Updated: Jun 27, 2019
Written by Dillon Shah. Special thanks to Célian Génier for performing the interview.
(PARIS, France; June 18) Air Tahiti Nui is the largest airline out of three in the small Island region of French Polynesia. While the airline isn’t very well-known worldwide, its operations are quite interesting. As a result of Tahiti and the rest of French Polynesia’s relationship with mainland France, operations to Paris are of course necessary. However, the range of the current generation of jets has not allowed for direct flights, thus creating the need for one-stop operations, with the primary choice being via Los Angeles.
Air Tahiti Nui is very small compared to its foreign competitors. However, the carrier knows its region well, and has been able to expand slowly but surely, with alliances, investing in new aircraft and more importantly, focusing on the needs of passengers.
To learn more, AeroNewsX spoke to Air Tahiti Nui Chief Executive Officer (CEO), Michel Monvoisin.
From Aging A340 To Blockbuster 787
What is undeniably a loss to both Airbus and the aviation community, Air Tahiti Nui is retiring its Airbus A340s. In turn, the airline has been slowly introducing the Boeing 787-9 into its fleet, of which it currently has 2 in service, with the third one being displayed at the Paris Air Show at the time of interview prior to departure back to Seattle and then to Papeete, Tahiti.
The fleet of Airbus A340s are scheduled to leave during the third quarter of 2019. While this may be sad for many, passenger comfort, flight times and efficiency for Air Tahiti Nui will all be improved, thanks to the introduction of the Boeing 787-9.
“As you know we fly the Papeete to Los Angeles then Los Angeles to Paris. […] LA-Paris and then Papeete to LA, so it’s about 25% lower [fuel usage], the consumption [of fuel is therefore] down. It’s something incredible for us.” The CEO continued, “On the Papeete to Paris [route], this aircraft, flies around 1 hour less. We’re winning one hour!”
That’s not all, however. Throughout the interview, the CEO was keen to talk about the very positive reaction towards the brand new Boeing 787-9 fleet. Monvoisin noted that there were many improvements in comparison to the Airbus A340. We asked him what the best thing was about the 787: “Passenger comfort for sure, low pressure, air conditioning. When you are flying on very long haul flights, comfort is mandatory. So you see, that’s why we upgraded the seats, we added a new premium economy, it’s a real premium plus plus. Even the crew told us that the comfort, the low pressure is very helpful, they are less tired than when they are flying the A340."
Premium Economy – Brand New & Soaring
When Air Tahiti Nui integrated the first Boeing 787-9 into the fleet, it introduced a Premium Economy offering for the first time in its history. Michel Monvoisin said that they are ‘very happy’ with booking results, even comparing it to those of Business Class.
“The bookings are very good. It has the same profile as the business class, the booking. So it is doing very well. Tahiti is far, so it’s a huge hour long haul [in terms of flight time]. It is not a low cost destination by the way. So one thing is to pay the ticket, the other thing is to live there and accommodation. It is far, everything is imported so the cost of living there is high and it is not crowded, Tahiti, that’s why many tourists, especially from North America, they love Tahiti because compared to all the tourist destinations, we are not crowded. We have, I would say only, it’s around 200,000 tourists a year. That’s priceless because when people come, it’s authenticity, welcome, they find what they expect to find. It’s a quite eye-hand destination, so its same thing when they fly on a long haul or try long haul, they want comfort, they aren’t so happy to fly low cost, they want to fly with some comfort and that’s why the premium [economy] is doing well."
The CEO added that while the ticket price may be 30% more for Premium Economy, the product is much better.
Direct To Paris
Currently, Air Tahiti Nui operates one service to Europe, that being to mainland France. Paris is of course an important destination for Air Tahiti Nui as its home in Tahiti forms part of the French Polynesia, an overseas collectivity of France. However, the carrier is forced to operate with a one-stop flight, via Los Angeles.
When asked about a possible direct flight to Paris, removing the Los Angeles stopover, Mr Monvoisin explained: “[A] Paris to Papeete direct flight? It’ll be more than 18 hours, not with the aircraft [that we have right now] for sure. With the [A350, we asked] or 777X, but no, we are looking at what’s happening with Qantas and Singapore Airlines to be sure, if it’s not the aircraft. It’s not the range, it’s the passenger comfort. We know that for the Singapore, we know they don’t have any economy class on this very long haul flight [referring to the Singapore to Newark service with the A350-900ULR]. I know that Qantas is looking to fly from London, or Sydney to London, so I know they are studying how to rest [the crew] on the aircraft, work, half-work [for the crew]. For sure, it will be interesting, may be one day it will happen, but for the moment, for us, we are too small for that kind of experience. We prefer to look at the majors, what they are doing, and one day probably we will do it. But not with this aircraft. We spoke with Boeing about the direct flight with the -9, the Dreamliner, but the pax number – now we have 296 seats, but direct flight it will be, I don’t know, it will be 100 or 120 seats max, and I’m afraid it doesn’t make sense.”
However, Monvoisin affirmed that ‘direct flights are always better’ but did add that it is more expensive to run. He continued on to say that as a result of the high demand and a lot of capacity on the US to Europe transatlantic market, ‘it is better to go through North America’ when connecting as it is not only cheaper but more comfortable.
Air Tahiti Nui is facing one large problem. While its routes are doing extremely well, with the latest data showing the Los Angeles to Paris flights being on average about 90% full for the Christmas period last year (2018), there is no room to grow. Air Tahiti Nui has the opportunity to grow, thanks to no domestically-based competition. However, when asked about any potential orders for more aircraft, Monvoisin said it would not be possible for at least two to three years from now.
“For the moment no, because there is a lack of rooms in Tahiti, so we [are] waiting [for] some growth with the hotels’ capacity, but we hope that we could do it one day. But we are just waiting, [so] for the next two, three years, no.”
In the Oceanic region, a good relationship with Qantas is premium for the smaller carriers operating within the continent. Qantas’ power within the area is very significant and each of its moves including new routes, could influence the future of each of the smaller airlines operating nearby. Air Tahiti Nui, however, understand the problems it could face if it decides to compete with the flag carrier of Australia. Monvoisin noted that Qantas ‘is a very strong partner, we have a very strong alliance [with them], well a nice alliance, and Qantas is a strength, a very strong partner, for long, for nine months, and no question about that. [We are] very happy with the partnership.”
As mentioned above, Air Tahiti Nui has one major problem – a lack of rooms. This was the same response when asked about why the Papeete to Osaka route was cancelled. The CEO said it was already a ‘hard’ destination to operate to and on top of that, the lack of room availability in Tahiti forced the carrier to shut it down. When asked about a return to the service the CEO was adamant that a ‘lack of rooms’ continued to threaten any possible growth plans the airline has.
However, Monvoisin added that North America remains a very attractive market. Beginning with the cancellation of the New York service (which used to continue on to Sydney), he said: “40% of our tourism comes from North America. During the 2008, well after the crisis, tourism was going down and we were flying with very low load factors so we closed it. At the time, just after the crisis, some hotels, they closed their doors. So we need them to re-open the hotels. They’re re-opening but they need to be refurbished. So we are waiting for some growth of the hotels’ capacity. But anyway, we’ll have to re-open a route to North America, there is many options. New York is one, but there is not only New York, there is other options, so we will study all the options. But right now, no, for the moment. I think for the next two, three years, it will be very hard to open a new route because of the hotels’ capacity.”
In regards to new flights to Europe, the CEO confirmed there were no plans to expand its own network thanks to its existing extensive code-share agreements: “No. We have alliances, we connect through our partners, we have American Airlines, in Japan it is Japan Airlines, we have very nice alliances so no so we’re good.”
Elaborating on his point about the lack of rooms in Tahiti, Monvoisin added that there was in fact zero potential to grow at their home base – confirming it is a major issue for the carrier.
“Potential to grow in Tahiti? It’s around zero for the moment. We had a 30% [growth] last year during the IATA season, we had the growth of 30%, imagine the 30% growth in one year in Montreal [referring to our editors’ nearest home airport], can you imagine that, with the new airlines, with the hotel rooms decreasing – so no, there is no capacity. One thing is to bring people, the other thing is if you are going to accommodate it. No, there is no capacity in Tahiti, there is no potential.”
The Solution To The Hotel Capacity Problem
“We are trying to find people to invest [in building hotels]. Yeah I think a little bit [in terms of improvement over the past few years] because the hotels they are adding new rooms. I know that everyone is working hard on it, the government is trying to attract investors, especially, well it’s a pity we don’t have so many French investors, we have locals, American companies, Chinese investing in hotels, but no French, that’s a pity. It’s a pity because they will have strong help, because if you invest and you build a hotel in Tahiti, you will have strong help from the local government, the French government, with the tax benefit [due to the relationship between French Polynesia and mainland France].”
It’s worth noting that at its home in French Polynesia, Air Tahiti Nui has no direct competition from domestically-based airlines. However, the airline is facing intense pressure from its rivals in North America and worldwide, such as United and Air New Zealand.
The CEO said, that the main thing that differentiates Air Tahiti Nui from its competition is its knowledge on its home country. “Well we are the national carrier, we know our country, and we have the frequency. Through LA we flying twice a day, to Paris once a day, during the peak season, so we have the frequency. And we are home, that’s the main difference.”
However, the CEO revealed exclusively that Air Tahiti Nui is potentially in talks to operate more regional flights, which, he noted, is flights as long as about 5 hours due to Tahiti’s geographical location: “For the moment we are in the middle of the transition, that’s the big goal, transition is the big goal, in the future we will probably look at regional flights. May be regional flights with smaller aircraft. Regional for us is five hours, so a regional flight is a five hour flight.”
Note: Air Tahiti ordered 2 ATR 42-600 STOL aircraft, however the aircraft cannot fly distances above maximum 3 hours. Air Tahiti and Air Tahiti Nui are not the same.
Air Tahiti Nui is doing well – with the transition from the A340 to the Boeing 787 nearing completion, things are looking good. Finally, as the government and investors alike begin to solve the problem with the lack of available accommodation, Air Tahiti Nui is prepared to expand and bring Tahiti, closer to the world.
Written by Dillon Shah. AeroNewsX would like to thank AeroNewsX Photographer Célian Génier for performing the interview and of course Michel Monvoisin, CEO of Air Tahiti Nui and the team at the airline for making this possible.