An Underwhelming Air France Experience to Tahiti (Trip Report)

Air France, Trip Reports

Hope you all enjoyed the guest posts, but now it’s time for me to get back to work. We had a fantastic time in French Polynesia, and it’s going to take me a little time to get back into the swing of things. I thought I’d ease myself back in with a trip report, starting with Air France from LA to Papeete, Tahiti. Later this week, I’ll have the more fun stuff – Air Tahiti around the islands along with some of the most relaxing hotels on earth.

Last October, I asked you all whether we should fly Air France or Air Tahiti Nui down. Air France won out, and that’s what we did thanks to a slightly lower business class fare ($2825.41 per person) and a better schedule. This was the first time I’ve ever paid for a business class ticket outright, so my expectations may have been higher than normal, but it just wasn’t up to snuff.

Our flight out was at 1030p, so we decided to get there at 830p so we’d have a little time in the lounge beforehand. There was no line to check in at that time, but Terminal 2 at LAX still doesn’t have inline baggage screening. So we had to lug our bags over to the machine and drop them off. Though the TSA said we could leave, there was a huge pile of bags and we didn’t trust them. We waited.

Flight crews kept dropping their bags off and then more people on other flights came as well and had to Air France LAX Terminal 2 Loungewait in a long line to even drop their bags off. It took us 20 minutes before we saw our bag go through the machine, and only then did we make our way through a short but slow security line on our way to the lounge.

The lounge is currently the Northwest lounge, but Northwest should be heading for greener pastures (Delta’s terminal) in June. I assume Air France/KLM will become the primary tenant, and I hope they’ll do some serious work on the place. One thing they can’t fix is that it’s too small. Our one flight with a couple stragglers from other Northwest flights basically filled the place up.

What they can fix is the awful state of the lounge. The rugs are threadbare, the seating and tables are old and scratched up, and the lighting is bad. We did have some wine to pass the time, but the enjoyment was dampened when I had to sit on a table to drink it.

As we finished our drinks, they called our flight for boarding, so we headed down and used the premium cabin boarding line. The agent apparently decided we weren’t premium enough and tried to push us out of the way to allow first class passengers ahead of us. Ok.

April 10, 2009
Air France #674 Lv Los Angeles (LAX) 1030p Arr Papeete (PPT) 350a
LAX: Gate 27, Runway 24L, Dept On Time
PPT: Gate ??, Runway 22, Arr 9m Early
Aircraft: F-GSPG, Boeing 777-228ER, Standard White Colors, Mostly Full
Seat: 5L
Flight Time: 7h54m

Once onboard, we found our seats on the right side of the plane and settled in for the flight. (The picture at right is of the seat on the return flight, but you get the idea.) Air France Affaires SeatWe weren’t really greeted by anyone until about 20 minutes into boarding when flight attendants came around with champagne and juice for anyone who was interested. Soon enough it was time to push back and take off. After we left the California coast, we wouldn’t see land again until we reached Tahiti.

Once in the air, my wife, Kirsten, and I had another drink, so we had a bit of a nice buzz going as we played with the entertainment system. It wasn’t particularly easy to navigate. Yes, it had movies, music, etc, but getting around them was somewhat clunky. And it’s not organized very well. For example, something in “latest” movies that was a comedy couldn’t also be found under “comedy,” so it required some hunting and pecking, even though the selection was fairly limited.

As I got into my movie (The Wrestler – great flick), dinner was served. I wasn’t very hungry, but since it was dinner time in Tahiti, I decided to at least have something. The foie gras appetizer was ok, and the beef was actually pretty good. Kirsten, however, had that night’s special which was lamb, and I thought that was really good. Still, since I wasn’t hungry, I didn’t really pay too much attention to the food. Kirsten, on the other hand, paid close attention and didn’t think it was very good.

After the meal, I tried to sleep, but that wasn’t going to happen. This was my first time in an angled lie-flat seat and I just couldn’t sleep in it. I kept sliding down in my pants, and the amount of weight that ended up being put on my feet into the footrest prevented me from getting comfortable. It just didn’t feel flat to me. I put the bed back into a cradle-style position and had slightly more success, sleeping on and off for a couple hours.

About an hour and a half out, they woke us all up for breakfast. Now, I understand airlines feel the need to bracket you on both ends with food, but breakfast at midnight Tahitian time (same as Hawai’i time – 3 hours behind LA) made very little sense. Still I was actually feeling hungry at this point, so I had some – it was just a croissant with some fruit.

Around 3a, we started our descent into the black night. This was probably the worst possible flight for sightseeing on the ground and the descent was no different. It was only about 2 minutes before landing that I saw my first light on land, and we touched down at 345a into an airport that was just waking up.

After getting our bags, we entered into the worst part of the trip – the wait for our next flight. We had about 2 hours in a hot, humid, still airport before our 6a trip out to another island and we had nothing to do but wait. I’ll have more on the interisland flights in a later report, but let’s skip ahead to the return on Air France two weeks later.

We were told to get to the airport around 2 hours before Air France Check In Line at Papeetedeparture, but we thought about not taking that warning too seriously. I’m really glad we did, because it was a complete mess over there.

It took 20 minutes to return the car we had rented for a day, and then it was another 30 minutes in the premium check-in line before we reached an agent to check Kirsten’s bag. (As usual, I only carried on, even for a two week trip.) The economy line was much worse (at left) and there were a lot of angry people around as the line barely moved.

Once checked in, we went to the lounge which is shared by all carriers at the airport. This one was much nicer than the one in LA with big comfy chairs and plenty of room. (It was recently expanded.) I took this shot out the window with Moorea in the background. Yes, it was hard to leave this place.

Early Morning Light on Air France 777 at Papeete

Soon they called boarding, so we went downstairs to find the absurdly numbered gate 61. There are basically five or six doors in a holdroom and for some reason they decided they needed a gate 61. It’s not fooling anyone into thinking this is a big airport.

April 25, 2009
Air France #673 Lv Papeete (PPT) 730a Arr Los Angeles (LAX) 645p
PPT: Gate 61, Runway 4, Dept 24m Late
LAX: Gate 26, Runway 24R, Arr 1m Early
Aircraft: F-GSPK, Boeing 777-228ER, Standard White Colors, Mostly Full
Seat: 4A
Flight Time: 7h35m

I took the window seat and immediately found that the tray wouldn’t close properly into the armrest. I told the flight attendant so that he would write it up for when we arrived, but a mechanic came Broken Air France Tray Tableonboard to look while we were there. Though Air Tahiti Nui will be handling the maintenance for Air France’s 777s in Papeete, they still haven’t gotten the official sign-off on it, so Air France has an LAX-based tech down there for awhile.

So he came on and knew the problem right away. He dug in and pulled out a dirty fork, knife, and spoon and said it happens all the time. Nasty. It still wouldn’t close, however, but at least it wasn’t sticking out as far. I felt bad thinking I was holding up the plane to fix the tray, but they assured me that wasn’t the case. They were still waiting for nine passengers to show up – they were stuck in that horrible line at the ticket counter. They said this was pretty normal.

We finally got in the air and headed north. It was a nice morning, but apparently Air France thought it was time to serve lunch. So we had a full lunch service, and I had the lamb this time which was pretty good. I had a little morning scotch (why not?) and settled in for a day of watching movies.

Kirsten also wanted to watch movies, but her headphones weren’t working right (the noise-canceling feature was cutting in and out). The design Air France uses for their seat has the headphones built in to it so you can’t swap them out. Instead, they brought a coach headset forward to plug into an extra jack that’s in each seat. At least they were very apologetic, but it was an inferior headset.

After the meal, the flight attendants basically disappeared into the galley and didn’t Moderate Turbulencecheck on us much at all for the bulk of the flight. To be fair, about halfway through, we plowed into some nasty turbulence that didn’t let up for probably about an hour. (Thank you, for your mapping goodness.)

This was some pretty rough stuff that would probably be categorized as moderate turbulence, if not a little worse for brief periods. So for quite awhile, the crew couldn’t get up. But even when that was done, I still had to get up to ask for a drink refill. (After turbulence like that, I needed another drink. I am somewhat of an anxious flier, believe it or not.)

We did see them again when they served a light meal a couple hours out of LA. And when they finished, they even tried to take my half-full glass of scotch for some unknown reason. I wasn’t having any of that.

Toward the end, one of the flight attendants did come around and personally asked how everyone was doing – just some small talk that was a nice gesture. They also handed out a survey to a select few which I filled out just as we were crossing the coast. We came in from the south and then landed on the north runways.

It was easy to get through immigration but the customs lines were incredibly long and there were a lot of tired and angry faces patiently waiting to get out of there after long flights. About 20 minutes later, we were on our way home.

I’ll have the rest of the trip ready for you soon.

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31 comments on “An Underwhelming Air France Experience to Tahiti (Trip Report)

  1. PPT is a neat airport, and you can’t beat the setting — though I had the same experience with that monster line as you did. (we were flying Air Tahiti Nui economy, which was fine.)

  2. Welcome back, o bronzed (or is it Crimson?) Cranky!

    I don’t remember much of the ground service at Tahiti. We had a 747 for my trip on AF and enjoyed the attendants changing in to Polynesian outfits in both directions.

    Glad you had a good time but dude! Anxious flyer? YOU? Say it ain’t so! :-)

  3. Optimist – Yeah, the crew changing into the Polynesian outfits was a nice touch, though it actually did block the lavs at the beginning and end of the flight while they did it. I spent about 10 minutes waiting for someone to come out of the lav on the way down thinking that it was going to be a disaster in there, but it was just a flight attendant changing.

    And yes, sad but true that I get anxious. I know it’s not rational, but it’s just the way it is. It’s funny how it works, because dodging around the storms on a turboprop didn’t make me anxious at all down there. Go figure. Just something I have to live with.

  4. CF, Welcome back. You were missed.

    Loved your trip report. The situation sounded so much like the normal state of affairs with air travel these days.

    I guess it’s all perspective. Back when, flying on a DC-3, or a Martin 404 seemed so wonderful, Actually, it wasn’t all that great and that bag in the seat pocket really did get a lot of use. But, service was great, even on a hop from Washington-National to Elkins, WVA.

    Given the marvelous strides we have made in technology, surely we can improve the air travel experience from a service perspective or, maybe not. Very, very sad!

  5. was just thinking over the weekend how the plane ride used to be part of the overall excitement about going on a trip. As soon as you walked into the airport your travel experience would begin and you enjoyed everything about it. It was fun and exciting no matter how long the trip would be or where you were going.

    Now the last thing I want to do if fly somewhere. There is nothing fun or exciting about the journey. I now wish I could snap my fingers and “Bewitched” myself to where I want to be. On short flights you really never expected much in service, but the flight attendants were always nice. Now a days that is not so and even on a long international journey they act like you interrupted their day by coming on board. Which means instead of getting a one or two hour bad experience, you now have 12 hours +/- of a bad experience. I think American and European airlines stopped teaching how to be nice to cabin staff. I may hate my job, but I keep that inside and still do the best job I’m being paid to do. In the airline industry that doesn’t seem to be the case.

    Can’t wait to hear about the rest of the trip. Where’s the pictures of you laying on the beach being a bum for two weeks.

  6. Anxious flyer on a 777? I’ll admit that a little turbulence on a narrow body does make me grip the arm rests a little tighter but never on a big widebody.

    So what was the price for standard coach tickets? Do you think the price premium was worth it? $2800 seems like an awful expensive ticket, then again, I’ve never flown to Tahiti.

  7. Thanks, Cranky! I always love living vicariously through you via your trip reports. My last vacation was about 4 months ago, but I’m already in dire need of another. These reports are going to hold me over until my next trip, I’m sure.

    Also, you’re in good company in your status as a nervous flyer. I still white-knuckle it occasionally, especially over the North Atlantic, where it seems as though there’s a permanent ridge of unpleasantness between Greenland and the British coast.

    Can’t wait to see the pictures of the islands in your upcoming posts. Welcome home!

  8. David – As much as the flights down failed to meet expectations, the flying within Tahiti was a dream. If you need to be turned back on to the romance of travel, that’s the way to do it. Lots of low and slow flying with beautiful views. No security at all at any airport outside of Papeete either. It was fantastic.

    A – It’s a good question. The price for coach was over $1000 each, so the spread between coach and business was far less than the spread you’d find over the north atlantic, for instance. Personally, I don’t think it was worth it looking back, but my wife really wanted it. Heck, it was our honeymoon – it was worth it just for that.

  9. Welcome back, Cranky. Yes – PPT terminal can be very chaotic. As for choosing Air France over Air Tahiti Nui, I thought to myself “say it ain’t so!” Oh well. For your 10th anniversary trip, you and the Mrs. can try TN. I’m sure you’ll want to go back someday!

  10. T2 at LAX is dreadful for so many reasons; Low square-footage, drab florescent 80’s styling, meager food/drinks options. It’s a shame that such cool outfits as Virgin Atlantic (is there any talk of them joining their “V” brethren in T3?), Hawaiian and Air New Zealand use this dump. This and T6 need to be imploded and completely re-built.

  11. ShaneLAX – It’s funny because the structure of T2 is one of the newer ones – it was rebuilt completely in the mid-1980s. But yeah, it’s pretty overcrowded these days. With Northwest leaving, it will give them some good opportunity to make it function much better. I haven’t heard anything about Virgin Atlantic thinking about leaving, mostly because there is no customs/immigration facility in T3 so it’s not ideal for them.

  12. Cranky,

    It’s funny you say you needed a drink to cure the anxiety. I fly all the time and still get anxious in moderate turbulence. How was the lamb, by the way? Do you know what they served in first?

  13. Hmm, I’m curious what routing does the 777 take? CDG->LAX->PPT->LAX->CDG? I’d figure that’d be legit by the Government since its France->US->French Territory->US->France..

  14. Eric – I actually don’t usually drink when I fly, but I just felt like it this time for some reason. It did certainly help.

    Nicholas – Yes, it goes from CDG through LAX to PPT but it actually changes flight numbers. For example, the CDG-LAX flight is 74 but the flight to PPT is 674 so they may not have through rights on that. I assume that flying to French Polynesia falls under the same rules as flying to France – so does it fall under EU open skies?

  15. Great trip report CF and welcome back. I look forward to the inter-island reports. My appetite for visiting Tahiti has already been whetted! Sorry to hear that the AF biz experience wasn’t up to much. Re the food, I wonder if AF mandate that every menu must contain pate de fois gras? The only time I have flown AF, MXP-CDG in biz, they served it for lunch, followed rather oddly by a pasta salad. You would think that a country renowned for its cuisine would be a little more imaginative. BTW, I too share your turbulence fear. Totally irrational I know, but can’t help getting a little tense.

  16. Ahh, Papeete. I’ll never forget the wall of warm, still, humid, morning air that washed over me as I stepped out the door after a long, dry, overnight flight from KLAX. (I was enroute to NCRG with a stopover in NTAA.) My first trip there was in coach, and it was an entirely unsatisfying flying experience. I spent the whole first day of my vacation trying to recover from the miserable, sleepless flight. On my next trip I sprang for an Air New Zealand business class seat and it was worth every last penny. I slept comfortably on the plane and arrived completely refreshed and ready to relax, as it were. I’d never spent money on a business class seat before, but for a long flight when I was spending a lot of money on a vacation anyway, it was *completely* worth it.

    I’m an anxious passenger, too. Private pilot. Love, love, love airplanes and aviation. But anxious sitting in the back, just the same. I can’t explain it, either. My gut just tells me it is so, and I’m powerless to disagree. :-)

  17. Welcome back! Very nice trip report! AF only really ups the service on its flights into CDG!

    Anyway, you were missed! Im still fuming from the awfully biased VX article a couple of weeks ago on here, by a guest writer!

  18. Daren S – Very possible re the foie gras. We had it as an option on both our flights.

    fdesmet – I can only wish that Air New Zealand still flew LAX to Papeete. That would have been my first choice by far.

    Jordan – I was talking to a friend about this yesterday. Was the service noticeably different than on Paris flights? I wonder if since it’s a Papeete-based crew, there’s a different vibe onboard. I’ll have to compare if I ever get the chance to fly them to Paris, but I’m not sure how likely that is.

  19. My primary memory of PPT was the lines at the front counter at midnight to get out of there. I was flying Lan Chile in coach to go to Easter Island as we had hundreds of other people flying out to CDG via LAX. I did love the Bora Bora airport. It was small, quaint, and since it was located on an island on the coral atoll, one got to take a free boat to the central part of the island. It did help to have only one or two ATR-72’s coming or going at any given time, so there was never a crowd, and one could kick back with a lovely view of the island. I don’t even remember there being a security screening at Bora Bora, how many places do people get to skip that nightmare these days?

  20. That’s a good point Cranky and I wonder why AF doesn’t show a through flight CDG-PPT. Seems only Air Tahiti Nui(TN) does TN7/TN8 with a LAX stop in each direction.

    Here you go Cranky, now you need to use your contacts to find out why they don’t. :-)

  21. I did a little checking on Orbitz where AF to AF was not an option while the online AF connection was displayed on the AF website, including the change in flight number.

    I’m curious about the change in flight number. When I flew the trip it was the same designator from CDG all the way thru to PPT. Also, on that one major AF experience I had no problem with the food, crew or service. The French being perpetually picky about services rendered, I can’t imagine them accepting of offering anything less than “national standard” on any AF flight, especially an overseas trip.

    Based on the earlier postings it would appear that times in that regard have indeed changed.

  22. One think I have noticed on this blog is the division in the traveling public between the ‘old school’ camp who are nostalgic for the expensive and attentive days of old and the ‘access’ camp who are all about cheap flights getting from A to B regardless of surly service and creature comforts of any kind.
    The interesting thing about this post is even if you pay for premium service and product, there’s no guarantee of receiving it. As much as airlines brand themselves in a certain way, cabin experience is as much about good people with good attitudes, both passengers and crew, as it is about ‘product’ (seat design, entertainment etc.) And I’m inclined to think it has always been this way both in the rose colored past and present.

  23. Mark –

    Definitely old school here and proud of it, though I agree that even in the “good ol’ days” at least one fire-breathing flight attendant made it through the ranks. Only question is whether or not he or she had union and other legal resources to keep her job as long as the ones today do.

    Using Zsa Zsa Gabor as an example I bet surely that back when flying was for the rich and famous people with her attitude towards service workers hardly made it much of a picnic for flight crews then, either.

    Me? Very much low-maintenance. I don’t pitch a *itch if the bun is served cold, the steak not to my liking or the lav less than immaculate. I’m grateful for a safe and ontime flight in coach, happy with an upgrade to Business or Domestic First and over-the-moon for an International First Class seat. Again, same requirements as coach…get me there safe and on time and I really don’t groan about the food, lack of it or the choice of movies.

  24. Not one to say “I told ya so”, but..I did.

    I have never had anything above grudgingly service on AF. From the gate to the plane to the inflight experience, it has always been bad. I can no longer non rev on them, but if I had to pay, I’d go with someone else. I was on AF once when a guy next to me had an emergency, his wife threw up, then passed out. He hit the FA ring button, at least 20 times. It took about 10 minutes for an attendant to show up (long after service was over). When she got there, she was very rude. Thankfully, the man’s wife came to and was ok. He then proceeded to complain loudly at the FA, followed by a hearty round of applause from his seat mates.

  25. Thanks for the write-up, Cranky! I am looking forward to the inter-island journal, especially after this dismal report. I have never flown AF, though after reading this description of the pitiful service (in biz at that!) I am not sure when I ever will.

  26. Thanks for the report..I feel like i was listening to myself.Especially that I travel so much and am anxious ( especially around turbulence) Dont you hate when they dont let the attendants get up?..

  27. BTW I have a ton of Singapore points and starwood.Just booked for my wife and I JFK to Frankfurt first class ( their hub there) and figured i would decide later this mont where to go..Italy again ,Portugal etc…Now you got me going to St Regis out where you were :)
    How many connections and how difficult to get there.Pretty sure Singapore air can get me close

  28. Nathan – If you’re in JFK, it is just about impossible to use your points to go to PPT. For Star Alliance, you would have to go through Auckland and then come back up on Air New Zealand. So you’re looking at United JFK-LAX/SFO and then Air NZ LAX/SFO – Auckland, and then Air NZ Auckland – Papeete.

  29. wow..thats a big commitment in time as well .Thanks.If i went through New Zealand i’d probably just want to make that my destination .Thanks

  30. I have taken the air flight from LAX to Tahiti 2 times now. The flight attendants changing into their tahitian dress is the best part of the flight. For French airlines you would expect the food to be GREAT…but it is mediocre. The French NO CUSTOMER SERVICE is the worst! No room for French attitude when there is many other choices for American tourists. Pride comes before fall!

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