“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit, oh shit” runs through my mind as I stand in the snaking queue. I glance at my watch every few seconds, mentally wishing the queue before me would vanish, and I would be next in line to have my passport stamped. The Kuala Lumpur International Airport (KLIA) Low Cost Carrier Terminal (LCCT) customs clearance building is a huge high-ceilinged hall which fits hundreds comfortably. Yet, with thousands pouring out of the planes outside on the tarmac and making their way into the building, it is inevitable that there will be a huge crowd.
Despite the surprising efficiency of the passport-stamping customs officers behind the tables, it really was a long queue, and I seriously doubted I would make it in time for the next flight. I will need to clear customs, collect my checked-in bag from the conveyor, rush to the departure counter, do my paperwork for the connecting flight, check in again, and rush back on the SAME tarmac I left earlier to get to this second plane.
I hear the final boarding call, the check-in counter closes 45 minutes before departure, which meant I have exactly 5 minutes left. As soon as the line reached me, I beseeched the customs officer to be quick, and then sprinted down the corridor, traversing the escalator, to the check-in row, only to find out the counter close, and the staff packing up. I pleaded with them to let me check-in. To my enormous relief, they decided to help the flustered pathetic Singaporean, and made a phone call or two, telling the plane crew that there’s one more passenger coming in. Phew, made it by the skin of my teeth, I thought as I finally boarded the plane.
How did I get into this predicament? I was flying Singapore to KL, and then KL to Aceh. I had buffered two hours for the transit period. What I didn’t count on, however, was a delay on the Singapore to KL flight, which seems to be the norm, especially later in the afternoon, when the accumulated delay of multiple SG to KL return flights starts to add up.
There’s no doubt about it, for the budget-conscious Singaporean traveller, AirAsia flights out of Kuala Lumpur (KL) are considerably cheaper than on other low cost airlines that fly out of Singapore. It could be the airport tax, or price competition, but flying from KL to Siem Reap is on average cheaper than from flying from Singapore to Siem Reap. Now this point about cheaper prices is moot, since most Singaporeans (i) can’t be bothered with the extra hassle of taking two flights, (ii) the cost of the SG-KL return flight included adds up to about the same price anyway, and (iii) we don’t have so much time to do things like take overnight coaches or trains from SG to KL, which though cheaper than the SG-KL flights, demands much of our precious time.
And yet, why do I do it? Simply because in the AirAsia network, there are many exciting destinations that both Jetstar and Tiger currently do not cover. Want to dive the Indonesian Sulawesi archipelago? Fly KL to Makassar. Want to see how well the tsunami recovery work goes in Aceh? Fly KL to Banda Aceh. Want to see Sri Lanka’s many historical and natural marvels? Fly KL to Colombo.
Visiting these places requires that I plan properly. After the aforementioned incident, I decided that putting in extra buffer time is not just a good idea, it is a practically a necessity! Better to lounge at KLIA / LCCT and wait (wifi available) for a few hours rather than risk missing the flight altogether.
However, in accordance to Murphy’s Law, anything that can go wrong probably will. So here below are a few tips to get through a potentially really bad situation, in case you do try the KLIA / LCCT Customs Clearance Run.
1) Firstly, prevention is still the better option. Plan your trip well, don’t allocate 2 hours to clear the entry and then exit customs. It’s not enough, knowing the unreliability of low-cost carriers. Flightstats.com’s Feb-Mar 2011 data shows that despite AirAsia’s higher than industry average of 96% on-time performance; the KL-SG route achieves only 89% on-time performance. Which means that there is a whopping 11% chance your flight will be delayed. (There is some doubt on the accuracy of data, since SG-KL is 100%, impossible since it’s the same plane going back and forth.) Delays are brief, around 45 minutes is the max I have ever come across. A safe guide then is 3 hours buffer, more if you can afford the time.
2) Don’t check-in luggage. This cuts at least 5 to 10 minutes of waiting time, important especially when you have no time to hunt for your bag amongst the mess that is on the conveyor. Or maybe you have to wait because you are too fast and they have yet to unload the bags (No snaking queue, but you didn’t buffer enough time). Without luggage, you may just get that next flight before the counter closes.
3) If you really need to have checked-in luggage, consider waiting for the ground staff to unload the luggage. I’m not sure this is possible at LCCT, but I have witnessed elsewhere at a smaller airport where a fellow traveller picked up his backpack straight from the baggage compartment and going himself, thereby saving valuable time.
4) Make sure all your papers are in order: fill up your white immigration card, don’t have suspicious stamps on your passport. You really don’t want to get into a situation where you miss the flight because the customs officer cannot read your handwriting, or starts questioning you about your Israel stamp.
5) Join the queue that is on either end of the mass of queuing passengers. Somehow, experience has shown that these are the fastest queues. It is a clear line, unlike in the middle lines, where two squashed masses may merge to form one line, once they realize there is only one queue in front of them. This slows down the queue considerably. Another variant of this trick is to simply join the queue which has an adjacent empty counter. A customs officer would inevitably start a new counter, and half the crowd from your line will shift to this new line. Since you are in the adjacent line, you can call dibs to stay or join the new line. Either way, you r queue is halved.
6) Take care to remove all airport prohibited items, and get rid of all your metallic gear so you can go through the metal detector without a hitch. Any delay is unacceptable, and missing the flight because you are too lazy to take off your belt is a sad, sad thing.
So that’s the post. Hopefully it helps to get you through the customs clearance run without a hitch. If you have other tips, do post a comment below.
Edit: For you guys who end up on this post looking for info on how long it takes to clear the KLIA-LCCT customs, the answer is half hour, longer during peak times.
And finally, a footnote: Since the end of 2010, AirAsia has introduced the “fly-through” concept, which allows flights out of Singapore, via KL, to a destination, to be booked under a single return ticket. This applies for most of the AirAsiaX destinations, to further places in South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Australia, even London and Paris. I have yet to try out, but it is a smart idea that opens up many new destinations, albeit, with the extra waiting time, and changing out to another plane. However, with no plan in sight to allow Singapore to become an AirAsia hub, the “fly through” concept ensures AirAsia still gets a big piece of that lucrative Singapore travel market. Personally, I have not tried it before (let me know if you have) but I will let you know how it went, come August. SG-KL-New Delhi.
Edit Nov’11: The Fly Through concept works like a charm, bring a book to keep yourself occupied at the transit area. Wi-Fi is free for the first 3 hours.