As a segregated group of islands in the South Pacific Ocean, French Polynesia had a later start in the development of its aviation landscape. The French overseas collective saw its first runway paved by the US military in 1943 and did not have its first official airport before 1961. Even with a late start to the sky’s potential, today the country has enough airports and airlines to oversee an active roster of daily flights.
A total of 118 islands and atolls make up French Polynesia, and they are spread across a body of water five times larger than France. Tahiti is the largest of the islands, and is home to 69% of the country’s population that reside near the capital, Papeete.
Similar to other tropical islands, the largest economy of French Polynesia is in the tourism sector with the country welcoming as many as 300,000 tourists in 2019. The country is also known as being a prominent exporter of vanilla and pearls.
Before the construction of airports, Tahiti’s air access was found solely with seaplanes. Unfortunately, this was hindered by the fact that large calm bodies of water are a rare occurrence in French Polynesia, and constantly having to land aircraft in perilous ocean conditions was inconvenient. Nevertheless, as the regional importance of French Polynesia grew quickly, French authorities planned to build a solid airport capable of accommodating large aircraft.
Airports of French Polynesia
Given the scattered nature of archipelago life, airports are key to establishing quick transport between islands whilst avoiding the harsh waves of the Pacific Ocean. As a result, French Polynesia to date hosts 53 airports connecting its 67 inhabited islands. While the majority of these are small and practical in nature, three stand out for welcoming the most visitors.
Faa’a International Airport (Papeete)
The only international airport in French Polynesia, Faa’a International is located in Tahiti, 5 km from the town center of Papeete. It is the most frequented airport in the country, reaching a peak of 1.47 million visitors in 2019 before the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic.
The airport boasts a single 3,420m runway that can accommodate large commercial aircraft such as the Boeing 747 and Airbus A380.
Inaugurated in 1961, French authorities chose to construct the airport on reclaimed land from the coral reef encircling Papeete Island. While not the most ecological decision, landfilling was chosen due to the mountainous landscape of Tahiti, along with the scarce agricultural land available for the island’s inhabitants.
The airport serves as the base of French Polynesia’s two main airlines, Air Tahiti and Air Tahiti Nui. Other airlines that frequent it include United Airlines, Air New Zealand, Air France, French Bee and Hawaiian Airlines. Faa’a International Airport is an essential contributor to the Polynesian economy since it is the main hub that connects international travelers with the rest of French Polynesia.
Bora Bora Airport
Also known as Motu Mute Airport after the islet on which it settles, Bora Bora Airport is the second largest airport in French Polynesia. It was originally constructed by US forces to maintain trade routes between countries in the southwest Pacific and the United States. It wasn’t until 1958 that the airport started to see commercial use after the runway was renovated.
After landing on one of its two 1,505m runways, visitors enjoy a boat trip from the airport to the mainland of Bora Bora. While private jets are a regular sight, Air Tahiti is the only airline with scheduled flights to Bora Bora airport. On average, the airport has over 280,000 travelers per year, serving primarily tourists coming to experience the island’s iconic overwater bungalows.
The third most visited airport of French Polynesia is Raiatea airport which welcomed over 264,000 travelers in 2019 alone. It is commonly used as a passage to the island of Taha’a, one of French Polynesia’s main sources of vanilla.
Like Raiatea Airport, the rest of the airports in French Polynesia are generally smaller and see less traffic but together they form a sky chain that binds French Polynesia.
Airlines of French Polynesia
As French Polynesia’s main domestic flier, Air Tahiti originally gave international travelers access to 47 islands upon their arrival at Faa’a International Airport.
The airline began its life in 1953 as the Reseau Aerien Interinsulaire flying the first Short Sandringham seaplanes between Papeete and destinations that included Los Angeles and Honolulu. The company adopted the name Air Polynesie in 1970 before becoming Air Tahiti during the late 1980s. Currently, the airline owns a diverse fleet of 14 aircraft, including three Beechcraft King Air B200s and 7 ATR-72s.
Since resuming operations after the Covid-19 pandemic hiatus, the airline halved its destinations within French Polynesia to compensate for financial losses. Unfortunately, this has left 20 islands without access to air transport services although this was compensated for by small charter airlines such as Tahiti Air Charter that now serve such islands as Raiatea, Maupiti, and Bora Bora using seaplanes.
Air Tahiti Nui
French Polynesia’s sole international airline, Air Tahiti Nui was established in 1996 with its main base at Faa’a International Airport. For years the airline made financial losses and almost went bankrupt in 2011 until finally growing profitable in 2015.
Equipped with a fleet of four Boeing 787-9s, Air Tahiti Nui conducts several direct international flights to France and neighboring countries in the Pacific Ocean including Australia, New Zealand, Chile and the United States amongst others.
Interestingly, during the Covid-19 Air Tahiti Nui achieved the world’s longest international domestic flight when Travel restrictions to the US pushed the airline to skip the layover in Los Angeles and fly direct from Faa’a International to Charles De Gaulle.
Charter and Start-Up Airlines
There are several charter airline companies that exist in French Polynesia offering tourism services as well as travel alternatives.
The first of such companies to emerge in French Polynesia was Tahiti Air Charter, which proposes scenic flights over Bora Bora, Tupal and Taha’a Islands along with day tours. They also provide private travel services with options to book a plane individually. All trips are undergone with one Cessna 208 Caravan Amphibian that gives access to remote and uninhabited corners in French Polynesia, without harming the sensitive ecosystem.
It is worth noting that there are several new players in the aviation industry in French Polynesia such as FLY CORALway. This new start-up (lead by entrepreneur Louis Alphonse) will enhance the existing aviation facilities of French Polynesia and is proposing flights between Nouméa, Nandi, Wallis and Samoa along with Tahiti. The airline was prepared to launch operations in 2020 upon obtaining its Air Transport License from the French Polynesia government and optimistic to undergo initial operations with two Airbus A320s. Unfortunately, the new airline has postponed its launch to the last quarter of 2021 to avoid starting operations during the travel restraints caused by the Covid-19 pandemic.
There is More to Come from French Polynesian Skies
After overcoming its significant geographical challenges, French Polynesia has successfully established substantial aviation activity that continues to boost the country’s economy. While currently no major developments are planned for the region, at Eways aviation we are certain that there remains much-untapped potential in the French Polynesian aviation landscape. As the tourism sector in French Polynesia continues to expand, we hope to see the same growth in the French Polynesian skies.