Hong Kong Express Airways: A Customer Experience Plane Crash

I appreciate the concept of no-frills budget airlines. But Hong Kong Express Airways, managed by Hong Kong Airlines, is not defined as one. It still provides the basic services and amenities. Like the 1980’s comedy “Airplane!”, what it really cuts on most is common sense.

I recently flew Hong Kong Express Airways for a short trip from Hong Kong to Okinawa, Japan. The airlines industry being one of my favorites in terms of Customer Experience Management and having never flown this airline before, I was looking forward to the experience.

Over the course of relationship it’s possible even with the best companies to experience a few unimpressive interactions. My experience with Hong Kong Express however, over only one trip, provided a negative customer experience at almost every channel; from check-in, through in-flight services and the loyalty program to phone, web and email.

Self-service Check-in

Having booked through an agent, my actual experience directly with the company started at the airport where I opted to use the airline’s self-service check-in kiosks to print my boarding pass. What should be a simple process that can be completed under a minute even by a first-time user turned into a puzzle. I eventually needed to ask help from an assistant whose job it is to assist self-service. Even the staff had difficulty with the interface.

Most airlines’ self-service kiosks I’ve seen suffer from the same lack of usability, defeating the self-service purpose. Companies who decide to implement self-service channels should ensure that people are able to use them by themselves without support.

Self-service in the Plane

When I walked in the plane to take my seat, blankets were piled up on the first seat next to the entrance and a flight attendant was distributing them to passengers as they passed by. This is almost self-service.

Early in the flight, the attendants passed wet towels. Not hot wet towels, but those tiny plastic-wrapped napkins such as those in fast-food restaurants. Instead of giving them to each passenger individually, they gave 3 to the passengers in the aisle seats to distribute to the others in the same row, whether they were together or not. Let the passengers sort it out.

Later, I realize some people were filling out immigration cards. Not being Japanese national or resident, like most people on the flight, I needed one and had to ask a flight attendant. Instead of passing them around to everyone at a certain point, attendants distributed them on a request basis. Not only does this in fact increase the workload for flight attendants but it affects the extended travel customer experience, as travelers who forgot to complete one will have to do so at the last minute waiting in line at immigration.

Is There a Cost-Benefit?

Puzzling is how the airline came to those trade-offs between cost and service quality. How expensive could it be to have someone put a blanket on each seat prior to boarding, or to pass them on later? How much longer would it take to give the wet napkin to each passenger individually? The flight will take the same time regardless, so the company is not saving on staff cost. All it does is give an impression of lower service quality and degrade the customer experience yet for very little or no cost-savings.

In-flight Entertainment

On a positive side, the airline provided free headphones. Since I forgot my own I used the ones provided. They are as cheap quality as they come, but will do the job for a short flight. Air Canada for example charges premium prices for their flights but still charge 6 Canadian dollars for their headphones on local routes (which can be more than 5 hours) as if they were a budget airline.

Foreign Languages

With the intention to test the in-flight entertainment system, I tentatively started a Hollywood movie. I had the choice of English, Russian or German, which is interesting considering the Hong Kong-based airline doesn’t fly to Russia or Germany. I picked English. The movie was actually French dubbing with embedded Chinese subtitles, not in English.

What’s on the Menu

I’ve learned to keep my expectations low on airline food so I’ll skip the food critique, save to say I’ve never had worse than on Hong Kong Express. Continental Airlines is Michelin-starred next to it. I would mention however they didn’t have a menu.

Menus on flights are a good idea, even though you don’t have much choice. They help people decide in advance what they’ll choose. It relieves a bit of the last-second decision stress and communication issues. Although it would be good to mention that most of the time it doesn’t matter what the choices are because whatever you pick it will have the same bland plastic taste.

In this case not having a menu didn’t make much a difference since by the time the cart reached my seat in the middle of the aircraft they had run out of one of the two choices.

In-flight Purchase Disaster

The experiences I had so far were not enough to get me to write a review. Although it doesn’t justify lower service quality, it was about getting free amenities. But when it comes to buying more from the company however, you certainly would expect better service. And this problematic experience led me to other channels which only made things worse.

Won’t Accept Your Credit Card

On my return flight, I peruse the duty-free catalogue. I decide to buy some chocolate-covered freeze-dried strawberries. I’m not much of a sweet-tooth but I thought I’d give it a try. So I tell the flight attendant my choice and hand her my credit card. She comes back after 5 minutes saying she can’t take my credit card. It turns out my card was expiring at the end of the month, and the flight attendant claimed the airline policy is to accept only cards that are valid for at least 6 more months. That is not mentioned in the terms and conditions, which I read later. I thought they were confusing with passport validity as required for entry in some countries. The flight attendant explained that because there is no immediate online or phone validation like in retail shops on the ground, they have to post-process purchases later, hence the 6-months policy.

Establishing a Climate of Distrust

This doesn’t make any sense. Many merchants still don’t have direct phone or internet connection to a bank and will accept credit cards with any validity range on the basis of acceptable risk. In any case, whether a card expiry date is a few years away doesn’t guarantee it is still active. For the sake of arguable risk reduction the airline establishes a relationship of mutual distrust with its customers, becomes inconvenient and negatively impacts the customer experience.

Won’t Give Change

So I decide to pay cash. I had Japanese yen, Hong Kong Dollar and Canadian Dollars. Terms and conditions state that you can only get change if you pay in Hong Kong Dollar. So I decide to pay in Hong Kong dollar but am told that they don’t give change back. At this point I just want to get it over with and decide to forfeit my change.

 After pondering on the nonsense of it all, I resign myself and at least seek comfort in my purchase. The strawberries looked nothing like those in the picture on the box, but that’s another story.

Contacting the Company

The day following my trip and with the intention to write a review of my customer experience, I decide to contact the company to hear more about the disparity between the written terms and conditions and their factual policies.

No Website

Hong Kong Express does not have a Website. Its outdated Wikipedia entry points to the “Official Website”, but the link redirects to sister company Hong Kong Airlines’ Website.

This can be confusing to customers who don’t know Hong Kong Express is managed by Hong Kong Airlines and need to, say, book or change a flight. The only hint that the Hong Kong Airlines Website handles both airlines is a small Hong Kong Express logo at the bottom of their homepage. Clicking on it however leads to an error message.

Clicking on the Hong Kong Express logo gives an error page.

Although the link will probably be corrected after the airline picks up on this review, it’s surprising the error was allowed for so long.

Phone: No Answer

I tried to call the number listed for “Headquarter Office”. Not only does it not answer after a minute, but it doesn’t lead to an IVRS or even a voicemail. This is unthinkable a company of such size.

Email: No Reply

I decide to contact “Media Enquiries”, which provides an email for Eva Chan, DGM, Corporate Communications & Marketing. I mention in the email I would like to write an article about them but first would like to have an official statement regarding their T&Cs for in-flight purchases.

 While she appears normally outspoken, Mrs. Chan never gave a reply. Perhaps this article will result in one.

Can’t Join Loyalty Program

I can’t say my experience with Hong Kong Express Airways will ensure my repeated business, but I completed a paper form in-flight to sign up to their loyalty program anyway.

A few days after the flight, I receive an email from the “Fortune Wings Club” loyalty program asking me to confirm the email address I used to sign up by clicking on a link.

The link provided leads to a Web page where I get an error message “SORRY! Please, Connection with [email protected]”. I emailed the address to report the system error and ask to please let me know how to proceed.

Clicking on the link provided in the email leads to an error page.

Over a week later I’ve yet to receive a reply.

Comedy or Disaster?

I’ve rarely experienced so many problematic interactions with a company in so little time. While the incredible lack of attention to detail reaches a point where it’s almost comedic, it really is a customer experience management disaster. Out of my entire Travel Customer Experience Lifecycle, only a few interactions were not problematic. Had I booked directly through them, it is likely I would have encountered some issues. Luckily that part of the customer experience was managed by a third-party.

I will certainly not fly Hong Kong Express or Hong Kong Airways again by choice. But if I do fly them again, I will brace myself for impact.

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David Jacques is Founder and Principal Consultant of Customer input Ltd and a pioneer in the field of Customer Experience Management. He has created the first Framework that brings together cohesively every aspect of Customer Experience Management. He is also passionate about having an in-depth understanding customer values to create emotionally-engaging customer experiences not only at individual interactions but also seamlessly between them.

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