Interview: Air Tahiti Nui, 25 Years of Connecting French Polynesia to the World

Interview: Air Tahiti Nui, 25 Years of Connecting French Polynesia to the World

Dallas – 2023 represents the 25th year of operations for Air Tahiti Nui (TN), an airline known for connecting tourists from around the world to the tropical and cultural wonders of French Polynesia, a set of islands in the South Pacific made famous by the colorful works of artist Paul Gauguin.

Historically, TN has experienced opportunities from North American expansion to enhanced codeshare partnerships along with challenges including the COVID-19 pandemic and a lack of hotel room capacity in the islands as the French overseas collectivity becomes a more desirable tourist destination bolstered by the rise of social media.

Airways exclusively interviewed TN Chairman and CEO Michel Monvoisin along with Managing Director and COO Mathieu Bechonnet to learn how the airline employs a fleet of four Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners to provide passengers a robust inflight experience channeling the values of Mana, a Polynesian cultural force reflecting the welcoming nature of the islanders, while bolstering the French Polynesian economy.

Brent Foster: To what extent does the passenger experience at Air Tahiti Nui, both on the ground and onboard the aircraft, reflect French Polynesia as a destination?

Michel Monvoisin (MM): “It’s been 25 years since we launched the airline, our 25th anniversary is this year, and since the beginning, our customer experience has been something very important for us. We want our passengers, as soon as they step aboard, to feel the aura of French Polynesia like they’re already on their vacation.”

An Air Tahiti Nui flight attendant stands at the door of one of the airline’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

What are the greatest advantages of the Boeing 787 Dreamliner fleet for Air Tahiti Nui?

MM: “We are very happy with this aircraft. As you know, in our business, today the Dreamliner is a very modern aircraft. Regarding sustainability, moving from the A340, which was quite an old aircraft, to the Dreamliner, caused our carbon footprint to decrease between 25% and 30%, which is very important now for both the airline, Air Tahiti Nui, and French Polynesia, which are quite remote islands. Sustainability is also in the DNA of French Polynesia, islands in the Pacific are the first to be suffering from climate change, especially some islands not in French Polynesia but in other small countries. So sustainability is very important.

Beyond the Dreamliner, we are doing a lot onboard, trying to eliminate all of the plastics. The airline is now only buying electric cars for the staff. We are working very closely with many foundations and associations for sea preservation and nature preservation. Sustainability is very important for us.

We are an airline for sure but our main owner is the country, and for the country, it is very important. We are trying to compensate for the carbon footprint and we are working closely with the International Air Transport Association (IATA), having big discussions around deforestation. We think there are many things to do. I want to start a discussion with IATA around the lagoons and the corals because corals are also absorbing carbon. We can do a lot of things around the ocean and forests.”

An Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner registered as F-OTOA and named after Tetiaroa. Photo: Tony Bordelais / Airways

Does the current size of the Boeing 787 fleet fulfill the needs of Air Tahiti Nui or does the airline foresee increased demand requiring the addition of new aircraft?

MM: “Well, the airline depends on the hospitality industry. Right now, after COVID-19, Tahiti is booming, and French Polynesia is booming, especially in the North American market. The issue is that the hospitality, unfortunately, is not there. There are many projects, but we need to build more hotel rooms, Airbnbs, and what we call small family hotels. We need to increase the capacity of every kind of room.

Right now, we’re having around 225,000 tourists a year, the next target will be around 300,000 tourists per year. It will be around one tourist per inhabitant. The population in French Polynesia is around 280,000, so the next step should be 300,000 but we’ll see as we’re trying to build rooms. Then, at Air Tahiti Nui, we are not increasing the fleet size right now but the first step will be to increase the hotel capacity.

Due to the strong demand for French Polynesia, we had a lot of competitors coming. When we ordered the Dreamliners, it was in 2016 and the first one arrived in 2018. When we ordered them, just Air France and Air Tahiti Nui were flying to French Polynesia from Europe and the U.S. Then came French Bee, United Airlines, and now Delta Air Lines. So there is an overcapacity for the available seat kilometers (ASK). The biggest issue is that the ASK is not linked to hospitality capacity, this is the main issue right now.”

An Air Tahiti Nui crew stands outside a Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner registered as F-OVAA and named after Bora Bora on the ground in Papeete. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

Given the presence of multiple airlines from Air France to United Airlines and French Bee in the French Polynesian market, how does Air Tahiti Nui maintain a competitive edge?

MM: “First of all, we’re the national carrier, it’s our own. So, for people who want to discover French Polynesia, we are very helpful for that as our crew is 100% Polynesian. We have very nice feedback from the passengers because Tahitian people are naturally friendly and they speak about their country. So when passengers are onboard, it’s the first step in their trip. Tahiti is our home, it’s in our DNA.

When you are flying the other airlines, they are good airlines, but they are international carriers and we as the carrier of French Polynesia know our country well. I think this makes a difference. Our aircraft are designed for Tahiti.

When you step onboard, you have pictures of Bora Bora and others from Paul Gauguin. On the inflight entertainment system (IFE), we have various small movies showcasing the main islands of French Polynesia, not only Tahiti and Bora Bora, because there are 118 islands and many castaway islands, not all of which are inhabited. We have five archipelagos. The Tuamotu Islands for diving are very good, they have what is perhaps the best scuba diving worldwide where you will swim with dolphins, sharks, and rays. Then you have the Marquesas Islands, which constitute a very different experience for those who want to experience the wilderness and trekking. We know that and we are promoting that on the airline.

I want to start a discussion with IATA around the lagoons and the corals because corals are also absorbing carbon.

Michel Monvoisin

We are really loyal to our partners in the U.S. We have been working with our main tour operators for around 25 years. They are loyal to us and we are very loyal to them. They know that we are here. Their eyes are trained to airlines coming and leaving because it is not the first time we have had many airlines coming to Tahiti. The trend with airlines coming is that if the business is good they stay. If the business is not good, they leave but we are the national carrier so we stay.

We were founded 25 years ago, we are still there and we will still be there. During the COVID-19 pandemic, we took care of passengers even if many flights were canceled. We never left any passengers. We took care of them and helped them to fly back home in any case.”

An Air Tahiti Nui stands inside one of the airline’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners with a reproduction of a Paul Gauguin portrait in the background. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

Based on demand, does Air Tahiti Nui see room for expansion in East Asia beyond Tokyo Narita International Airport (NRT)? Or in Oceania beyond Auckland Airport (AKL)?

MM: “First, we’re going to resume our flights from Narita because Japan is our main hub for Asia. From Narita, we connect to Korea, China, and many other Asian countries with our partners. We have some nice codeshares. Our only plan right now is just resuming Japan service then we will see but if we cannot find rooms for visitors from the U.S. and Europe, it is the same for visitors from Asia.

Asian visitors are not acting like visitors from the U.S. as they are booking their trips very late and close to their date of travel but we are working very closely with the distribution and our partners in Japan.

We are quite confident about the flight resumption. It is one of our oldest flights that we started 25 years ago when Air France decided to close the route because formerly Air France was operating Narita to Tahiti and they decided to close the route and then we went.

As you know, Asia was closed for a long time so they are just starting to reopen. The Japanese started to fly again just for business but not so much for leisure. It is quite small but now it means that they are returning also for leisure. So for October, we are working on the reopening.”

An Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner registered as F-OMUA and named after Fakarava approaches Los Angeles International Airport (LAX). Photo: Tony Bordelais / Airways

How is the new route to Seattle Tacoma International Airport (SEA) significant for Air Tahiti Nui and its North American expansion?

MM: “For the moment, we are just trying to be successful with Seattle. We started just operating Papeete to Seattle, then we decided to open Seattle to Paris. So, that’s a big deal. We have a very strong partnership with our friends from Alaska Airlines. Alaska Airlines is very supportive of Air Tahiti Nui. We also have a strong partnership with American Airlines, so with the Oneworld family.

We are successful in the transatlantic sector between Los Angeles and Paris so we are hopeful that it should be the same from Seattle to Paris. For the moment, there are no plans for further North American routes, we need to link ourselves very closely to the hospitality industry and the cruise industry but we have some great expectations from cruise companies. Tahiti is also booming with cruise ships.

Mathieu, our general manager, is returning from Seatrade in Miami. Before COVID-19, we had around 800 to 1,000 port calls per year, now it seems that in the next year, it will grow very strongly, maybe to 1,500 or something like that. Tahiti is water and French Polynesia is water, it’s 118 islands and almost 70 islands can be visited by small ships, not the huge ones, and French Polynesia is also very safe for cruising.”

A family is welcomed aboard one of Air Tahiti Nui’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

Brent Foster: What role does Air Tahiti Nui play in marketing itself along with French Polynesia as a destination?

Mathieu Bechonnet (MB): “Yes, we are very well embedded into the marketing of the destination. Actually, the airline was basically born out of that importance. It goes back to 20 years ago when I joined and the president of the country was realizing the source of income from Polynesian tourism but seeing airlines going back and forth. Such a destination could not afford to have inconsistent airline service. Hence, came the creation of this airline, and since then we have been very active with the Tahiti Tourist Board in many markets around the world.

We might be the only airline that puts some hard dollars really into some specific destination campaigns. When you see Seattle, which was launched recently, we were highly involved in marketing the destination. For many campaigns, we build billboards at the airport and so on. That is something very special that we do as a destination airline. We are the ambassador of French Polynesia.

If you look at the livery of the aircraft, everything we do is basically done towards promoting Tahiti and its islands. Actually, our timeline is where the journey begins. What you may see on some billboards at LAX Airport saying ‘Air Tahiti Nui, where the journey begins,’ which is to say you will start to experience your vacation when you step onboard, contrary to other airlines. So even the product is the definition of the experience, the color inside and so on, that is really what we do specializing in French Polynesia.”

A colorful Moana Premium class cabin onboard one of Air Tahiti Nui’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

In which markets does Air Tahiti Nui see the greatest opportunities for tourism-related growth?

 MB: “I’ll be honest, we’ve seen an impressive demand for French Polynesia, even from the cruise business. When I was at the Seatrade conference in Miami, we had impressive demand from some big operators to include Norwegian Cruise Lines, Windstar, and others wanting to put some boats down here. I think it is mainly because the destination, after 2008, in terms of the passenger numbers from the U.S., especially from the West Coast, experienced a rebound.

Probably the very high demand for French Polynesia stems from the Hollywood people who come to very specific hotels in Bora Bora and put the desire for anyone to go out there because they subsequently see it on Instagram. The marketing for French Polynesia came at the same time when you had those strong pushes from social media where the stars were coming down here. This has constituted organic marketing that we have been serving on a lot as a destination and as an airline.

The demand is everywhere but the problem is the affordability. Clearly, now, we are entering into a kind of tourism that is not mass market, low price. So, the U.S. market, we see, and that is the reason we launched Seattle, is still, especially on the West Coast and anywhere around the U.S., a market where we have a strong U.S. dollar as opposed to the Euro. It is still a destination where the market has a strong potential to grow.

Asia, we will need to see. We are opening Japan later this year. It has been closed for so many years now, we are going to see with our partners, especially Japan Airlines, how that works out of Narita two times a week.

Our presence in Australia and New Zealand has been okay. This is a route for us that depends not only on tourists. We connect to Auckland and have a Qantas codeshare from Auckland to Sydney. Clearly, we see New Zealand has suffered a lot from the crisis, and their potential to rebound is not the same. We are seeing more passengers coming up to the U.S. on the Auckland to Los Angeles route, where we have interesting growth. We operate the route with a very short connecting transit stop in Tahiti.

The transatlantic sector has been very good for us as well. This is part of the reason as to why we are also expanding from Seattle to Paris this summer and we have just announced that is going to be a year-round operation from Tahiti to Seattle up to Paris. This comes in addition to our Los Angeles to Paris route. In about a month we will be opening our Seattle to Paris route and selling on the route as well.”

An Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner registered as F-ONUI and named after Tupaia. Photo: Michał Mendyk / Airways

How is the dearth of hotel rooms relative to travel demand in French Polynesia affecting the capabilities of Air Tahiti Nui to maintain passenger loads?

 MB: “Due to COVID-19, there have been some closures of hotels in Tahiti, Mo’orea, and Bora Bora, the main tourist islands. Not everything goes on at five-star and four-star hotels, we also have the Airbnbs. Clearly, we have seen the capacity on the hotel side go down by 10% at the minimum. At the same time, the after-COVID period for international air service has seen airlines like United Airlines going from three to five weekly flights, Delta Air Lines asking for three frequencies a week, and Air France getting two more going to five, so we’re seeing clearly an increase in air service of around 20%.

Clearly, you can tell that there has been a mismatch, which happens from time to time between the inbound capacity and the receptive capacities of the hotels and Airbnbs. The good thing is, being the main airline with around 50% of the market share in terms of the number of seats, we are seeing that we are still capturing our fair share of capacity, which shows that we are very resilient and we have been happy with the number so far.

Yields have not increased, which is something that is not great because inflation is everywhere, especially with fuel. We would have loved for yields to be higher for us. Clearly, right now, there are other problems to have than passing inflation which is to maintain our loads, which we have been doing. We’re pretty happy that we’ve been able to maintain our loads from around 75% to 77% and still maintain something like 80% of our 2019 baseline capacity. This year, we’ll be going higher.

Despite the fact that there are more airlines coming and serving Tahiti, we are coming back higher in terms of volume for 2023. Yields are not at the level we would love but at least we have the traffic and that’s a good sign that people are booking with us, which is probably a testament to our strategy to be the most dominant airline in terms of capacity. Whereas everyone else has three to five weekly frequencies, we have double daily frequencies to the U.S. and probably in the high season five to six weekly frequencies to Paris. We try to maintain our main presence as a carrier serving Tahiti. For a small airline like us, it’s important to be the number one player in our market.

I think that’s where small airlines like us after the pandemic have to play very strongly to compete with those big international airlines with hundreds and hundreds of aircraft that could probably dominate us in many markets. You have to compete with the capacity and the frequency, that is for sure.

For example, with the cruise business, where we are successful is in our provision of accessibility for large volumes of groups that usually are being carried by those big cruise companies. That’s where I think our strategy to be the number one in terms of frequency to and from Tahiti is still very important. The good thing, again, is that 2022 has shown that, and even right now when competition is fierce, we are maintaining our loads and capacity which is good.”

An Air Tahiti Nui Moana Economy class cabin onboard one of Air Tahiti Nui’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

How did Air Tahiti Nui cope with the travel decline associated with the COVID-19 pandemic? Were any of the airline’s Boeing 787 Dreamliners grounded?

MB: “We were kind of lucky, to be honest. France and Tahiti are linked, it’s French Polynesia, and we operated the longest domestic flight on earth, which was Tahiti to Paris on a direct service. After that, we transited through Vancouver because there was a need for capacity on medical evacuations, logistics, and freight between the island of Tahiti and France. Thus, we were able to maintain a certain level of activity that helped us to utilize around two aircraft at a normal regime.

We were far from what you may have seen at international airlines that were completely closed and their operations completely grounded. We were able to maintain our certification for the pilots, for a certain number of people to be able to retrain to have minimum landings, and so on. Having said that, we did have a period of time that was so gloomy that the aircraft were grounded because Tahiti is not the best place to maintain aircraft.

We grounded the aircraft in the desert to make sure that out of the four, there were only three in operation so they would fly enough and not stay on the ground. Salinity here, close to the ocean, is not good and when you ground an aircraft too long it doesn’t help. So we took one aircraft out of the four to make sure the three were flying enough but during that time, we did fly between Tahiti and Europe.

We also, interestingly enough, were eventually allowed to fly to the U.S. So we had decent flight activity to the U.S., it was not huge but with the testing requirement we were authorized to go and we were also accepting U.S. passengers to be tested and come and fly to Tahiti. We were enjoying at that time being one of the rare destinations to be opened.

During that time, we saw that people who wanted to get out and could not go to Europe would fly to Tahiti for vacation. That did help us to maintain a certain level of activity. Very far from the gloomy minus 80%, we were more in the minus 60% or something like that. So we rebounded based on that. We had some ups and downs afterward, there was another closure of the country when the COVID-19 Delta variant hit, and the infrastructure of the hospitals was really saturated. The government decided to close for a certain period of time and then we reopened right after. That is when the COVID-19 Delta variant hit in September 2021.

We even won a contract with the New Zealand government for maintaining a level of freight accessibility. They needed some capacity to export and import goods and services. We connected our European and U.S. flights to this once-a-week service from Auckland.

During that time, we also had to restructure the company in terms of the number of staff, so we took a pretty big hit of minus 20% in the workforce which we are still recovering from. We had to reorganize this structure, not only the crew and the pilots, we had some voluntary packages that were taken, but also people on the ground in financial, commercial, and operational sides as well.

So that has completely affected us and we had to organize completely and streamline everything which was an interesting exercise. We have been nimbler, accelerating the use of digital technology in the best way we can do it. We have a unique cost structure that is better than that of 2019 because of that. On the fixed cost asset basis, we’ve produced more value on the basis of what we have than what we used to have before.”

An Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner registered as F-OVAA and named after Bora Bora. Photo: Tony Bordelais / Airways

How does Air Tahiti Nui conduct maintenance operations for the Boeing 787 fleet? Are they done in-house or with external companies?

MB: “Yes, so we don’t have a hangar here for our maintenance operation. Here we only do the line and some more that we can do. We have an agreement with Air France-KLM so they are taking care of our aircraft. For the heavy maintenance, it’s different, we go to the market. We go to many places in Europe.

In the past, when we used to operate the A340 we went to Iberia. We don’t have a fixed partnership for heavy maintenance, especially what we call the C check. We go out in the market and look for the best opportunity we have. The last one that was done was I think in Warsaw and it went okay. In the past, we would have used the Lufthansa people for example in Manila.

So we will fly to crazy places to get the maintenance job done.

Even in the past, we went to Abu Dhabi on the A340. Air Tahiti Nui will fly for heavy maintenance wherever we have the best influence for the job being done and on time because we have only four aircraft so we need to make sure we limit the ground time. Especially when the competition is so fierce, you don’t want to leave the market too long.

So it is very important to make sure the maintenance is done in an equalized way. We try to prepare the best we can in advance and limit the downtime of our aircraft which costs a lot of money at the end of the day.

When even had a strategy to take the entry of the service of the aircraft at different times to avoid the maintenance cycles of the aircraft falling at the same time. So when we did the entry of the service of the 787, changing our aircraft from Airbus to Boeing, on purpose, we took two first and waited another six months to take the two others just to make sure we will not have coinciding calendar times for maintenance on the aircraft.

We might also, on a commercial decision, not take the full potential of our aircraft and ground them for maintenance before we are required to do so. For example, if the potential of using the aircraft existed up until September but September was too important, we may have put it on the ground for maintenance a bit earlier.”

An Air Tahiti Nui flight attendant serves passengers in the Moana Premium class cabin aboard one of the airline’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

Are fuel costs excessive in Tahiti? Does Air Tahiti Nui see fuel costs as an obstacle to growth?

MB: “Indeed, there is a premium to pay for the fuel cost here in Tahiti. The facility, the level of activity, and the cost of shipping are way different. We have always enjoyed, and not in the good way, higher fuel costs operating out of Tahiti. There is a premium to pay and there is a reality behind that in the way fuel is coming from Singapore by boat and then put here in some location and carried up to the airport.

I think there is some concern on an environmental aspect as well that we pay strong attention to. For example, if we were to gain a few thousand U.S. dollars on a roundtrip to L.A. by carrying cheaper fuel that we could use on the return, we wouldn’t be doing that. We put a fresh rule whereby we pay attention to not burning emissions. Fuel costs have been a problem recently, to be honest. 

It’s true that we have seen a big increase in fuel costs that has been affecting us like everyone. At the end of the day, this will come back in pricing. Everybody knows that you can hedge up but the reality of this market is that no one can afford to not be priced in line with the fuel costs that we have. It comes back to competition and capacity.

For a small airline like us, it’s important to be the number one player in our market.

Mathieu Bechonnet

I don’t think fuel represents an obstacle to growth. What we are looking at carefully is sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), because we see more and more accessibility to SAF being now something that is, with regard to fairness around accessibility to SAF, an issue for airlines of our size.

In other words, there is this big mandate, this big penalty in the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) Carbon Offsetting and Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA) program for those that are not using enough SAF or the carbon credit emission that we will have.

I think it’s something important that we have to address as a group of smaller airlines in the International Air Transport Association (IATA) to make sure that fairness can come into play with regard to the accessibility and affordability of SAF. Right now, for fuel, you will pay approximately the same price. SAF is different and when SAF will become more important for the carbon credit emission that’s going to create a certain imbalance that we’ll have to pay attention to.”

An Air Tahiti Nui crew stands inside a Poerava Business class cabin aboard one of the airline’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

Does air cargo constitute a significant portion of Air Tahiti Nui’s business? If so, does some of that cargo include perishable goods?

MB: “Yes, it’s been interesting, you may have seen during COVID an increase in air cargo around the world. Air Tahiti Nui, in the same way as any airline around the world, has seen that growth. To give you an example, we have had improved overall revenues amid and after COVID than in 2019.

So, we rebounded in the cargo revenue earlier than on the passenger side and the yields in cargo revenue have increased because there was a lack of offerings and the market dynamic was totally not the same.

Cargo is important to us, the Boeing 787 is a very good aircraft for us, especially for perishables for some very specific high-value types of fish that go to crazy aquariums around the world but also for tuna exports. French Polynesia is as large as Europe, it is huge.

France is the second on earth in terms of maritime surface territory just right after the U.S. so it’s very big. We have a maritime zone for our fishing which is very wide, it’s one of the big activities in the economy of French Polynesia and we do export lots of the red tuna to many places, especially to the U.S.

We are very strong on that with the local fishery export people. Also, we import a lot. Things are leveling down a little bit because now we see that sea shipment costs are getting a little bit more accessible than at the height of COVID so it will probably rebalance but it’s still going to be something in the more than 10% of our overall turnover which is very important.”

An Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner registered as F-ONUI and named after Tupaia. Photo: Andrew Henderson / Airways

To what extent does Tahiti Nui Helicopters, a subsidiary of Air Tahiti Nui, serve inter-island transport needs as opposed to sightseeing flights? What do you envision for the future of this subsidiary?

MB: “Interestingly, with this venture, we focused on multiple activities in equal parts. These included sanitary and medical intervention in the islands for one, it’s pretty important in very remote places like the Marquesas Islands where we have the contract with the islands that have no airports or very limited access or very dangerous runways.

We have lots of activity and we have two helicopters out there. 80% of the activity will be medical air evacuations so it plays a very important role for the communities to go to the only hospital that is out there, and there are eight islands around it.

Within Tahiti, the Leeward Islands, and Bora Bora this is more about the scenery, and scenic flights, similar to what you see in Colorado or Hawaii. They are very popular because you will see Tahiti and Bora Bora from the sky and that is so amazing.

The clientele here will include honeymooners that will want to celebrate on a deserted island where there is no one, land on a beautiful beach, and have a glass of champagne, so it’s a very exclusive product that we can sell.

We also have transportation between exclusive hotels where instead of taking a maritime boat to the airport and then up to another island and hopping around and losing a day, the helicopter is a good solution. Between two very famous islands, Taha’a and Bora Bora, you will see that.

Then, lastly, we have the operation for remote places for telecommunication antennas, heavy maintenance, and stuff like that. Our helicopters will carry goods to go in remote, difficult-to-access locations within the islands with high-altitude locations. It’s a very multifaceted type of operation, even though we have marketed it more as Tahiti Nui Helicopters on the scenic flights, and that’s working well.”

A focused look inside of a Poerava Business class cabin onboard one of Air Tahiti Nui’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

Brent Foster (BF): Air Tahiti Nui operated a nonstop service between Papeete and Paris at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. Although it came amid a time of distress, how was this flight significant for the airline?

Michel Monvoisin (MM): “It was very special because at that time there were many restrictions, especially in the U.S., so we decided to provide a service but we operated without cargo. It was one way only because of winds and the weather and we know the Dreamliner wing was very happy because it was a kind of record as it was the longest flight for a Dreamliner with passengers. Everyone was very happy. There are many restrictions on a flight that long and we don’t plan on doing it again.”

Do you see the cruise industry as another route for growth for Air Tahiti Nui despite the hotel room shortage in French Polynesia?

MM: “Sure, cruise ships are good for us but the thing is, even the cruise ship passengers are looking for rooms in Tahiti. I would say most, around 60% to 70% of the passengers cruising in Tahiti, ask for a pre or post-stay. They say that they are flying to Tahiti and they want to stay in Tahiti or Mo’orea. Air Tahiti Nui is very supportive of the cruise lines.”

Does Air Tahiti Nui work with regional partners in French Polynesia to provide passengers with inter-island connectivity after they arrive in Papeete?

MM: “We are connecting to Air Tahiti, it is a different company, a domestic one but we are very close. I am sitting on their board of directors. Air Tahiti is also one of our shareholders and they are sitting also our board so we have many exchanges. We are kind of cozy. We are working together and Air Tahiti Nui is feeding Air Tahiti with tourists while Air Tahiti is a big supplier for Air Tahiti Nui because they are providing handling and ground services in Tahiti. The relationship is very close with Air Tahiti.”

An Air Tahiti Nui Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner registered as F-ONUI and named after Tupaia landing with the backdrop of a rainbow. Photo: Michał Mendyk / Airways

Can passengers, thanks to the partnership between Air Tahiti Nui and Air Tahiti, book a connecting flight package straight from Los Angeles to let’s say Bora Bora on the Air Tahiti Nui website?

MM: “Yes, sure. Air Tahiti, especially during COVID when we had very strong issues with flights being delayed and everything, would wait for our passengers. With Air Tahiti, especially for the main islands like Bora Bora, if we need their help, they will be there delaying their flights to wait for our passengers. Our relationship is very strong.”

It sounds like Air Tahiti Nui is very passenger-focused.

MM: “Yes, it’s true, because we have to take care of them. Even with the lack of rooms. Sometimes passengers are very happy because they could not find rooms and sometimes they had to spend the night. Now, we have a deal with our staff, and the staff is very supportive, hosting the passengers at their own homes.

We had very nice feedback from people saying ‘Yeah, I was very happy when they drove me to the ferry to go to Mo’orea.’ Others said ‘I arrived at the house and there was a Tahitian party.’ We are very happy because the staff is there and the staff is taking care of our passengers, they say ‘Okay, come to our home.’”

An Air Tahiti Nui crew stands aside one of the airline’s Boeing 787-9 Dreamliners registered as F-OVAA and named after Bora Bora on the ground in Papeete. Photo: Air Tahiti Nui

What challenges and opportunities for growth do you see ahead for Air Tahiti Nui?

MM: “We’re owned by the country and tourism is the first industry in Tahiti so we have no mines, no big industry, the first industry is tourism. The country is very supportive of tourism, and Air Tahiti Nui is the main conduit to bring tourists. So we are more than an airline, more than a carrier, we are also a tourism tool for the country.

We work closely and are discussing challenges all of the time with the country and the main hoteliers. By the way, there are three main companies, hotel owners, sitting on our board. The Air Tahiti Nui board is a room where we speak about strategy and opportunity, so the next opportunities will center around what kind of tourism we want.

There is the government strategy for the next few years, Air Tahiti Nui is a full member of the Tourism Observatory, so we are part of the discussion about what kind of tourism we want to develop, where and on which islands. There is one thing, we don’t want to be a mass market. We will never be Cancun or Hawaii, they are taking eight to ten million tourists a year. We don’t want to be that, we want to be a very exclusive market because we want to be very inclusive also with the population.

We want tourism that will be positive and accepted by the population. We don’t want what happened to great destinations such as Venice in Italy. I think the best tourism will be inclusive tourism with the population, and that’s what is making the success of French Polynesia. If you are looking for the sea, for white sand beaches, you will find it in Tahiti but there are many places in the world where you can find the sand, the beaches, and the sun. There are many sunny places in the world.

So we want to add something that we call the Mana, a Tahitian word, which is a kind of feeling. We want the tourists to experience this Mana. It is a tradition for Tahitian people to host, in the past, it was a port where ships cruising the Pacific would stop over in Tahiti. Tahiti has always had a reputation for very warm people, so we want to maintain that.

We don’t want to be overcrowded. So we want to keep what makes the difference with the other destinations, the people, and the country. We want to keep that and the airline is linked to that because the airline is dependent on tourism.”

Excellent, thank you Mr. Monvoisin and Mr. Bechonnet for sharing your time and insights with Airways.


Featured image: Air Tahiti Nui Chairman and CEO Michel Monvoisin (L) stands next to Chief Operating Officer and Managing Director Mathieu Bechonnet (R). Photo: Moana Louis – Blackstone

Author
Aviation journalist and Daily Caller contributor who counts playing and teaching golf among his many hobbies. Contact: brent@airwaysmag.com

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