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.


Blogger Che Grovera said...

Gotta jump on the bandwagon of hate for the Tom Bradley Terminal. I've managed to successfully avoid it for three years now, since my last nightmare there in 2005. I can only imagine how bad it is today...the lines, the noise, the dingy drabness of it all. I, too, was bused to the remotest stretches of the LAX tarmac for boarding, which for me capped the third-worldness of the whole experience. What a blight that place is!

12/31/2008 8:19 PM  
Blogger Cavalier92 said...

Great description of your trip to Tahiti. I hope the rest of your excursion is far better.

As a new reader, I had one question - how old are the kids?

12/31/2008 8:27 PM  

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