From Temples to Lakes: The Airports of Nepal

From Temples to Lakes: The Airports of Nepal

Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu

Home to the Himalayas, serene temples and mesmerizing lakes, the list of Nepal’s attractions is endless. It comes as no surprise that the country makes a grand majority of its income from tourism. And with a harsh mountainous terrain and a weak railroad system, aviation is key to both seeing Nepal’s beauty, as well as supplying its remotest of dwellers. Meanwhile, while airplanes are a regular sight in Nepal’s skies, the country is known to have some of the most dangerous airports in the world although thankfully, they do not discourage the constant traffic of travellers who push aside all risk for the chance to visit one of the most unique regions in the world.

All Nepalese airports are operated by The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN), which also regulates the country’s air space traffic along with Nepal’s passenger airlines and charters. There are currently 43 local airports in Nepal, out of which Tribhuvan International in Kathmandu is the only one with international status and acts as the central aviation portal to Nepal. The rest of Nepal’s airports cater solely to the numerous domestic and charter airlines in the country. Here are some of the most notable airports of Nepal.

Tribhuvan International

Found 6km East of Nepal’s capital Kathmandu, Tribhuvan International Airport has been Nepal’s only international airport since its inauguration in June of 1955. It connects Nepal to over 40 destinations in 17 countries. With its single 3,350m runway, the airport accommodates over 25 different carriers both local and international, this includes names such as Turkish Airlines, Air Arabia, Korean Air and Nepal’s own Nepal Airlines, Himalaya Airlines and Buddha Air (learn more about them in our previous article about Nepalese airlines).

Providing several daily flights to Lukla Airport 135km away, Tribhuvan is the first destination for visitors to Mount Everest. In addition, many scenic flights over Mount Everest take off from Tribhuvan giving tourists the chance to revel at its sights without the inconveniences of the terrain.

Having reached its operational capacity along with the inconvenience of winter fog, the Nepalese government has commenced construction of what will be Nepal’s second International airport Nijgadh International in the Bara Province.

Tenzing-Hillary Airport (Lukla Airport)

Tenzing-Hillary Airport (Lukla Airport)

Tenzing-Hillary Airport, also called Lukla Airport after the town where it is located is one of the most significant airports in Nepal due to its close proximity to Mount Everest.

For a multitude of reasons it is attributed as being the most dangerous airport in the world; for starters at 2860m above sea level, high altitude and low-pressure air make takeoff and landing less than ideal. Furthermore, aside from the obvious dangers posed by the mountainous terrain, Tenzing-Hillary has an extremely short runway of 527m that ends with a cliff drop into an icy valley.

Weather is also a determining factor for operations at Lukla airport since the Himalayan climate is highly erratic and unpredictable, in fact on any given day it is not uncommon to find completely different weather conditions at Lukla than Kathmandu although there is only a 25-30 minutes flight between them. Fog and rain have a tendency to quickly appear and so cancelled flights are not uncommon. Daily changing wind patterns also impact landing success and most flights are scheduled for the very early morning with the airport even closing at later hours of the day to avoid the strong mountainous winds.

The resulting scenario is that pilots will land or take off with less engine power due to the low air pressure, have to navigate challenging weather conditions that often restrict visibility, and only have a single chance to land on/ take off from the rather short runway. Another major issue with landing at Tenzing-Hillary Airport, is the fact that the surrounding mountains render landing go-around procedures impossible. As a result the airport only accommodates short takeoff and landing aircraft (STOL) and helicopters. In a worst-case scenario, planes en route can turn around and return to Kathmandu or land elsewhere.

To limit the accidents at Tenzing-Hillary the CAAN demands specific preparations from any pilot that plans on frequenting the airport. Basic training requests pilots to have made 100 successful STOL flights and have at least one year’s experience flying such aircraft over the peaks of Nepal. Following this, pilots must undergo specific training with a certified instructor and perform 10 landings on the Lukla runway before being given the green light to pilot regular flights to the airport.

That said Lukla Airport remains an essential component of the region’s infrastructure and in 2019 its traffic saw a peak of 129,508 passengers. New helipads are set to be added to the airport to further improve its operations as both a gateway for tourists and mountain climbers along with a freight distribution point for the remote towns in the region.

Pokhara Airport

Pokhara Airport

Found in the Polkara region, Pokhara Airport is named after and serves the second most populous city in Nepal. It serves an important role in the country’s tourism sector offering proximity to the Annapurna Range – home to three of the world’s highest mountains, as well as the Phewa Lake and the Tal Barahi Temple.

Currently, the airport facilitates local flights to destinations such as Kathmandu, Jomsom and Bharatpur by Buddha Air, Yeti and Shree Airlines. While the airport was designed to accommodate 500 passengers per day, given all of Pokhara’s attractions it sees much more.

“Our capacity is 500 passengers per day. But we are handling around 2,000 passengers a day. We are managing the pressure somehow, but things become difficult for us when flights are disrupted due to air traffic congestion in Kathmandu”, explains Bhola Prasad Guragain, Chief of Civil Aviation Office, Pokhara.

Due to such pressures, the new Pokhara International Airport is under construction with assistance from the Chinese CAMC Engineering firm. Although it was originally planned for their airport to start flight operations in 2021, construction was delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, and so the opening has been moved to 2022.

Pokhara International Airport will have a 2.5km runway capable of accommodating large commercial aircraft such as the A320 and Boeing 757-200 that will be complemented by a parallel taxiway. There will also be separate domestic and international terminals with the latter capable of handling 650 passengers per hour.

Bharatpur Airport

Bharatpur is a touristically significant city situated near Nepal’s Chitwan National Park, which is home to Nepal’s diverse wildlife and known for being a habitat to the endangered Bengal Tiger. The region is also known for its elephant breeders along with the Rapti river.

As a small domestic airport, Bharatpur provides flights to Nepal’s two main cities – Kathmandu and Pokhara by both Buddha Air and Yeti Airlines. Located 1.6km from the city of Bharatpur, the airport was completed in 1958 and has a single 1.2km runway.

The Nepalese government is making preparations to improve upon Bharatpur Airport, seeking to add 450m to the existing runway along with building a new terminal and the addition of fuel storage and refilling facilities.

Nijgadh International Airport

Nijgadh International Airport

Proposed by the CAAN Nijgadh International Airport is set for construction in the Kolhabi municipality 68km south of Kathmandu and takes the name of the nearby town Nijgadh. With an estimated cost of $3.45 billion, it is hoped that the airport will be completed in seven years. The Ministry of Tourism has supported the project although it will be difficult to find investors during the turbulent economic recession brought on by Covid-19.

“If we wait for the project to be developed through foreign funding, it will never happen. But if we start on our own, the project, which will likely take seven years to complete, will at least get moving. We have already spent around Rs2 billion on the initial works. Now, we cannot backtrack” explains Rajan Pokhrel, Director General of the CAAN.

Set to be constructed with the assistance from a Swiss company – Zurich International Airport it is expected to take the record for being the largest airport in South Asia; with a 3,600m runway and a 75,000m² terminal that can accommodate 15 million annual travellers. Furthermore, a new airport near Kathmandu will relieve Tribuhvan International from its heavy traffic, and also serve as an alternative landing point when winter fog disturbs flight operations to the smaller airport.

What is next for Nepal’s Airports?

With promising projects such as Nijgadh International along with the new Pokhara terminal, Nepal seems on the right track to improve its aviation accessibility. That said it must be noted that far from the cities, while the rest of Nepal’s airports may not suffer from conditions as extreme as Lukla, there are still many airports that also have short runways and less than ideal weather conditions that pose a challenge to the Nepalese government. We believe that although it will be difficult, the development of these more remote and dangerous airports will bring Nepal a new wave of tourists and with them the potential to skyrocket the country’s economy.

From Mountain to Sky: The Airlines of Nepal

From Mountain to Sky: The Airlines of Nepal

Nepal Airlines

Home to the world’s tallest mountains, from Everest to Annapurna along with endless green fields teeming with flamboyant wildlife, it’s no surprise that tourism is one of Nepal’s primary sources of income. While the country is certainly a sight to behold, it is by no means easy to navigate. In fact, because of its harsh terrain, Nepal does not have sufficient railroad or road networks to facilitate land travel. To add to the challenge, Nepal sees regular monsoon episodes that make already remote locations even harder to access. Eways Aviation presents a closer look at the aviation marketplace of Nepal which serves the budding tourism economy.

The Civil Aviation Authority of Nepal (CAAN) regulates the country’s air space facilitating the operation of Nepal’s 14 passenger airlines and numerous charters. In total there are 3 local airlines that undertake regular international travel whilst the rest operate solely within the Nepalese borders. Here is a closer at some of the country’s notable airlines.

> International Airlines of Nepal

Nepal Airlines

Established in 1958, the Royal Nepalese Airlines Corporation was Nepal’s first airline to use a single Douglas DC-3 for its operations within the region. The airline’s routes included scenic voyages over the vast Nepalese terrain and passenger flights to destinations such as Calcutta and Delhi in India.

Based in the Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu, the company adopted the name Nepal Airlines Corporation in 2007 and continues to play a key role in the Nepalese aviation sector. Its fleet consists of 5 planes including 2 A320-200s, one A330-200 and DHC-6-300.

Unfortunately, the EU ban on Nepal Airlines since 2013 continues today with no prospects of its reversal anytime soon. That said, along with its 15 domestic destinations Nepal Airlines adds a total of 9 international destinations to its roster namely, Delhi, Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong Bengaluru, Doha, Dubai, Narita and Mumbai.

Given its relatively poor performance and its heavy debt, the Nepalese government is seeking to privatize the airline as part of its profitability strategy. While presently no investors have shown interest, the government launched a thorough audit of the airline in March 2021 in preparation for the sale of company shares.  

Buddha Air

Buddha Air

Founded in 1997, Buddha Air was one of the emergent airlines that joined the aviation market after the Nepalese airspace was opened to private airline companies. Its first voyage used a Beech craft 1900 D carrying 16 passengers for an hour-long flight from Kathmandu to Mount Everest and back.

Today the airline continues its “Everest Experience” flights whilst also serving local destinations including Tulmingtar, Bhadrapur, Janakpur and other destinations in Nepal. Whilst predominantly a domestic flier, Buddha Air does have international airline status due to the fact that it makes a regular voyage to Varanasi in India. Otherwise, Buddha Air serves 15 domestic locations making an average of 100 daily flights.

The most recent addition to the Buddha Air fleet is the ATR 72-500 that was acquired in 2021. The airline also uses two ATR 42-300 along with 9 72-500s making for a total of 11 airplanes.

Himalaya Airlines

Established in 2014 through a Nepalese-Chinese joint venture, Himalaya Airlines is the combined effort between the Yeti World Investment group and Tibet Airlines. The Nepalese continue to hold the majority of shares in the company with an ownership of 51%, whilst the rest belonging to the Chinese. The airline made its first flight in October of 2016 flying first to Doha and seeing its second journey to Colombo.

Now the airline has expanded to cover 10 International destinations such as Abu Dhabi, Beijing, Dammam, Dhaka and Kuala Lumpur. Himalaya Airlines, is the only participant in the Nepalese aviation marketplace that performs international flights exclusively. Furthermore, the company takes credit for being the only Nepalese airline to fly to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. It has a fleet of 3 planes namely 2 A320-200s and a A319-100.

In early 2021, Himalaya Airlines sowed the seeds of a business partnership with the domestic Nepalese flier Yeti Airlines. The agreement sees airlines with access to each other’s resources and services thus expanding their span of operations and increasing their revenues.

“Yeti Airlines is pleased and excited to have Himalaya Airlines as a partner which has certainly given a positive message to the business communities. With this partnership passengers of both the airlines get the added benefits. We are glad to have this opportunity to work together with Himalaya Airlines for widening the network.” according to Anoj Rimal, CEO from Yeti Airlines.

 The result will see Himalaya Airlines profiting from domestic flights while Yeti Airlines will gain international operations through its new partner.

> Domestic Airlines of Nepal

Yeti Airlines

Yeti Airlines

One of Nepal’s most prominent domestic carriers Yeti Airlines began its operations based in Kathmandu during the fall of 1999 using a lone DHC6-300 Twin Otter airplane. Today the airline maintains six aircraft in total with a fleet comprised of 5 ATR72-500 and 1 BAe Jetstream 41. With United Nations assistance, the airline underwent an extensive carbon audit procedure in 2019 and through various ecological implementations arrived to drastically reduce its CO2 emissions at a rate of 20% per flight km and its individual passenger footprint by 12%. As a result, Yeti Airlines is the first carbon-neutral airline in Nepal and South Asia.

This came as a blessing to the country’s ecology since the airline is the most active within Nepalese borders serving 12 destinations and performing sight-seeing flights of Mount Everest and Annapurna.

As the airline continued to expand with more planes and routes, a sister company Tara Air was founded in 2009 to handle short take-off and landing (STOL) aircraft namely five DHC 6-300 Twin Otter and two DO 228 Dornier plane that are especially effective in the mountainous regions of Nepal.

Saurya Airlines

Saurya Airlines

A relatively small Nepalese Airline, Saurya Airlines is based in Tribhuvan International Airport in Kathmandu and performs all of its flights with two CRJ200ERs. It started its life in 2014 and saw a turbulent start when extended bureaucratic procedures kept the plane grounded for three months.

Although the airline had full intention to operate as a passenger carrier, it was reclassified as a charter by the CAAN for not maintaining the minimum number of two aircraft necessary to be considered a scheduled passenger carrier. Fortunately, the reclassification was reversed when the airline bought its second plane in 2017 and returned to its activities as a carrier.

Between Kathmandu, Biratnagar Nepalgunj today Saurya Airlines flies to a total of 5 domestic destinations around Nepal.

> Charter Airlines in Nepal

Several private charter airlines companies regularly fly within Nepalese Airspace using diverse aircraft. These charters provide passengers with touristic services as well as travel alternatives between different regions in South Asia.

One of the largest private charters in Nepal, Air Dynasty operates since 1993 and uses 4 Eurocopter helicopters – AS350 B3e, two FXIIs and a BAwas. In its roster of services, Air Dynasty provides services such as scenic flights, cargo transport, transport alternatives as well as medical evacuations.

Going Beyond the Mountain’s Summit

While Nepal’s aviation landscape is not without fruit, such a naturally diverse country should strive to overcome the effective EU travel ban and tap the potentials of the European marketplace, a challenge known to several countries in the region. Furthermore, there is plenty of opportunities for airlines to increase their international destinations and further improve Nepal’s accessibility to the world. At Eways Aviation, we hope to see the standard of Nepal’s aviation landscape fly higher than its countless mountains.

A Close Look At Nigerian Skies: An Eways Aviation Video

A Close Look At Nigerian Skies: An Eways Aviation Video

In this month’s video, Eways Aviation focuses on the Nigerian aviation landscape and its wealth of possibilities. With its rich and versatile aviation landscape, Nigeria continues to dominate the skies and take African aviation to new heights. As one of the leaders on the continent, Nigeria is home to a myriad of airports and is second only to the US in its number of airlines.

The country’s 15 notable airports come in three groups: five that meet international standards and five domestic while the rest serve as important regional airports. Furthermore, in response to increased passenger traffic, the Nigerian government has plans to expand its existing airports with the addition of 11 new terminals that include Nnamdi Azikiwe International in the capital Abuja as well as the busy Murtala Mohamed International Airport in Lagos.

In terms of airlines, there are 8 local players in the Nigerian sky such as Air Peace, Azman, Dana Air and Green Africa Airways. In addition, United Nigeria Airlines is the country’s newest domestic carrier that is in talks to expand its operations to international destinations. Interestingly Nigeria is also home to the unique Ibom Air, the world’s first active provincial airline – as opposed to the national airlines.

Maintaining one of the most sophisticated aviation networks in Africa, continued expansion positions Nigeria as one of the key leaders on the continent, soon to harness the full potential of the skies.

Read our other articles about the Nigerian Aviation landscape to know more:

Who Are The Commercial Airlines Of Nigeria?  

Understanding Nigeria’s Airport Landscape

Business To Freight: A Deep Look At Nigeria’s Diverse Aviation Landscape 

Inside Ibom Air, one of Africa’s most dynamic start-up airlines

Deep Lakes and Mountain Peaks: Exploring the Aviation Landscape of Kyrgyzstan  

Deep Lakes and Mountain Peaks: Exploring the Aviation Landscape of Kyrgyzstan  

Kyrgyzstan Manas airport

Not only is Kyrgyzstan a landlocked country, but it also holds the record for being the furthest country from the sea in the world. Geographically speaking, Kyrgyzstan is challenged with mountainous terrain in the North and rough deserts in the South.  In the winter months, it even happens that snow blocked roads effectively segregate the Northern and Southern populations of the country. In such conditions, an efficient air network is a necessity to overcome the tests of the terrain.

Fortunately, Kyrgyzstan has grown to manage an air sector that is a significant contributor to the country’s economy. To ensure the standard of air traffic the Kyrgyz Civil Aviation Agency (CAAK) monitors the country’s airspace and numerous airports.

Kyrgyzstan Airports

At the time of its independence from the USSR in 1991, Kyrgyzstan counted 50 airports within its borders although the majority of them were unfit for commercial use. Today only a few of these original airports continue to serve the country and there are a total of 21 paved runways in Kyrgyzstan, four of which meet international standards.

Manas International Airport

Up until 2006, Manas International with its 4,203m runway was the only Kyrgyz airport fit to handle international flights. Found 25km northwest of the capital Bishkek the airport had been inaugurated in 1974 and saw its first operations under USSR management.

Following independence, the airport was abandoned as a rundown aircraft boneyard and operation only resumed in late 2001 when the US government took interest in the airport as a portal for American troops stationed in the region. Upon US arrival, the airport was revamped, removing the decrepit aircraft and improving its facilities.

Today the airport serves as Kyrgyzstan’s main airport and home to several airlines including Air Kyrgyzstan and Air Manas. It sees a high number of annual passengers peaking with 3.5 million in 2019. Aside from Kyrgyz airliners, several international aircraft regularly land in Manas International including Turkish Airlines, Flydubai, Uzbekistan Airlines, Air Astana, Azimuth and China Southern Airlines among others.

Osh International Airport

Osh International Airport

Kyrgyzstan’s second most active airport, Osh International averages over one million visitors a year and saw the most traffic in 2019 with 1.5 million passengers. The airport named after its home city has a single 3,212m runway fit to accommodate the large aircraft associated with commercial travel. It serves as the main aerial connecting point between North and South Kyrgyzstan.

The airport performs scheduled flights to 19 cities in total; aside from the Kyrgyz capital, this includes many Russian destinations such as Moscow, St. Petersburg, and Kazakhstan. The most recent addition to Osh International’s regular travel schedule was a direct flight to Kuwait City undertaken by Jazeera Airways.

Issyk-Kul International Airport

This airport was first named after the nearby village of Tamchy in North East Kyrgyzstan, when it was built by the USSR in 1975.

With the addition of a new runway and terminal in 2003, the Kyrgyzstan government renamed it to Issyk-Kul International Airport. Unfortunately, while its 3,800m runway meets international standards, a lack of landing assistance facilities limits the airport to solely daylight operation. Even so, the popularity of this airport continues to grow and it experienced a surge in 2019, with 16,027 travellers, a 38.8% increase over the prior year. Unfortunately, this was significantly reduced in 2020 by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The airport’s popularity can be attributed to its close proximity to the Issy-kul lake (10th largest in the world), which has been growing in popularity as a beach destination for local fliers as well as tourists from neighbouring countries.

Karakol International Airport

Originally constructed in the 1940s, Karakol International was known as Przhevalsk Airport until 1992 when it was given International status and named after the capital of Issyk-Kul. The smallest of Kyrgyzstan’s international airports, it has a single 2000m runway that regularly sees aircraft from the Avia Traffic Company and Air Kyrgyzstan. It saw a major refurbishment in 1978, that gave the airport the terminal and runway that it continues to use today.

Airlines of Kyrgyzstan

At the moment Kyrgyzstan possesses eight active airlines, the figure that stands after the CAAK canceled 18 operators for various reasons including prolonged inactivity and expired licenses.

Air Kyrgyzstan

Air Kyrgyzstan

As the country’s flag carrier, Air Kyrgyzstan was started in 2001 to replace the former Kyrgyzstan Airlines. It was first named Altyn Air before becoming Air Kyrgyzstan in 2006. The airline is based in Manas International with a second branch in Osh International airport.

Unfortunately, Air Kyrgyzstan has struggled to profit alongside its competitors in the region including Turkish Pegasus Airlines, Russian Ural Airlines, S7 and even private Kyrgyz airlines and saw heavy losses between 2018-2019 before the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic. This was caused by increased expenses on the company and its limited flight destinations. Furthermore, the airline has been inactive since 2017 when its lone operational B-737-500 was grounded after a bird collision saw it unfit for flight. In an effort to improve the airline’s performance the Accounts Chamber of Kyrgyzstan procured a plan to privatize the company looking for investors whilst pushing for increased governmental support for Air Kyrgyzstan.

The airline expects to add five new airplanes to its fleet in the near future and has already procured two Airbus units. An agreement with the German fund PANAF Holding also plans to add two ATR72s to the airline’s roster.

To date Air Kyrgyzstan flies to 10 domestic and international destinations including Moscow, Urumchi and Surgut but unfortunately, Air Kyrgyzstan is not permitted to fly into EU airspace.

Air Manas

Air Manas

Air Manas is a budget airline that was opened in 2006 and based in Manas International Airport with a sister branch in Osh International. It operated as a charter airline until 2012 when the airline saw a major revamp and the Turkish Pegasus Airlines bought 49% of the company from the Kyrgyz government. This arrangement continued until 2019 when the Turkish resold its stakes in Air Manas.

The airline serves several destinations including Moscow, Istanbul and Tashkent. In recent negotiations with the Azerbaijani administration, Air Manas was recently allowed passage through Azerbaijan’s airspace and as a result added flights to new destinations such as Trabzon, Minsk and Aktau and Vladikavkaz.

Air Manas’s fleet has included Boeing aircraft – 737-400, 737-800 and 7373-800NG.   and it was by the Kyrgyz Minister of Transport Gulmira Abdralieva that it would soon be obtaining two A220-300s in April 2021. She added that this move will render Air Manas as the first Kyrgyz airline to mobilize new-build aircraft. In conversations with 24.kg news agency Chairman of the Eurasian Development Bank, Andrey Belyaninov added that “This deal is already at the end of the process. We hope that it will take place and the renewal of Kyrgyz airlines will begin.” He also discussed the EDB’s willingness to assist in the continuing development of Manas International Airport.  

Sky KG Airlines

Sky KG is a charter airline that began flights in 2004. The company uses two Diamond aircraft, one DM-42 Twin Star and DA-42M New Generation. The airline provides passengers alternative travel options within Kyrgyzstan along with touristic services and tours.

As an airline Sky KG stands out because it offers numerous other aviation services, including, flight inspection, light aircraft maintenance, as well as airport management.

Other Kyrgyz Airlines – Tez Jet and AeroStan

Also based in Manas International Airport, the Avia Traffic Company currently serves 5 destinations including Istanbul, St. Petersburg, and Duyanbe. Prior Covid-19 disrupting the airline’s operations it had reached a total of 18 destinations in 2019. The Avia Traffic Company has a fleet of five planes including an A320-200 and four Boeing 737-300s.

 The smaller Tez Jet Airlines is a scheduled carrier founded in 2013 and provides daily domestic flights within Kyrgyzstan serving an average of 10,000 passengers per month. The company currently operates 3 aircraft, two ARJ85s alongside an MD-83 and flies between Manas and Osh airports.

Soon to be active, Kyrgyzstans youngest airline, AeroStan has obtained its Air Operator’s Certificate and is preparing to commence operations with one A300B4, a B727-200(F) and two B747-200B(SF). Previously AeroStan operated primarily as a cargo airline but will soon commence operations as a charter airline.

Kyrgyzstan’s Airplanes Can Fly Further

The Issyk-Kol Lake is the second-largest mountain lake in the world

It is optimistic to note that although Kyrgyzstan has struggled to push for economic growth since gaining independence, its aviation network is one of its leading achievements. That said, there is room for improvement in several aspects of the Kyrgyzstan air space such as the numerous airports that remain incapable of operating at night and the airlines providing limited international destinations. Furthermore, it is worth noting that access to EU airspace would be a major step forward for Kyrgyzstan’s flight sector. At Eways Aviation we look forward to see Kyrgyzstan harness the full potential of its skies and bloom like the country’s promising tourism sector.

Air to Ocean: The Aviation World of French Polynesia

Air to Ocean: The Aviation World of French Polynesia

Faa’a International Airport, also known as Tahiti International Airport

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)

Faa’a Airport seen from the sky

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

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.

Raiatea Airport

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

Air Tahiti

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

Boeing 737 from 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.