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.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

Tahiti Trip Commentaries, Part 5
Getting Home

Leaving Mo'orea was a sweet and sour experience. We loved the bucolic island and its genuine island folk, but I admit having had about all I could take of the Moorea Pearl Resort.

To be fair to the Pearl, perhaps any resort in Polynesia would have grated on me (see previous post for 5,100 words of detail). On top of the high costs in general in Polynesia, resort prices are a multiple of those in the real world, and resorts tend to charge for every little thing, down to every breath of air inhaled.

Nonetheless, and thanks in part to very low bookings during the first week of January, the Pearl allowed us to stay in our room until 5:00 PM (normal check-out is 11:00 AM). I had negotiated this benefit on the day we checked in.

Very late check-out was part of a deal that included an over-water bungalow upgrade to the "Deluxe" category and full breakfasts for the entire family (on arrival there was some question about whether our original booking included just three or all four family members' breakfasts).

Spending the entire final day enjoying the sun and sea of Tahiti was a great relief to me and my family. Otherwise, we would have been forced to wait for hours at the front desk with our luggage for our late afternoon flight back to Pape'ete to connect with the big Air Tahiti Nui bird to LAX and, eventually, home. Yes, I paid for the privilege, but, still, I owe thanks to the Moorea Pearl Resort for sticking to their agreement.

The Pearl gave me a bill to review several hours before our transfer bus arrived, and I found the agreed premium for the Deluxe over-water room had not been honored. The bill was hundreds of dollars more than it should have been. However, a calm discussion with the front desk fixed things, and the final invoice I signed upon check-out was correct.

Our flight from Mo'orea's tiny airport was scheduled for 6:15 PM, which was to connect us to the Pape'ete airport in plenty of time for our 10:00 PM Air Tahiti Nui flight to Los Angeles. Though it's a short ride to the Mo'orea airport from the resort, I was pleased to see the transfer bus arrive early just before 5:00 PM.

We departed the Moorea Pearl Resort at 5:00 PM on the dot and arrived at the airport at 5:10 PM. During this brief ten minutes, our French driver regaled us with stories of his sailboat adventures across the Atlantic to the Panama Canal and thence across the South Pacific to Tahiti. He now lives on his sailboat, which is moored just offshore a Polynesian pal's digs. Unlike some of his countrymen we met, he loved the island and had no plans to return to France soon.

It was a cheery, upbeat send-off for us, and I took his ebullience as a good sign for the long trip home ahead.

The friendly Air Tahiti folks who checked us in at Mo'orea's miniscule airport had us on their list, and we checked our bags as required (the tiny airplanes that fly inter-island have very limited carryon space in the cabin). As I grapsed the four boarding passes offered me, I asked the agent if the 6:15 PM flight was on time.

"Well, yes, it is," she said, "but YOU'RE on the 5:15 PM flight."

It was just 5:13 PM as she told me this, and I saw the plane landing outside her window.

"I don't understand," I said.

"You got here early, and we run flights to Pape'ete every hour, so I put you all on this one instead." She smiled. "You don't mind, do you?"

No, I didn't! And I told her so. But I was reeling at the thought that we had left the hotel on the transfer bus at 5:00 PM and were catching a 5:15 PM flight with no problem. Oh, if only my flights at home could be so convenient.

We stood by the open door (no security) waiting to board, and in no time we were fighting the stray cats and wandering mongrel dogs to get out to our plane, a Twin Otter 300. It held a mere 19 passengers. The Twin Otter cockpit is permanently open (there is no door), and my kids enjoyed watching the two-man flight crew handle the controls. A sign next to the cockpit warned passengers that flash photography is forbidden because it might temporarily blind a pilot.

Due to heavy baggage, our 5:15 PM departure didn't actually leave the gate until 5:25 PM. At 5:29 PM the wheels left the tarmac.

Four minutes and forty-five seconds later the wheels touched down on the runway at Pape'ete airport (my son and I both timed it). Once again I marveled that, at less than five minutes in the air, this eleven-mile crossing must be among the shortest commercial flights on earth.

By 5:42 PM we were out of the airplane and walking toward the small domestic terminal, and at 5:45 PM we had our luggage. We were in Pape'ete exactly 45 minutes after leaving the resort on Mo'orea. Even my kids were impressed (ages ten and five).

Two intriguing facts to add about this flight segment experience:

First, there was no security screening of any kind either at the Mo'orea airport or arriving at the Pape'ete airport, not of us or of our luggage. In contrast, when we'd flown the other way two weeks earlier, going to Mo'orea, we and our luggage had been thoroughly x-rayed and screened at the Pape'ete airport.

I'm not complaining, mind you. It was like a dream to be thrown back in time to the era in the United States when one just walked out to the airplane without any security hassle and delay. That was before a series of plane hijackings by Cubans which triggered the first security checkpoints at airports. I remember how easy and carefree it was to fly up until then.

Second, the chaotic Pape'ete domestic terminal we had flown out of two weeks before was not the same terminal we arrived at when returning for our international flight home. The dinky terminal where the inter-island Twin Otter parked and deposited us was in fact at the opposite end of the airport.

The international terminal is in the middle between the two domestic terminal buildings. Yet we flew over and back on the same airline: Air Tahiti, the sister company to Air Tahiti Nui which handles domestic flights between islands in Polynesia.

I have no idea why the airline serves two unconnected domestic terminals, nor have I any clue as to why the larger domestic terminal churns with confused activity while the small one we came into on our return is quiet and easy to deal with. I chalked it up to the charming quirks sometimes encountered in places not in a frenzy to improve efficiency and productivity, which madness is our constant companion in the U S of A.

After dragging our bags to the international terminal (only about 100 yards) we entered a snaking rope line for Air Tahiti Nui's economy cabin check-in. My wife fetched us all some delicious deli sandwiches from the busy-side domestic terminal while we waited for the counters to open. A long queue soon formed behind us (we were first in line), and Air Tahiti Nui, to their credit, opened check-in for their 10:00 PM LAX departure before 7:00 PM.

We were greeted by a very friendly and competent Air Tahiti Nui agent who was able to vastly improve our seat assignments from the rear coach cabin to the forward one just behind Business Class. We were given 14AB and 15AB, port side window-aisle seats very close to the front of economy. I was vastly relieved to know that our flight back to America would be tolerable.

Security screening followed the passport control checkpoint, and Tahitian personnel were thorough and polite. (So thorough, in fact, that there was no subsequent security screening at LAX on arrival. I've become accustomed to having to run the TSA gauntlet after arriving from international destinations.)

We killed time in the relatively small international boarding gate area with the kids for close to two hours, but somehow it went fast. I wandered around and noticed an Air Tahiti Nui lounge upstairs which I took to be reserved for First and Business customers.

Boarding commenced after 9:15 PM, and we had to haul our bags up the boarding stairs since Pape'ete airport has no jetways. I'm not sure how problematic the outside boarding might be during a tropical downpour; luckily, it was a clear night. Once on board, the cabin staff made sure everyone found their seats, but coach is coach, and not even a glass of water was offered during the 45 minutes before departure.

Air Tahiti Nui redeemed itself in my eyes in a number of ways that night compared to our experience traveling south to Polynesia. It had begun with the efficient and professional check-in. Then we boarded quickly, buttoned up, and departed on time even with a very full airplane. Beverage and meal service was slow (over an hour after takeoff), but we had water and snacks with us for the kids.

Cabin staff was much like the outbound crew we'd encountered two weeks before: patient, friendly in a cool way, helpful when asked, sometimes forgetful of requests, a bit standoffish at times. But, as I said above, coach is coach. I probably expected too much on our first flight. Compared to, say, Air France, the crew excelled. Measured against my own non-relative standards, there was much room for improvement. Overall, I was content, however, and my family was happy.

We arrived Los Angeles on time and parked at a real gate at the Tom Bradley terminal this time. This allowed us to walk off the plane directly into the bowels of the building without the long intervening bus ride from a distant stand. Within 30 minutes of leaving the aircraft we had made it through passport control and U. S. Customs with our luggage. I walked us over to Terminal 4 next door for our American Airlines flights home.

And into bedlam. Apparently bad weather in the northern half of the States had caused mass cancellations from coast to coast. In addition to people arriving for scheduled Saturday flights home after the holidays (this was January 3rd), weary folks who were the victims of cancelled flights the day before stood in long lines to check in, hopefully, for some flight to somewhere.

Even the elite lines were swelling with people, and AA staff seemed thin to deal with all this. Our flight was at 12:15 PM, which gave us a three hour window, so I didn't mind waiting.

Good thing, as there was no other choice to get boarding passes. I had tried and failed to check in from Mo'orea. AA had cross-referenced our domestic itinerary with the international one (Air Tahiti Nui being a sort of AA partner), and AA.com would not allow me to check in for the domestic flights on an international itinerary.

The self-service check-in machines at LAX all had longer lines to reach them than the elite real-person check-in counters. We opted to wait for a real person; this consumed 47 minutes. Boarding passes in hand, I feared another interminable wait at security, but we were steered through the elite line and had nobody in front of us.

Last time I visited the LAX Admirals Club I don't recall it being so big. Maybe I just wasn't curious enough to wander around it all. We spent the intervening hours before boarding time in the Club, long enough for me to shower and change and for the kids to eat a light breakfast/lunch from the bar.

Our itinerary homebound to Raleigh was first a connection through Miami, which might seem an odd way to get to Raleigh. Miami has a great number of good connections via AA these days, however, and our flight was an international 777. Once again we had window and aisle seats, and the relatively new airplane had a better in-seat video system than the ones on Air Tahiti Nui. My kids were thankfully entertained for the four-plus hour flight.

I rarely fly coach on AA, so this was a good learning experience for me. I found it, well, almost enjoyable. We left on time, thanks to an efficient boarding regimen and despite being a much over-booked flight utilizing a large aircraft.

In-flight service was quick and universally cheerful, and beverages came around twice. I bought a very good in-flight sandwich off the cart which was frankly better than some of the first class meals I've been served in the past few years on American. Despite being tired from all the miles we had already flown since leaving the Moorea Pearl Resort the previous afternoon, I found the experience to be not merely tolerable but pleasant.

We arrived Miami dead on schedule. We had a small adventure letting my son, age ten, read the terminal map and lead us to our outbound flight's gate. He navigated perfectly through the vast and confusing AA terminal arms of MIA, and we even had time to stop for a Coke at an Admirals Club (over-crowded despite the late hour).

Our MIA/RDU flight boarded and left on time but somehow lost a few minutes en route. We still arrived close to schedule and covered the very long distance through the new Raleigh/Durham Airport terminal to the taxi stand in 20 minutes.

By midnight we were unlocking our front door, exactly 26 hours after leaving the Moorea Pearl Resort.

My wife and I had the same thought as we entered our house: if only our flights to Tahiti two weeks earlier on American and Air Tahiti Nui had worked so well!

Everyone knows it's a crap shoot when you set out for the airport, and sometimes you get lucky. This time we did. While half the country's airports were buried in ice, snow, and howling cold over the holidays, we'd been getting sunburned on Mo'orea. Unprecedented foul weather continued to pound the nation's air system just as we stepped back on U.S. soil, but we connected through southern-tier Los Angeles and Miami to get home and missed the misery. Like I said: lucky!

Footnote:

My business is management consulting, and our industry has collapsed since October. Like scores of colleagues, I am not working and don't know when I will be working again. Instead of flying every week, I am thus not traveling at all. I cannot predict when consulting will pick up again and take me back to the airport.

Since this blog is primarily driven by my firsthand business travel experiences, readers should therefore not be surprised in the coming weeks if my posts are less frequent and shorter than in the past. Nonetheless I will continue to write.

Godspeed to all who ARE flying this and every week!



5 Comments:

Anonymous Bruce Godfrey said...

i read your column and last week's colmn out load to my wife! We laughed ourselves silly as we had spent a week in Moorea at one of the resorts 11 years ago at one of the resorts in an overwater bungalow and had very similar experiences as you did at a very high cost over New Year. On the way back in a transit bus at LAX we spoke to a number of couples who had similar experiences and one who had visited a number of islands said that our resort was the best (I cannot remember which one it was). On my return I complained to my travel agent who said 'well no one goes back to Tahiti.
Since then I have been telling everyone I know NOT to go to Tahiti. Maui, where we spent two nights at the start of our honeymoon, is much much better.

1/16/2009 12:22 PM  
Anonymous Julia O'Connor said...

What a wonderful adventure for those of us who are armchair travelers. Yes, there are lots of us consultants sitting on the sidelines these days, but continue to write and get us prepared for the times when the wheels go up again. Julia

1/16/2009 12:54 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Bruce,

Thanks for the comment, which made me laugh in return. The rumor is that 50% of vacationers to Tahiti are honeymooners. If so, maybe that's why I've never read anything negative about Polynesia. After all, one would think couples on their honeymoon would not find much wrong with such a resort, that is, unless the beds were uncomfortable!

1/16/2009 3:30 PM  
Blogger William A. Allen III said...

Julia,

Thanks for the encouragement, and here's hoping we're both back at work again soon!

Good weekend,

Will

1/16/2009 3:32 PM  
Anonymous Bruce Godfrey said...

Will,
We treated it as a matter of survival. At 100F and 100% humidity we stayed in the cabin during the day (in the water most of the time) ate in the coffee shop and at night (to limit the outgoings on food). At night we had to decide weather to leave the windows open (no sealed screens) and breathe and face the geckos, or close them and have no geckos but stifle in the heat! There was no air conditioning in the cabin (and hardly anywhere else either). After an hour on the first night when a gecko jumped on the bed and my wife screamed, we suffered with the heat and no geckos!
As for the 'ambience' from the personnel, we described it as a mixture of 'tropical indolence and the gallic shrug'.
We have horrified many people with our descriptions of the 'reality' of visiting Tahiti - and certainly anyone who isn't French shouldn't even think about it!

1/16/2009 5:52 PM  

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