Air Tahiti Nui's Nicholas Panza Talks New Cruise Lines, Airlift in the South Pacific

Nicholas Panza, vice president for the Americas at Air Tahiti Nui, recently stopped by Travel Agent’s New York offices to bring us up to speed on both the airline and how the island’s tourism scene is growing.

The Island 

North American traffic to Tahiti is on the rise: In 2009, Tahiti had 45,000 North American visitors. By 2013, that number had risen to 61,000, and the U.S. share had risen 32 percent. 2014 is already off to a good start, Panza said, and the company is expecting growth of 3 to 5 percent for the year. On average, Panza said, U.S. guests stay in Tahiti for 10 nights, while Canadians stay for 12.

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Three cruise lines serve Tahiti--Paul Gauguin (year-round), Princess (six to 10 turns per year) and Oceania (the newest and largest of the lines, with five to six turns per year and a capacity for 1,250 passengers). This year, the islands are poised to see more sea traffic as Windstar heads to Tahiti for six months and Silversea spends November and December in the area. Panza said that Regent would also be sailing in Tahiti, but that the anticipated growth this year would mostly be from land-based visits rather than cruises.

One of the largest challenges Tahiti faces in terms of growing its visitor traffic is the perception that it is prohibitively far away from the North American mainland. In reality, Panza said, it’s an eight-hour flight from Los Angeles and is in the same time zone as Hawaii.

The Airline

Headquartered in Papeete, Tahiti, Air Tahiti Nui operates five A340-300 aircraft from its Tahiti base to Auckland, New Zealand, Tokyo, Japan, Paris and Los Angeles. From L.A., the airline offers two flights to the island daily from June to October, and a total of 350,000 seats per year. Codeshare agreements with other airlines (including American) have boosted the airline’s reach to 19 U.S. cities, and Panza noted increased interest from the East Coast.

Air Tahiti Nui  launched a $17 million cabin reconfiguration and entertainment system on board its fleet of Airbus A340-300 aircraft in April 2013. Three aircrafts were updated for the Los Angeles and Paris routes. 

Replacing Air Tahiti Nui’s traditional three-class layout, the new configuration has two classes of service – an expanded Poerava Class and an upgraded Moana Class. The Poerava Class increased its seat capacity from 24 to 32. Based on the Sogerma “angled-lie-flat cocoon seat,” the new seats provide more personal space, with a 60-inch seat pitch, while continuing to provide a two-by-two-by-two configuration.

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Moana Class has new lightweight seats for a traditional two-four-two seating configuration. Designed and built in Italy, the new seats are 18-inches wide and have an average 32-inch pitch. (The new seats have helped the airline reduce fuel usage and drop more than 8,000 pounds of weight per flight.)

Panza pointed out that excluding cruise line bookings, almost 70 percent of AIr Tahiti Nui bookings to Tahiti are through agents and tour operators, and that OTAs cannot create the same experience as an agent who knows the island and what it has to offer.