Rumor: United To Add Flights To Tahiti In 2018

While I can’t say this is a rumor I previously heard, I can’t resist sharing it and speculating.

The website tahiti-infos.com has an article (in French) claiming that United is considering adding flights between San Francisco and Papeete in Tahiti in September 2018. While nothing is official yet, the article claims that the government has been made aware of this new route this week, and an announcement could be happening in the coming days.

I’m certainly not taking this route for granted, though I think it’s fun to talk about, if nothing else. I can’t say this is a destination that I ever assumed was on the radar of mainland US airlines, though I think there could actually be some merit to it.

As of now the only flights from the US mainland to Tahiti are on Air Tahiti Nui and Air France, and they exclusively operate flights out of Los Angeles. At the moment Air France is offering 3x weekly flights between the airports, while Air Tahiti Nui is operating 8x weekly flights between the airports (though there’s quite a bit of variance in terms of their schedule).

The flight from San Francisco to Tahiti would cover a distance of ~4,200 miles, which isn’t terribly far. There has been a ton of downward pressure on yields on longhaul flights, thanks in particular to competition from Norwegian, WOW Air, the Gulf carriers, and the growing number of Chinese airlines.

So while we’re seeing ~$500 roundtrip economy fares pretty regularly between the US and Asia, Europe, etc., Tahiti is a destination where economy fares don’t get as low.

In looking at the schedule, the lowest fares I see between Los Angeles and Tahiti are ~$1,000 roundtrip in economy, and that’s on the low end. So Tahiti has the benefit of not having fares get as low as other destinations, though the downside is that it’s a leisure market. So while many leisure passengers are paying more on average, there’s also not a ton of last minute demand for business travelers, which is where airlines make their money.

This is presumably also a market with fairly limited demand (given the limited number of hotel rooms), and presumably adding capacity would put downward pressure on yields.

Still, you’d think a 3x weekly flight on a 787 could be quite lucrative for an airline.

Do you think we’ll see United add flights between San Francisco and Tahiti, or nah?

Comments

  1. Perhaps it may depend on the economy next few years. I recall before 2008 there were Air Tahiti Nui nonstop flights between JFK and PPT! A few friends flew on that flight back in 2006/2007 and told me the flights were mostly full so there was certainly demand when times were good. Obviously the recession killed that route.
    I don’t know the SFO market too well but perhaps if UA flies there seasonal or a few times a week it can work. The only other star alliance airline that flies to PPT right now is Air New Zealand.

  2. In my opinion, 3x weekly on days AF doesn’t fly would be a good idea. If there are few business Travellers, maybe it is good time to revive Ted configuration. United, being the only Star Alliance carrier in Tahiti, will be able to get the routes fed well by its own flights to SFO in addition to all the partners. What I am wondering is if any Star Alliance classify Tahiti as North America or Caribbean region, so it eventually becomes a sweet spot for reward redemption. Any idea, Lucky?

  3. This is a pretty glaring hole in Star Alliance’s network to higher end leisure destinations. It’ll be nice to see United fill the gap and compete with AA-Air Tahiti Nui and Delta-AF.

    Until now, and *A fliers in mainland North America would have to fly an extra 3000 miles to Auckland to catch another long haul flight on Air New Zealand. That’s sorta great if you’re looking for more PQMs to requalify and don’t mind long flights and layovers, but it sucks for others who prefer to spend more time at the destination and less time in transit.

  4. Oooohhh always love a new route speculation.

    I think it could work. There’s almost no business traffic but it is a popular very-premium leisure and especially honeymoon destination. Your honeymoon is the one time in your life when you’re going to be the least price sensitive for leisure travel so if pax are paying $1000 A night for an overwater bungalow they are unlikely to baulk at a full priced J ticket. The 2-2-2 seating of the 787s would also be perfect for couples.

  5. UA to PPT with lie-flat 787 business class seats would be great, but the downside is this. Assuming they fly a red-eye to PPT arriving early morning, the return flight would have to be mid-morning. This means that United pax would have to depart Bora Bora, Moorea, etc. the night before their flight back and overnight in Papeete.

    One way around this would be for UA to continue from PPT with the same plane to SYD or AUK.

  6. That would be great. Made over 14 trips to Tahiti & Moorea. Would love to see TN & AF get some competition on LAX-PPT. French Polynesia has its to offer and many budget accommodations on all the islands. If you want to stay in a luxury over-water bungalow, you can do that. Or you can find lots of decent lodging in the $100-$200 range.

  7. They would in competition with 2-3 weekly flights by the lowcost French Blue that will start flying CDG-SFO-PPT next May

  8. @Joey I flew TN back in February. It is true that JFK was a destination for TN a few years ago. The loads were very good in fact. But the fact of the matter is that the flight continued onward to CDG. The TN planes are subsidized by the French government and AF did not want TN competing with them on the JFK-CDG route so TN was forced to reroute via LAX instead. This is what the FA and Pursers told me as they miss flying to JFK

  9. @Lu – Air New Zealand does NOT fly from the US to PPT so there is no correction needed. Per Ben’s article above: “As of now the only flights from the US mainland to Tahiti are on Air Tahiti Nui and Air France”

  10. Much as I love French Polynesia, I don’t see how this would work out for United.

    First, the best weather in Tahiti comes in the North American summer, when few United customers are going to be thinking about going to the tropics. The delightful culture and dance festival Heiva takes place in July. So does the Billabong surf competition at the insane Teahupoo wave on the southern tip of the island. The North American winter is a time of cyclones, rain, high humidity, and ferocious mosquitoes in Tahiti. For a winter escape, the Caribbean is a much better destination.

    Second, French Polynesia is comparatively very expensive. The Pacific franc is tied to the Euro, and many of the French labor and social protections apply in French Polynesia. This makes Tahiti more expensive than places like Fiji.

    Third, Tahiti itself is not the resort destination. When people think of Tahiti as such (with azure lagoons and overwater bungalows), they’re really thinking of Moorea (a 1-hour ferry or 10-minute flight from Tahiti) or Bora Bora (a 45-minute flight from Tahiti). Getting to those other islands almost always requires an inconvenient stopover on Tahiti, as the domestic airline, Air Tahiti, is privately owned and has a schedule that is not coordinated with that of government-owned Air Tahiti Nui. Tahiti has poor beaches, and Papeete (which I happen to like) is a gritty port city.

    Finally, the resorts on Tahiti are few and ancient. The Meridien is a dump. So is the Intercontinental. (The Intercon’s crummy overwater bungalows are at the end of the international airport runway.) The Hilton closed years ago. The former Radisson is now an aging Pearl in a terrible location. The government is building a new resort complex where the Sofitel (now torn down) used to be, but that won’t be open for years. Elsewhere in the Society Islands, hotels have closed left and right, so there’s not a ton of hotel room stock. Shuttered hotels include: the Club Meds on both Moorea and Bora Bora; the Orient Express Bora Bora Lagoon Resort; the Aman Hotel Bora Bora (Aman and the Bora Bora government could not agree on who should pay to move the coast road away from the hotel, so it remains closed and is rotting away); and the Novotel Bora Bora (which had the best beach).

  11. The Paul Gauguin ship travels between the South Pacific Islands nearly year round and the Oceania Marina does similar routings starting and ending in Papeete for much of the Northern Hemisphere Winter. Paul Gauguin is relatively small (>500pax) but the Oceania Marina is about 2500 pax and I know they have used Charter flights to help get their passengers in/out of PPT in the past so this could help that situation and be good for both the cruise lines and United.

  12. Whilst United might’ve considered serving French Polynesia previously, the fact that low-cost French carrier FrenchBlue is entering the route from May 2018 will have, no doubt, stifled any interested from UA. They could have entered into a routing covering SFO-PPT-SYD 3x weekly which could’ve picked up some lucrative high-end Australian passengers (providing the only direct service from Tahiti to Australia), as well as making good utilization of its aircraft. A B787-8 would’ve been perfect on the route and given UA’s FF loyalists it could’ve been lucrative but with the LCC competition emerging I imagine that UA wouldn’t have liked to enter a price-war.

  13. I read that AF were likely to pull out (especially after the strike there), so I’d expect UA to be filling the gap that AF are leaving.

  14. Much of the AF traffic between LAX and PPT involves French/French Polynesia transit passengers heading to or from Paris. French visitors continue to account for a sizable percentage of visitors to French Polynesia, and many residents in French Polynesia (whether Polynesian or European) holiday in France. I just don’t see those passengers switching to UA to fly PPT-SFO-CDG or the reverse. United has a horrible reputation in France (and many other places….). Also, many of the business travelers for state-owned enterprises on one end or the other are required to fly either AF or TN.

    If AF were to pull out, I assume AF and TN would rejigger their arrangements to transit passengers through LAX or JFK (with TN recommencing JFK service).

    Sad, as AF service in F LAX-PPT or PPT-LAX was fabulous when offered.

  15. Flew Qantas LAX-PPT 28 years ago for our honeymoon. Flight was LAX-PPT-SYD and the reverse on the return. Two memorable flights! Might UA continue on to SYD??

  16. Many airlines used to fly to PPT back pre 1990, before the 744. They made a fueling stop on the way to Australia and New Zealand. You would land at 2 to 3am – be greeted by Hula dancers and a busy shopping market. Then when non-stops started, it killed those stops as well as HNL as a CO hub to South Pacific. Would be nice to see something back.

  17. Up until about 10 years ago, Air NZ used to fly LAX-PPT (aircraft continued on to AKL). Air NZ couldn’t make it work then.

  18. United getting the middle of two “monopolies”? That is interesting.

    Like Corsair, Air France and particularly Air Tahiti Nui will not appreciate the competition. Tahiti (with its interconnections between between politicians and their personal business interests) will love it.

    The question is how much of the bill will be financed the government in Paris. Considering the general mood in France, I doubt that that amount will come anywhere near to what Tahiti and the French airlines desire. So, United probably has only 20% chance of getting quick and smooth approval for a SFO-PPT route.

    Good luck United.

  19. United just posted a cryptic series of messages on their Instagram story that are strongly hinting at an official announcement tomorrow, December 13.

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