My readers are good.
Last week, I asked a trivia question: “What airline serves four continents but has only five planes?”
Two readers correctly guessed the right answer. It’s Air Tahiti Nui, a 15-year-old airline with an impressive route network and a very small fleet. With a “hub” in Papeete, Tahiti, Air Tahiti Nui files to Paris, Los Angeles, Tokyo and Auckland. (The Paris/Papeete flight makes a stop in Los Angeles.) Air Tahiti Nui actually only schedules four of its planes at any one time, using the fifth one for charters and as a spare.
The airline has a fleet of all Airbus A340-300s. The A340s have four engines, and they’ve fallen out of favor with most airlines because they’re not particularly efficient. The Wall Street Journal recently wrote about the airplane, noting that “Leading airlines from Canada to China have unloaded the massive planes after just a few years of use, and new takers have been few.”
I asked Nick Panza, Air Tahiti Nui’s vice president for the Americas, how the airline ended up with the A340 and whether it regretted the decision. But he said the unique geographical location of Tahiti made the A340 an enticing airplane, at least a decade ago. He noted that the FAA’s requirements for “Extended range Twin Operations,” or ETOPS, are stringent, and that it would have been difficult for a relatively young airline to easily get certification to use a dual engine jet, like the Boeing 777, for some of the longest over-water routes in the world.
“We selected that plane when we started the airline because we didn’t have the ETOPS certification for the long over-water flying,” he said. “If we started the airline today, we would have gone with a twin engine. With a 777 or (similar) Airbus you’re able to fly those long distances and still have a good payload.”
Not all of the airline’s flying is so long — the Auckland flight is less than five hours – but Panza said it made no sense for such a small airline to have two types of planes.
“In an ideal world, we would have a couple of twin engine aircraft to fly shorter destinations,” he said. “But it’s a real challenge in terms of engineering support and spare parts. When you are in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, simplicity is a very good way to approach maintenance.”
In about six years, Panza said Air Tahiti Nui plans to transition to two-engine jets. In the meantime, he said, the A340 – which just received updated interiors — will be fine.
“We have keep things simple,” he said. “It’s one aircraft type. It’s just one set of spare parts. I think that’s the key with a small fleet. Don’t try to overextend yourself.