Allen On Travel

A 30 year veteran of world travel (but knows nil about Orlando-area attractions), Will Allen III writes about his weekly odysseys by air on business and how the airlines rob him--and you--of time, the most precious commodity on earth. Time: It's all we have, and the airlines routinely take it from us. This blog challenges the airlines to keep their basic promises.

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Location: Raleigh, North Carolina, United States

Born 1948 in Kinston, NC and raised there in beautiful eastern North Carolina, I now live in Raleigh and commute around the country and the world.

Monday, December 29, 2008

Tahiti Trip Commentaries, Part 3
L.A. Layover & Enduring Air Tahiti Nui To French Polynesia

My family’s long and painful travel travail from Raleigh to L.A. (see previous post) was followed by a day’s layover in southern California. Turns out we needed the day to catch our breath both because of the ordeal the day before and because of the less trying experience the following day on board Air Tahiti Nui bound for Pape’ete.

I booked us into the Hilton Garden Inn LAX/El Segundo, the only Hilton-owned HGI. Hilton corporate, based in nearby Beverly Hills, uses the property for its “nursery” to test all Hilton brand new beds and room arrangements (Hilton, HGI, Hampton, Doubletree, Embassy Suites, etc.).

Usually this hotel, popular with business travelers like me, is fully booked and quite pricey, so I was delighted to find a $104 rate at the Hilton website when I reserved the room back in October. Perhaps it reflects the weakening economy or the season (6 days prior to Christmas), but the price was less than half what I am accustomed to paying for this property. Our room, 362, was nothing special, but it was modern, everything worked, and we enjoyed it.

I was also glad to see wired Internet via Ethernet cable rather than the ubiquitous, and often loopy, wireless Internet offered by more and more hotels. Compared to wifi, wired is faster, almost always works, and is secure.

I was even happier to find that Hilton Garden Inn—or at least this one—has restored the full American breakfast with cooked-to-order food included in the rate. Frankly, I stopped booking HGIs when they began charging for the full breakfast in favor of Hampton Inns because most Hamptons were cheaper, and I could not tell the difference in service once the breakfasts were made identical.

Legloland surprise

After a filling and delicious breakfast, my family and I drove my Hertz car (a dinosaur of a Crown Victoria rented on points) south to Carlsbad, about 90-100 minutes away if the traffic is moving on I405/I-5. I made a short detour through the Ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach to show the kids the awe-inspiring complexity of our biggest container ship gateway, and had an uneventful drive down the coast from there.

I have cousins in Carlsbad who we haven’t seen in years, and they’d asked us to meet them at Legoland, which I took to be a place where Lego had put together creations from their modular plastic pieces. I was naïve to think so; stupid me. Legoland is a mini-Disneyland, a theme park with kiddy rides. And it costs over $80/day for an adult!

Luckily my cousins, who have season passes, also had discount coupons, and we managed to get the four of us in for $126, about $100 less than full rate. At first I thought this was still a lot of money. You see, I had a really bad experience at Disney World in Orlando 2 years ago (see that series of posts in the distant past), and it put me off theme parks.

I can report, however, that Legoland is a GREAT place to take kids and adults, and I would happily take our kids back there again. We had a fantastic day! The staff was well-trained, genuine, and friendly. The rides were interesting and well-designed for kids—and not crowded (relative to Disney World). We left wishing a Legoland existed near us in North Carolina.

One of the Legoland rides is a version of an industrial robot that swings two people around in all kinds of upside-down positions over an artificial lake. It’s very clever and a lot of fun. Before being strapped in, one must empty every pocket, and I did so, forgetting that I’d slipped my brand new thin cell phone into my shirt pocket. Sure enough, gravity ensured that it plopped into the shallow lake the first time the robot gave me a good shake while holding me inverted.

Drying my cell phone out later with a hair dryer at the hotel did not raise it from the dead. Thank God for the AT&T Wireless store in Manhattan Beach that was open until 10:00 PM (Christmas hours). AT&T Wireless replaced my phone for just $35—but I had to extend my contract for another two years.

And here’s a secret I discovered known only to cell phone employees: Cell batteries and cell phones have a plastic tab that turns red when exposed to water to signal to cell providers when you’ve drenched your phone. According to the very nice AT&T Wireless guy who helped me, many people claim ignorance about why their phone has suddenly stopped working after a drowning like mine. He lauded my honesty, saying most cell phone users vehemently deny getting their phones wet.

The drive back to Los Angeles from Carlsbad which had taken only 95 minutes in the morning turned into a two and a half hour ordeal in stop-and-go traffic all the way north that afternoon. Long as it took, it seemed longer. I tried several times to find alternate off-Interstate routes without succeeding; there was extremely heavy congestion everywhere. It was maddening and unavoidable and a reminder that one never knows when southern California gridlock will strike.

LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal has seen better days

Finally, the day of our flight to Pape’ete, Tahiti, French Polynesia had arrived. After another hearty breakfast and check-out at the Hilton Garden Inn LAX/El Segundo, I tooled our Hertz land yacht back to its home. There Hertz employees startled me by offering to drive us all to the terminal instead of making us ride the crowded shuttle bus. Though I am a Hertz Presidents’ Circle member, this courtesy has never been offered me before, and I gladly accepted.

En route our driver explained in broken English and a good deal of Spanish that he and his colleagues would sure appreciate me filling in a Hertz “attaboy” Internet form which would bring them all a bonus. I agreed, though wondering how I would fulfill my promise in the South Pacific where Internet service is said to be scarce and poor at best (those rumors are true).

Trying to improve our poor seating (four across in the center section of the back of the airplane), I had contrived to arrive at 10:00 AM for our 1:00 PM departure. Though expecting large Christmas-time crowds, I was still astonished at the wall-to-wall travelers in every aisle of the Tom Bradley International Terminal which Air Tahiti Nui uses. LAX had employed friendly greeters to guide incoming passengers to the right areas, and soon we had found Air Tahiti Nui’s check-in counters.

My wife and I had expected a long wait to check in at the economy counter after seeing the thousands milling through the terminal, but we were standing before a very friendly fellow dressed in Air Tahiti Nui uniform in less than 15 minutes. Thankfully, he was able to give us two window-and-aisle seats behind each other (33AB, 34AB), and we were soon on our way to locating the end of the long security line to clear the TSA checkpoint.

Did I say it was long? Good grief, the TSA checkpoint line snaked from the south side of the Tom Bradley Terminal all the way over to the north side, close to the OTHER security checkpoint. In fact THAT line snaked all the way over adjacent to our line, and we found ourselves staring at people going the other way to their checkpoint and wondering which one was faster!

I estimated a two-hour wait to get through and was glad we had arrived three hours before our flight. I looked at the equally long TSA luggage screening line, separate from our security checkpoint lines, and realized that had we checked our bags, we’d have had to wait for about another hour in that line first.

You won’t believe this, but TSA at LAX-Tom Bradley Terminal was on the ball that morning (December 21, 2008), and the extraordinarily long line (like those at Heathrow in the summer of 2007) moved rapidly. We got inside the screening area in just 25 minutes. At that point we would have to wait about another 10 minutes to get to an x-ray machine, but TSA allowed us to enter a “families-only” security line, and we walked up to an empty x-ray station and were through in no time.

On the other side of security, finally putting everything back together again in our luggage, I noticed a TSA fellow staring off into space, and I quipped, “This is madness, huh?” Without looking at me, he replied, “Sure is,” and signed deeply. Perhaps he was considering a career change. Had I been him, that notion would have been topmost in my mind. The teeming multitudes washed around us endlessly as they cleared security.

We found LAX gate 113 just beyond the checkpoint, one of those gates where a bus comes to transport passengers to planes parked remotely on the tarmac. Since we had plenty of time before boarding, I took the kids on a long walking tour from one end of Tom Bradley International Terminal to the other.

I should comment that I was a great user of the Tom Bradley Terminal right after it first opened through the late eighties and nineties, and I came to know all its gates and its First Class and Business Class lounges upstairs as I flew in and out on most of its airlines: Air New Zealand (back in its heyday) first class to Fiji, New Zealand, and Australia; Lufthansa to Frankfurt; Japan Airlines to Tokyo; Malaysia Air to Bali (superb first class service); Qantas to Sydney; Singapore to Hong Kong and Singapore; Korean Air to Seoul and Manila.

With those fond memories as my frame of reference, I wandered the two wings of the terminal looking for reminders of grandeur. And found none. The entire terminal is undergoing what appears to be a slow-motion renovation, and all is ugly, ripped up, worn out, and disorganized. Many of the moving sidewalks were not working. I stopped in one of the public toilets and witnessed some of the most vile and sexually graphic graffiti I’ve ever seen anywhere. The toilets were dirty, and even the soap dispensers were empty.

I thought to myself: How embarrassing that this drab, worn-out, poorly-maintained facility is the gateway for thousands of foreign nationals to and from the United States? Does L.A. no longer have any pride? I could see that the Tom Bradley Terminal is being renovated, but that’s no excuse for its seedy, third-world condition.

Air Tahiti Nui boarding & takeoff

Air Tahiti Nui personnel at gate 113 began boarding at 12:15 PM for the 1:00 PM scheduled departure. Families and premium class passengers boarded the bus first, and we then proceeded on a long, slow excursion westbound to one of seven remote stands between the far ends of the runways adjacent (almost) to the dunes that separate LAX from the Pacific. Our A340 aircraft looked handsome in its tropical aqua-marine livery, and we quickly settled into our aisle and window seats in the rear economy cabin.

First impressions were mixed. The Recaro seats, though a bit tight in width (narrower than AA domestic coach seats), were comfortable and offered decent legroom, and they had the advertised individual video screens built into the seats in front. The video control, though, is wedged into the left-side armrest of each seat, and because of the narrow width, I had to remove and leave out the tethered control the entire trip. When clicked into the armrest, the control could not be accessed without unbuckling my seat belt and moving my body.

Overhead compartments, which had been touted as “over-sized” to accommodate modern carryon bags, were in fact no bigger than AA’s MD-80 overheads on the left side (that is, notoriously narrow). Our roller bags are small relative to newer ones, and yet we had to turn them sideways to fit in the Air Tahiti Nui overhead compartments.

After adjusting ourselves to these confinements, we settled in and waited for final boarding and departure. It turned into a long wait. Only after the 1:00 PM departure time had passed did the captain announce that we would be waiting for late-arriving passengers. I smiled at the irony that our long-awaited flight was delayed because Air Tahiti Nui chose to wait for late customers, while American Airlines had made our lives so miserable two days earlier by leaving early and failing to board us even though they knew we were there and running to make their connection.

We pushed back 35 minutes behind schedule, and the captain announced a longer-than-usual 8 hour, 20 minute flight plan. Altogether, this would make us over an hour late into Pape’ete. The long, slow taxi from the far west end of the runways to the east end took its toll on the schedule, too. We were already tired by the time the flight finally left the tarmac close to 2:00 PM, and, thinking of the long flight ahead, I thanked my lucky stars again for the aisle and window seats.

Air Tahiti Nui in-flight service

This will be a short series of descriptions, even though the flight, at times, seemed interminable. In short, the service aboard our flight in the rear coach cabin was indifferent.

The food was mediocre and typical of coach meals for decades: a funky hot food entrée (I got the barbecue tilapia), a wilted salad, an indeterminate custard dessert, stale bread that would spark a prison riot if served in a penitentiary, and beverage (I got the so-called Champagne which was still better than my wife’s so-called red wine).

Flight attendants announced a serve-yourself beverage bar with snacks in the rear galley, but a lot of beverage and snack choices ran out before the flight’s halfway mark, leaving a few juices and water to satisfy one’s appetite to landing.

Air Tahiti Nui flight attendants tried really hard to be friendly, but they seemed weary and over-worked, and it showed. We didn’t see a lot of smiles, and in fact many FA expressions bordered on grim. Again, this was contrary to the marketing hype, and I was disappointed that they did not fulfill the uplifting spirit of French Polynesia that is their reputation. Perhaps, in fairness, we just had a group who were having a bad day. I really wanted to give them benefit of the doubt, so determined was I that they would live up my expectations.

The video system malfunctioned several times during the flight, and at least once I was the bearer of bad news about it to the crew. They were unaware of the problem, and set about rebooting it, which set things right.

The Airbus 340 has no individual controls for air, and the plane was consistently too hot from boarding to deplaning. Several people complained about it to the cabin crew, but the temperature never varied.

At the end of the flight I counseled with my wife to see if perhaps I was being too hard on the flight attendants, but she agreed that they were just going through the motions. The service was uninspired, and the crew’s attitude was one of dispirited resolution to do their duty, and nothing more.

On the plus side, my kids enjoyed the movies and games (when working), and we had plenty of fluids whenever we needed them (if not always what we might have wanted). The crew also gave us two certificates for a black pearl, which we subsequently picked up on Mo’orea.

I say again, however, that I was disappointed in Air Tahiti Nui’s offering overall. The airline charges a big premium for its service, and they claim it’s worth it because it’s better in so many ways. It is certainly better than my limited economy cabin experiences on competitor Air France, but that’s faint praise.

Air Tahiti Nui international service is not awful; it’s just mediocre. Too bad there’s not more competition, but then I read somewhere that Tahiti receives in one year the number of tourists that Hawaii gets in just ten days. With such thin numbers on the USA/Tahiti route, more air competition is unlikely. We’ll just have to grin and bear it with Air Tahiti Nui.

We landed just 50 minutes late, somehow having made up about 20 minutes, and despite a slow deplaning process (we were among the last ones off), we cleared security 35 minutes after the doors opened. It was 8:55 PM local time (same time as Hawaii, which is 5 hours earlier than the U.S. east coast.).

Tahiti, finally!

Finally on the island of Tahiti, we thought, let the fun begin! 12 days in paradise!

And it did, along with the unexpected shock of local prices. Having researched it and read up on how expensive everything was in French Polynesia, I took a fair amount of cash. But I soon realized it might run out! That’s never happened to me before on an international trip.

More next time on the too-busy island of Tahiti and the charm of the beautiful island of Mo’orea, all the while wondering how the locals afford it.

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Tahiti Trip Commentaries, Part 2
Getting To Los Angeles

Same Misery, Different Day

Sometimes when traveling in the U.S. air system these past three decades, I thought misery stalked me like hunter in the woods. On wider reflection I realized that misery by air travel was committed to the principle of equal opportunity: Virtually everyone I knew received their share, and few stories had a happy ending.

The past six months have seen me at home more and on the road flying less, by choice. It's given me time to heal my wounds and develop a more sanguine attitude to flying. So when my family and I set off from Raleigh-Durham International Airport on Friday morning, December 19th, it was with a renewed spiritual strength that I could face whatever happened.

Good thing I hadn't drunk the poison for awhile, because I was force-fed a large dose of it on our trip RDU/LAX. We should have landed at L.A. International before noon after two flights of 9 hours total duration, but instead we hit the LAX tarmac in darkness 17 hours after leaving our home and having endured three flights and a four-hour layover in San Francisco (no, SFO was not on our original routing).

Our day began at 4:00 AM when we arose to rush to RDU Airport. My voicemail buzzed as soon as I powered on my cell with a message that our American Eagle flight 5331 to St. Louis was delayed 25 minutes due to crew rest. So much for our one hour connection. Worried from experience with many a crew rest issue that this would develop into a creeping delay and cause us to miss our connection, I immediately phoned AA as my wife and kids frantically loaded the car.

The AA agent kept me on my cell for 40 minutes while she tried to get through to Northwest Airlines to rebook us (she agreed we probably now would not make our STL connection). She promised to phone back when I had to go through security at Raleigh/Durham International Airport. When she did call, she had to leave a voice message because cell service in the new RDU concourse is marginal or nonexistent on most places (how could this happen in a brand-new terminal?), and my phone never rang. Her message wasn't reassuring in any case, as NW never answered their phone--an internal line specially for inter-airline agent calls.

RDU only recently opened its new terminal, and this was my first time experiencing it. I'd heard the security screens were improved, but my first impression in the elite line was that the old terminal scheme was better. We had to wait for 10 minutes while the TSA agent ignored the elite queue and allowed the multitudes to get by instead. It didn't matter to me since we now had loads of time thanks to our delayed flight, but if I had been traveling on business, well, I would have been miffed.

The new RDU Admirals Club was also a disappointment, being up three floors on a slow elevator and unlikely to win any manner of architectural or interior decorating competition. It's hard to tell if the square footage is diminished from the old Admirals Club at RDU, but it feels that way, and I was glad to leave. The best part was the presence of Margaret Hutchens, who has been a leader and fixture at the RDU club for ages. Margaret was kind enough to keep up with out tight connection, and thank God she did. Later, her swift actions were all that got us to LAX at all on Friday.

Once back downstairs I walked the entire length of the new, sweeping concourse with interest. I was happy to spot and speak to Kim at Delta, the sole remaining "old Delta" employee at RDU. She informed me that the Delta Crown Room was "coming" but even she was uncertain when it might open in the new concourse. Too bad for Raleigh-area Crown Room members.

Otherwise I was happy to see some new restaurant selections in the new concourse (e.g., 42nd Street Oyster Bar; an eastern North Carolina barbecue joint; and Brueggers Bagels) as we made our way to delayed AA (Eagle) 5133, an Embraer RJ, spotted at gate 22, the very end of the new concourse. There I ran into another old friend who used to work at Delta but now is an AA gate agent. He knew of our impending close connection and tried mightily to get the flight out right on the 7:05 AM departure delay re-post.

Alas, he failed, thanks to our flight attendant. She gave him the wrong count on children in seats (as opposed to lap babies), forcing recalculation of the weight-and-balance. Our plane pushed back at 7:20 AM, now forty minutes behind schedule, leaving us a mere 20-minute connection window.

Further delays waiting for ATC takeoff clearance and strong headwinds ensured more creep in our delay. I go into such detail here because such cascading delays happen so frequently that it's worth documenting how it happens--frequent flyers will be familiar with the scenario. We finally blocked into our gate at 8:40 AM CT. Our connecting flight to Los Angeles was scheduled to leave at 8:50 AM.

Originally our flight was to arrive STL at gate C21, just across the hall from our C24 connection to LAX. As we approached St. Louis, the captain announced our arrival gate had changed to C17, which still wasn't a long walk from C24. However, contrary to both earlier gate announcements, we pulled into gate C1, a VERY long walk from C24, and then had to wait for our planeside checked bags (as with every RJ flight). I sent my wife and two kids running up to C24 to let them know we were here and to wait for us.

After running as fast as I could from C1 to C24 with all the bags, I arrived at 8:47 AM for our 8:50 AM departure to LAX, elated that we'd actually made it! But the bastards at American Airlines had already pushed back 4 minutes early, despite the protests of my wife and kids standing at tha gate (my five year old was actually crying in disappointment).

Seems the captain had wanted an early start due to the strong headwinds he expected getting to Los Angeles--the same headwinds we'd encountered, no doubt, getting to STL. And he didn't care how miserable his passengers left behind might be, even though we were at the gate BEFORE scheduled departure and he KNEW we were there. I have some unprintable Christmas greetings for the man. Apparently AA rewards him for being on time regardless of the misery he inflicts on the people who pay his salary--me and you.

Kafka Customer Service

I was outraged, and I've seen so much flying that it takes a great deal to infuriate me any more. But this pilot and his employer, American Airlines, screwed with my family's happiness even though we'd done everything asked of us. The contract of carriage only benefits one side.

My indignance was lost on the AA gate agent, one Sheila Ford, who incredibly just shrugged and told me while standing there in her American uniform that she was "merely an entry-level employee" and thus had "no power, no control, no authority, no nothing" that she could do nothing to help me. She gestured grandly to her right to the American "Customer Service Center" at the unused (and unmanned) adjacent gate and invited me to use one of the several red "courtesy rebooking" phones there to call and get my family rerouted.

How, I asked, was I going to do that? The agents I spoke to in RDU's Admirals Club had checked every STL/LAX flight for the rest of Friday, Saturday, and Sunday, and couldn't find four seats for us as back-up. Sheila Ford just gave me her well-practiced shrug again, and wished us luck. Somehow I doubted her sincerity. I gave up on getting assistance from her and headed for the red phones.

I picked up the phone on the end of the counter, and sure enough, it rang through to AA reservations. However, when answered, a recording prompted me to press "1" for this and "2" for that, and I obligingly reached to press the appropriate button on the keypad.

But THERE WAS NO KEYPAD! The keypads had all been removed from the red phones! Letting out a deep sigh of frustration, I listened, thinking the AA rez system would eventually put me through to a real person when it detected no selection.

But no. The AA recording merely repeated itself over and over again, asking its hapless listeners to press a nonexistent key on the red phone. I stood there looking for a camera, thinking this must be a joke for one of those TV reality shows that capture ordinary people in impossible, nonsensical situations. If only I had been right. After listening uselessly for another minute or two, I put the phone down, stunned.

Can there be any better example of the depths to which the airlines--in this case, American--have sunk? Kafka would be proud to see the insanities he so often scripted into memorable stories are alive and well in the 21st century airline game. First, AA, through a series of its own missteps, failed to connect my family of four accordng to its own schedule, and then they left me, one of their most elite customers, to my own devices to rebook through their absurdly designed system.

In desperation I phoned Margaret Hutchens back at the RDU Admirals Club. Lucky she gave me her number years ago, and I never lost it. Margaret had been following our plight, even though, technically, she was not encouraged by her employer to help individual customers in such a manner. Margaret had accomplished the impossible: She'd found four seats on a flight to San Francisco, with a connection to LAX from SFO.

Margaret had to book all four of us in First Class SFO/LAX to make it work, but she'd done it anyway. We were protected! This despite AA doing everything in its inept way to keep us from getting to Los Angeles and to make us miserable as possible in the meantime.

Kafka struck again when I next phoned Hertz to revise our arrival time and flight so that my car at LAX would not be cancelled. The Hertz system, like so many airline, hotel, and car rental toll-free lines, has adopted a whizz-bang modern voice-activated system which requires all kinds of information to be given before connecting customers to a real person.

But the fricking geniuses who designed and installed these systems apparently don't travel much, because they never gave a thought to the incessant background noise extant in every airport on earth--the place customers are most likely to be phoning from their cells. So naturally every TV and loud PA in the St. Louis airport, plus all the noise from passengers talking, was mistaken by the Hertz system for requisite data to get me to an agent. When I finally WAS connected to a real warm body, I had to give her all my info again because of the gibberish that the voice system had erroneously collected.

We made it onto the STL/SFO flight, whose captain (also AA) also wanted to leave early due to headwinds, and damn the torpedoes, er, I mean, passengers left behind. Luckily this time it wasn't us. Then we endured a four-hour layover at SFO before our on-time flight to LAX. We landed after dark, 17 hours after leaving Raleigh, more exhausted than from a trans-Pacific flight.

And there's more about our trip coming, including the very average Air Tahiti Nui service LAX to Pape'ete, Tahiti, but as I write this from the beachside bar at the Moorea Pearl Resort on the beautiful Tahitian island of Moorea, my son has just informed me that my wife has broken her toe on a coconut tree and that I must come running.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Tahiti Trip Commentaries

My family and I are frantically trying to pack and prep for our departure early tomorrow morning for Los Angeles and then to Tahiti. We get up at 4:00 AM, always a treat with young children in tow. Their bodies rightfully scream "SLEEP!" to them when you try to rouse them at such an ungodly hour.

You know how it goes when you are leaving for the final two weeks of the year: There are bills to be prepaid, pets to be put in the care of friends, last minute Christmas cards and gifts to be sent, and end-of-year school work to be finalized with the kids to keep the teachers on your side.

And oh, yeah, almost forgot about all that nasty packing for two adults and two young children for a tropical environment, including clothing for the tropics, swimwear, snorkeling and diving accoutrements, various medications, and so on and so forth. We never check our bags, either, so everything's gotta fit into requisite underseat/overhead suitcases, too.

Then there are the passports, ticket receipts, preprinted boarding passes, little plastic bags for the gooey wet stuff TSA wants to see separately, hotel and car rental reservation receipts (just in case), resort vouchers, airport transfer vouchers, DVDs to keep the kids from being bored (will be played in my notebook), GPS for navigating around Los Angeles the first couple of days, and--well, good grief, where are we going to PUT all this stuff??!! We're gonna need a bigger BAG! It's no WONDER I don't have time to post anything on my blog!

In previous posts I described the trip planning and information about Air Tahiti Nui, the carrier that will fly us from LAX to Papeete. I will be writing intermittent commentaries on our adventure as it unfolds, first from Los Angeles and environs, and then, hopefully, from Tahiti, if the Moorea Pearl Resort comes through on its promise of wifi.

Gotta go! We can't find the kids' swim fins! Next report from L.A.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

Air Tahiti Nui Research: A Reputation For Above Average Economy Service

As my family's late December vacation to Tahiti looms, I sure hope the word on the street about Air Tahiti Nui's superlative coach cabin is correct. The airline starts its marketing hoopla by giving the back of the bus a special name, Moana Class, instead of calling it economy or coach.

Decades ago, before today's drab class sameness (first, business, and coach) became the norm, airlines sometimes anointed their international cabins with names to differentiate their products from those offered by the common herd of competitors flying the same routes. Anybody but me remember flying Pan American World Airways' Clipper Class?

The ploy worked, too, when the service was really better, as PanAm's services in all cabins originally were. I recall flying in economy on PanAm from JFK to Heathrow in November, 1979 and quite enjoying the service (at the end in the late eighties, Pan American declined badly).

Nowadays, however, any airline trying to give a spiffy name to its coach cabin has to deal with a cynical and wise flying public. Bottom line is that they must really have something better to back up the claim.

Like I said, I hope Air Tahiti Nui will provide the steak with the sizzle. Here's what I've learned about their service that makes me optimistic that they might:

First, the airline is only ten years old, so it doesn't have a lot of baggage (no pun intended) to contend with. It started with fresh ideas, flies just five Airbus A340-300 airplanes which are all configured the same, and serves just seven overseas cities (L.A., NYC, Paris, Sydney, Auckland, Tokyo, and Osaka) from its home base in Papeete. The commonality of its aircraft and service simplifies the operation and allows Air Tahiti Nui to concentrate on service excellence, which is their reputation.

Second, Air Tahiti Nui depends mostly upon tourists, who fly mainly in economy. Its five A340s have just 6 first class seats (completely lie-flat beds) and 24 business class seats (lie-flat, but with a 160 degree recline that makes them slightly angled, much like AA's uncomfortable new business class seats). Moana Class seats 264 by comparison, and the airline needs to fill those seats in the back to stay in the black. Thus it works hard, they tell me, to make folks back there happy.

Third, Moana Class seats do score better than the chairs on competitor aircraft. They boast 33" seat pitch and 19" width. That makes them more spacious and comfortable than what's offered in most airlines' torture chambers, er, I mean,coach cabins. Furthermore, Moana Class seats are just 2" narrower than the business class seats up front.

Even better, they are in a 2-4-2 configuration instead of 2-5-2 like some carriers. And each seat also has its own individual entertainment system (think: Jet Blue and Virgin America). That little in-seat TV screen is going to be a great pacifier to my two kids!

Most unique to Air Tahiti Nui, though, is the double armrest in the middle section seats. I don't know of another airline with this feature, which aims for higher comfort.

Another indication that the airline means to please is this quote from its website: "Our aircraft design allows for extra overhead carry-on luggage capacity thereby creating more comfort through less need for under-seat storage." When was the last time you read of an airline encouraging you to use the overhead and not put bags under the seat in front of you?

Fourth, the on-board service in Moana Class is reputed to be extremely gracious. Here's how one person experienced with the service described it to me: "I think you'll enjoy Air Tahiti Nui, as the onboard experience is quite unique. From the moment you step aboard, you are ensconced in Polynesian hospitality. ... The great service, French-influenced cuisine, and flowing wine will keep you happy en route to and fro."

So, all things considered, maybe I can survive this airline's coach cabin for 8 hours between LAX and Papeete. Like most frequent flyers, I've come to expect the worst from every airline's economy service, and, sadly, my expectations are rarely dashed. It does sound, though, as if Air Tahiti Nui might have built a better mousetrap. You may rely on me to report on it upon arrival to the islands.