MIAMI — Nicholas Panza, vice president of the Americas for niche airline Air Tahiti Nui, is standing on the ramp of the Flight Path Museum in Los Angeles. Behind him a giant Airbus A340 bearing the name of his employer rests gracefully under a bright southern California sun. Both Mr. Panza and the airplane were at the museum to celebrate the 15th anniversary of Air Tahiti Nui, the flag carrier of French Polynesia, along with the unveiling of their latest cabin renovation. Mr. Panza greets us warmly, as if old friends, before welcoming us on board the airplane.

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Stepping inside Mr. Panza points out the choice of color palette first, not that it required any noting: the warm shades of blue and green mixed with white wash over the airplane and strike newcomers immediately – a welcome change from the comparatively uninspiring interiors found on many other carriers. The emphasis on blue, something that is noticeable both inside and outside the airplane, is meant to evoke the color found in the island’s picturesque lagoons. Each seatback in-flight entertainment system rotates through classic scenes from Tahiti; from lagoons to lush forests to cultural snapshots.

The new cabin features more than refreshed colors, however. Thirty-two angled ‘lie-flat’ shell seats manufactured by Sogerma have been installed. They each feature 60 inches of pitch and 160% of recline in a 2-2-2 configuration. Each seat also has a 12 inch wide in-flight entertainment system and standard power plugs and USB ports. In economy all 264 seats, made by Geven, provide 32 inches of pitch, 18 inches of width, and a 10% recline. Each features its own touch screen entertainment system and USB power supply – everything of course bathed in blue and green in a 2-4-2 configuration…which is a curious choice.atn800-4 atn800-8

Business class pair with partial recline: new Business class cabin: new coach cabin. (Credits: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)
Business class pair with partial recline: new Business class cabin: new coach cabin. (Credits: Jeremy Dwyer-Lindgren)

Mr. Panza explains that the choice to go with 2-4-2 in coach, instead of the present industry standard 3-3-3, is to attract traveling couples who can sit together. That ATN went out of their way to accommodate groups of two speaks to their core mission: tourism. Unlike other originally niche airlines like Emirates or Qatar, ATN is not looking to be the next big cosmopolitan hub of the world. No, their mission is to help generate as much tourism business to Tahiti as possible.

The dedication to their ambassadorship can be seen everywhere: the colorful Tahitian inspired interior, the tiare (Tahiti’s national flower) on the tail, Tahitian/French meals, and the virtually all Tahitian cabin crews (ATN has thirty Japanese crew members who fly on the Tokyo route). Realizing that it must compete for tourism dollars in the region the carrier sought to create a reputation for excellent service to match, and has largely been successful at doing so. The carrier has won a number of awards over the years, and has been well regarded in the industry – especially in light of its size.

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Based out of Faa’a International Airport in Papeete, ATN only has five aircraft to their name. For a country of only 250,000 people, owning five A340-300s isn’t too shabby. Presently they employ over 750, with annual revenues of $350 million (by contrast United Airlines took in $8.7 billion in the first quarter of 2013 alone), and carry 450,000 people across the system per year. Most of that traffic – 75% – comes from the very popular PPT-LAX and LAX-CDG routes.

Due to the nations’ remote location and size, training and maintenance take place across the world. Crew trainings take place in France (ATN is registered and certified under the French Certification Authority) with recurrent trainings in Miami and Beijing. While the smaller, faster type A maintenance checks can be done on location in Fa’a’ā, heavier maintenance checks (such as C and D type) are done in Europe by SR Technic, Lufthansa Teknik , and Air France.

Air Tahiti Nui performs some of its own maintenance on the ground at its Faaa Airport base in Papeete. The airline’s fleet of 5 Airbus A340-500s are powered by the CFM56, built by General Electric/Snecma Moteurs of France. ATN
Air Tahiti Nui performs some of its own maintenance on the ground at its Faaa Airport base in Papeete. The airline’s fleet of 5 Airbus A340-500s are powered by the CFM56, built by General Electric/Snecma Moteurs of France. ATN

The Papeete based airline came about in the early 1990s when the French government pulled out of military testing in the area, leaving the remote chain of islands in the South Pacific to develop a tourism industry to survive. With the island’s long haul air service dependent on the whims of Air France, Corsair, UTA, and AOM at first, it was decided a carrier for Tahiti, by Tahiti was needed. A plan was drafted by the government to create a new flag carrier to facilitate a guaranteed source of capacity, and thus Air Tahiti Nui (ATN) was born in 1996, yet it didn’t begin flying until November 1998.

The new airline set out to source some airplanes for their new adventure and quickly discovered they didn’t have a lot of options. Twin engine aircraft were out of the picture due to ETOPS concerns that were related to being a new carrier. That left only the big three and four engine widebodies. Boeing 747s were considered too large, while second hand DC10s and L-1011s were too old. The MD-11 was a market failure. That left only one choice: the Airbus A340.

The first airplane was acquired via Airbus directly, an A340-200 (reg F-OITN) that had formerly served Air France, and began service in 1998. Initially the airplane operated three flights a week from the airlines’ home field of Papeete to Los Angeles and once a week to Japan. The single airplane was the entirety of the ATN fleet for several years until it was complimented by an A340-300 in December of 2001. By 2001 the carrier had expanded to provide service to Paris, Osaka, and Auckland.

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Nevertheless the early years were not good to the fledgling airline’s bottom line. The carrier lost $21 million through 2001, showing load factors at the time of only 67%. Times would change for the better, however, as the airline broke even in 2003 and made a profit in 2004. The airline also increased their fleet size to four A340-300 aircraft during those same years, enabling the carrier to offer daily flights to LA, service to Paris in 2002, and increase frequency elsewhere in their network. In 2005 the carrier saw the introduction of their fifth aircraft and expanded their network to include Sydney and New York.

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Yet just as the carrier was coming into its own the airline industry began to feel the effects of rising fuel costs and, eventually, the great recession. Being a niche airline heavily dependent on tourists ATN was hardly exempt. The carrier struggled for years, losing money consistently between 2006 and 2011. Service to JFK was the first to go; cut at the end of 2007. Sydney held on a few years longer, but it too succumbed to the troubles and was pulled at the end of 2009 (though the Qantas code-share eventually filled the gap).  Service to Osaka also eventually saw the ax.

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Following those tough times the carrier moved to a conservative, circle the horses strategy. Rather than max out their fleet with all five aircraft, one was relegated to stand-by service and is used for charters and parts along with substitutions when one of the regular four planes is up for maintenance checks. The other four are still heavily utilized, logging 4300 flight hours per year. Fuel, always a problem for the carrier due to import costs, has been focused on extremely conservative estimates.

ATN has also expanded the use of code shares, such as one they presently have with American Airlines, to help with feeder traffic and more corporate travelers. The new strategy has, according to ATN, begun to pay off. The carrier reports posting a profit in 2012. Load factors have buoyed around 75% system wide depending on the season, and the carrier expects to pull a profit again in 2013.

Nevertheless ATN recognizes that some change will need to come in order to stay in the game. Competition in the region has been heating up as airlines like JetStar, Hawaiian, Air New Zealand, and Fiji Air have stepped up their game to attract more tourist dollars. As all four have taken on newer more fuel efficient airplanes with refreshed cabins, ATN has been forced to make some changes.

Though popular with passengers, the A340s have long since become unpopular with carriers due its weak fuel efficiency. They have managed to served their mission well but the airline sees twins in their future. Presently ATN is  looking to place an order for either the Boeing 787-9 or the A350-8  in the next two years, with an aim to take delivery late in the decade.

In the meantime the carrier has plans to see the cabin renovation through all four main aircraft, while the fifth will remain in the original configuration. In addition, as the world economy bounces back and tourists increasingly return to the island ATN sees expansion to North America (out of the 5.7 million people ATN has carried since ’98, 4.2 million have been via North America) , Shanghai, or a return to Sydney on the horizon over the next three to five years.

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Code sharing and partners are planned to see a boost too. ATN has submitted a proposal to the US Department of Transportation for a joint venture with Air France and Delta, as well as a code share with Japan Airlines to Tokyo. They’ve also been looking to increase high yield corporate traffic, though due to the exceptionally high focus on leisure travel such goals will remain a challenge.

Curiously ATN states they are not planning on creating a partnership or code-share relationship with domestic service provider Air Tahiti. Unique to niche tourism airlines like ATN, the carrier is also aiming to expand feeder traffic from plane to boat, working with a number of cruise lines already and looking to expand even further to provide comprehensive one-stop vacation packages.

Back in Los Angeles, Mr. Panza has finished showing us the airplane, along with dozens of others through the evening. Standing on a podium surrounded by media, travel agents, and ATN employees Mr. Panza wraps up the evening thanking all for coming and noting that “we’ll see you all in five years’ time for the 20th anniversary.”

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Some of the airline’s destinations, personnel, and aircraft may change by that time but  Air Tahiti Nui’s core mission to be the ambassador to its island paradise home will likely remain consistent. Airchive plans to review the in updated in-flight product sometime in the future and will bring you our impressions of the South Pacific flag carrier.