeavour to personally greet every passenger on the plane.
Meet the CEO
Yes: not long after the food is served, CEO Tony Davis, who is sitting in the row in front of me, begins a meet and greet with the passengers. As soon as we start to chat, I explain that I'm a journalist specifically on the flight to see how well Tiger is relaunching itself -- it would be deceptive to say anything also. He doesn't seem concerned.
He reveals that there was a very conscious element of media management in making the first flight out of Melbourne at lunchtime rather than earlier thing in the morning, normally a high-demand period for airlines. Going with that time makes it easier for TV networks to shoot the departure. (That said, it doesn't seem like any of them have actually bothered to get on the plane, unlike me.)
Davis also tells me that the flight we're on has considerably fewer passengers than initial the Melbourne-Sydney leg, but that tonight's evening departure from Melbourne is virtually sold out. There will always be a market for cheap seats, it seems, though I do wonder as ever how an airline can even make a profit at these prices.
Back on the ground
We land in Melbourne without incident a few minutes early, but given the pretty lengthy distance you have to walk to the terminal, that might be just as well. I haven't flown into Tiger's Melbourne terminal before, and the operative word really would be "nasty". Baggage collection is a half-enclosed shed with a portaloo up a ramp at one side. I don't hang around to see how long the baggage takes to appear, since I was myself being frugal and travelling with no extra luggage.
So what did we learn? There were always three possible scenarios for this flight:
- The entire trip would be an unmitigated disaster with delays, gate changes, unhappy staff, general mania and possible cancellations. Tiger has enjoyed this kind of reputation in the past.
- Tiger would have dramatically revamped its customer service and overall experience, creating a system that's a pure pleasure to fly. This would be lovely, but fiscally unrealistic.
- Everything would be much the same as it was before: unashamedly bargain-priced and out to hit you for every possible extra fee, but able to get you from A to B. (Or, for now, Sydney to Melbourne.)
It's really no surprise that the third option is what has happened today. Most people I overheard on the plane (including my American seatmate) remain convinced that Tiger's prices will never be matched. I still suspect that it will have to inch up prices (or make it much harder to avoid extra fees) to ultimately be profitable, and that if it doesn't, we might see a quick return to luggage delays and flight cancellations.
I know that it's possible to get cheap seats from every airline with planning, and that's still going to be my preferred strategy. But if Tiger's continued presence does lead to a few more bargain fares appearing, I won't be complaining. And I'll remember to weigh my own hand luggage before I hit the airport to avoid any nasty surprises.