What equipment could Air Tahiti Nui use to potentially launch Papeete-Paris nonstop?

Air Tahiti Nui is clearly not able to eliminate the Los Angeles stop on its Papeete-Paris service as its new fleet of 294-seat Boeing 787-9s do not have nearly enough range to operate what would be a 19 hour flight. However, it could potentially operate the route in future by significantly reducing the number of seats on the 787-9 or acquiring a new ultra longrange aircraft variant.


Highlights:

  • Air Tahiti Nui acknowledges it is unable to use its new fleet of 787-9s to launch nonstop flights between Papeete and Paris;
  • Papeete-Paris would be the longest current route in the world but shorter than Qantas’ proposed routes from Sydney to New York and London;
  • Air Tahiti Nui would need to acquire the same aircraft type Qantas selects in its current evaluation or remove over 100 seats on its 787-9s to launch Papeete-Paris.

The airline grabbed headlines last week when its CEO was reported as saying it was considering using 787-9s to launch nonstop flights from Papeete to Paris, overtaking Singapore-Newark as the world’s longest route. The airline a few days later said the report was inaccurate due to a “translation error”, which was hardly surprisingly given that Papeete-Paris is well out of the 787-9’s range.

As The Blue Swan Daily highlighted in a previous analysis report, Air Tahiti Nui took delivery of its first of four 787-9s in Oct-2018. A second 787-9 was delivered earlier this month and the final two are slated to be delivered later this year, allowing Air Tahiti Nui to phase out its fleet of A340-300s.

The two 787-9s are currently deployed on Papeete-Los Angeles and Papeete-Auckland. It is still using A340s on Papeete-Los Angeles-Paris and its only other route, Papeete-Tokyo.

Paris has always been an important market given Tahiti’s ties with France, the popularity of Tahiti as a destination for French residents and Tahiti’s large French population. As Air Tahiti’s CEO pointed out in the now controversial interview, “the Los Angeles stop is not really that comfortable for our French passengers”.

A nonstop service would significantly reduce the journey time and eliminate the hassle of transiting in Los Angeles – and clearing US immigration. But most importantly, a nonstop service would provide Air Tahiti Nui with a competitive advantage. Long haul low cost airline French Bee started competing on the Papeete-Paris route in May-2018 with a stop in San Francisco.

However, unfortunately the 787-9s Air Tahiti is acquiring are not capable of operating Papeete-Paris, a route of 15,700km and around 19 hours westbound (slightly shorter eastbound). When Air Tahiti Nui selected the 787 in 2015 it likely did not have nonstop Papeete-Paris in mind and did not factor in the prospect of a new competitor as French Bee was only founded in 2016.

The longest 787-9 route in the world is currently Perth-London, which is 14,500km and slightly over 17 hours from Perth (around 16 hours from London). Perth-London was launched by Qantas in Mar-2018, overtaking United’s Los Angeles-Singapore (a route of 14,100km and also slightly over 17 hours westbound).

United operated 787-9s on Los Angeles-Singapore from Oct-2017 to Oct-2018, when it dropped the route. However, United still operates 787-9s on the slightly shorter San Francisco-Singapore route and Singapore Airlines now operates A350-900ULRs on Los Angeles-Singapore as well as on Newark-Singapore, which is 15,300km and around 18 hours from Newark (slightly less from Singapore).

Both United and Qantas have significantly fewer seats on their 787-9s, enabling longer flights than what Air Tahiti Nui could operate with their 294-seat 787-9s. United has 252 seats on their 787-9s while Qantas has only 236 seats. United had payload limitations in winter months on Los Angeles-Singapore; Qantas has not had any payload limitations on Perth-London but has 16 fewer seats on its 787-9s and Los Angeles-Singapore flights are actually sometimes longer than Perth-London flights due to headwinds.

Even the Qantas 787-9 would not be able to make Paris-Papeete. Paris-Papeete is only 200km shorter than Sydney-New York – a route Qantas is keen to operate but cannot with the 787-9; instead Sydney-New York and Sydney-London are part of Qantas’ evaluation of new generation ultra long haul aircraft (new variants of the 777X and A350).

Air Tahiti Nui could acquire what Qantas selects but that would result in two aircraft types for a very small airline. If it sticks with the 787-9 it would have to go with a very light configuration of less than 200 seats (perhaps less than 150 seats), which is not likely to be economical given the France-Tahiti market consist mainly of leisure passengers.