How the clash of aircraft titans boiled over in Tahiti

by Andreas Spaeth
996
October 14, 2019
Air tahiti Nui clash titans
Photo: Andreas Spaeth

Air Tahiti Nui is a small airline literally at the far end of the world. The nearest big city from here is Auckland, five flying hours away.

When the question of fleet renewal came up in 2015 it was clear the five aging Airbus   A340-300s operated by Air Tahiti Nui since its inception in 1998 were to be replaced by just four Boeing 787-9s.

That’s what the national airline of French Polynesia found to be the most suitable option for its extremely long, thin routes.

After all, the airline serves just three places non-stop from Tahiti – Auckland, Tokyo and Los Angeles. From there it connects to Paris — that’s the whole route network.

But somehow the intended order of just four aircraft ended up causing huge headaches at Airbus, Boeing and in the French overseas territory’s capital Papeete.

It’s fascinating to see how the clash of the titans in airframe manufacturing reached boiling point for this tiny order.

READ: Boeing MAX fallout sees Muilenburg lose chairman’s role.

There was meddling of politics up to the Elysée Palace, the French presidency in Paris.

Two separate bidding rounds with both suppliers and two board decisions had to be taken till the airline was granted what it always wanted – four Dreamliners.

The background was that Boeing had lost a huge order by Delta Air Lines, which defected to
Airbus.

Reacting to this, former Boeing Commercial CEO Ray Connor wanted to capture the next order of a French airline, at almost any cost.

“This is a volume small enough to do crazy things,” insiders who were present recall him saying.

In the end, Air Tahiti Nui apparently got the best deal ever made by Boeing for any 787 customers – just on the grounds of revenge.

Air Tahiti Nui now operates four 787-9s, two purchased from Boeing and the remainder leased from ALC. ALC’s boss, leasing guru and multi-billionaire Steven Udvar-Hazy,  happens to be a great fan of both Tahiti and its airline. He made sure they also got a decent leasing deal.

The airline went to work with Australian branding agency Future Brand to create not only an enhanced livery with the local tiare blossom as the main logo on aircraft tails but a stunning new brand identity that turns heads on every airport and has rightly received several awards.

Just the deep blue of the fuselage, now adorned with patterns and symbols taken from traditional Polynesian tattoos, conveys instantly, even on a big airport like Los Angeles, where this aircraft hails from.

Air Tahiti Nui clash titans
Photo: Andreas Spaeth

On board, the 787-9s offer 30 full-flat bed seats in 2-2-2 configuration in business class with a pitch of 60 inches, 32 seats in a very comfortable premium economy cabin in 2-3-2 layout with 38-inch pitch plus 232 seats in economy class, configured 3-3-3 with a 31-inch pitch.

Even the aircraft registrations tell a story, that’s how far branding goes at Air Tahiti Nui.

The last three letters of each 787’s registration have been chosen on purpose: MUA
means forward, NUI big, VAA canoe and TOA warrior. So the hidden story goes:
“The warrior going forward in the great canoe”. Quite sophisticated.

French Polynesia is home to 283,000 inhabitants spread over 118 islands and atolls,
distributed over a very large area of endless Pacific equalling Western Europe in
size.

Tahiti is almost fully dependent on tourism while positioning itself as a high cost, luxury destination.

Due to its far-away location, it receives as many visitors in a whole year -216,000 came in 2018- as Hawaii does in one week.

Its airline is fully dependent on hotel capacity on the islands, which is notoriously scarce and has even significantly shrunk in recent years with hotel closures.

“It’s our main goal to serve the tourism industry, that’s part of our DNA,” CEO Michel Monvoisin tells AirlineRatings in Papeete.

In 2018, Air Tahiti Nui carried 471,000 passengers, a slight decline due to unexpected heavy new competition, a glut of extra seats and
falling yields.

Air Tahiti Nui used to enjoy a quiet duopoly with Air France on the route via Los Angeles to Paris, but then United began operating from San Francisco low-cost carrier French Bee appeared in Tahiti on a new route from Paris via San Francisco.

It is operating its brand new Airbus A350-900 packing in up to 411 passengers, seated ten-abreast in economy class and its fares are considerably lower.

The return trip from Paris to Papeete and takes a hefty 21 hours each way. Ticket prices start at about $US1150 ($A1,700), while Air Tahiti Nui’s offers start with a premium of at least $US220.

Tahiti clash titans
Photo: Air Tahiti Nui.

These lower entry-level fares have created a totally new market for Tahiti’s tourism with more modestly priced private accommodation of the Airbnb type being in demand instead of just ultra-expensive resorts with coveted overwater villas.

Still, Air Tahiti Nui is by far the market leader to Tahiti, flying 61 percent of all tourists to the islands. It’s followed by Air France (11 percent) and Air New Zealand (8 percent).

About a decade ago, Air Tahiti Nui had expanded its network to both Sydney and New York – just before the financial crisis hit. These two routes never reached breakeven under the
circumstances and brought the airline close to bankruptcy.

With a subsequent focus on fewer and more lucrative routes, the carrier has been solidly profitable for years.

Recent news reports suggested the South Pacific carrier was mulling non-stop flights to Europe. In fact, the option has been evaluated, but won’t be pursued.

“With just 150 passengers on board, while having 294 seats, we could offer that on the 787-9 as the world’s longest flight in 18 to 19 hours non-stop,” says Monvoisin. “But that would be only viable if we had the time-sensitive business clientele ready to pay for the hours saved, but it is unthinkable on our touristic markets.”

Still, picking the 787-9s for the fleet’s renewal has proven a clever move operationally.

Compared to the A340-300s, the Dreamliners fly much faster, saving a whopping 90 minutes between Papeete and Paris.

The 787s also burn 23 percent less fuel, more than the 20 percent savings guaranteed by Boeing.

“And maintenance costs are even 35 percent lower than on the A340s,” enthuses EVP Operation Raymond Topin.

“The most difficult task of the transition was the ETOPS certification, only since October 2019 (do) we have the necessary permit to operate under ETOPS 225 standards which finally enables us to take the shortest route from Los Angeles, with Hawaii being the alternate airport.”

This means an additional ten to 15 minutes in flight time savings and while the path to paradise remains long, it is surely worth the effort.