An Old New Product: Air Tahiti Nui’s 787-9 in Business Class From LAX to Papeete, Tahiti
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Great food and numerous drink options. Uniquely Tahitian cabin decorations and crew uniforms.
Poor ground experience in LAX, tight seat width, lack of privacy, lack of Wi-Fi, limited entertainment options, and a crew that rejected drink orders and was reluctant to speak to us in English.
We are big fans of French Polynesia here at TPG. With stunning over-water bungalows in Bora Bora and incredible nature throughout the islands, what’s not to love? And with many new flight options between the US and Papeete, we’ve had plenty of recent excuses to travel to Tahiti.
TPG staff have reviewed Air France (business class and premium economy), French Bee (premium economy and economy), United (business class and economy) and even the domestic airline, Air Tahiti. But we still hadn’t reviewed French Polynesia’s international airline, Air Tahiti Nui. So I volunteered to take one for the team and head to Tahiti.
Points-and-miles collectors can book Air Tahiti Nui flights between Los Angeles (LAX) and Papeete (PPT) using 80,000 AAdvantage miles each way per person. If that sounds like a lot of miles, you’re right. It’s actually the most expensive business-class saver-award price on the American Airlines chart. At current TPG valuations, the 80,000 AAdvantage miles is approximately $1,120 worth of points for the one-way.
For the eight-hour flight, that’s a steep price of 10,000 AA miles per hour. However, you can drop that per-hour price by combining this over-water flight with connecting domestic flights in business class.
And we picked one of the best. After attending a friend’s wedding in Boston, my wife and I were able to book a business-class award in the three-class AA A321T aircraft that was added to the Boston (BOS)-LAX route in April 2019. That meant we got a lie-flat business-class seat for another six and a half hours — an award flight that would typically cost 32,500 AA miles on its own. Katie reviewed that flight, which you can find here.
Even better, we booked this flight before the 10% mileage rebate on certain AA cobranded cards was eliminated. By booking the two tickets together, I maxed out the 10,000 rebate — which brought the net price of our award tickets to 75,000 per person plus taxes and fees of just $5.60 each.
A business-class flight from Boston to Papeete on this route costs $5,025 one-way, meaning we technically got a redemption of almost 6.7 cents per mile. While I bristle at using international one-way flight pricing to calculate redemptions, we clearly got more than TPG’s valuation of 1.4 cents per mile out of our AA miles. If you’d consider shelling out for a cash fare, it could make sense to buy AA miles during a promotion for this redemption or earn AA miles through a credit-card sign-up bonus instead.
In addition to AAdvantage miles, you can use Flying Blue miles to book Air Tahiti Nui. However, Flying Blue hasn’t reliably shown Air Tahiti Nui award availability recently.
Neither American Airlines nor Air Tahiti Nui’s website would let us select seats online. So we tried calling AA’s help line, but the agent said that she could only put in a request for two seats together. Even at check-in, we weren’t able to review or change our seats for the Air Tahiti Nui flight.
A couple of weeks before departure, I called Air Tahiti Nui’s US phone line (877-824-4846, option 3). After a short hold, I got a friendly agent who reserved seats 1K and 1L for us. She warned us that these were bassinet seats and that we might be moved to different seats before departure. The entire call took just three minutes and went as well as it could’ve.
We checked in at Boston Airport for our transcontinental flight and received boarding passes for the LA-to-Papeete leg as well as our Boston-to-LA flight — which would prove to be critical later on.
Upon arrival in LAX, we stopped by the AA Flagship Lounge, but neither AA elites nor Air Tahiti Nui business-class passengers have access to this lounge, as Air Tahiti Nui isn’t a Oneworld carrier. The agent got hung up on this aspect and repeatedly denied us access despite the fact that we had access through our inbound three-class transcontinental flight.
It took minutes of arguing with the agent before he even tried to scan our inbound boarding pass, at which point he seemed confused that the system granted us access. Even then, I had to convince him to hand over Flagship Lounge invitation cards.
But our situation was a rare exception, as most Air Tahiti Nui business-class passengers are only going to have access to the Air Tahiti Nui partner lounge. The only way of getting into the AA lounge at LAX is through your inbound flight or as Citi AAdvantage Executive World Elite Mastercard cardmembers.
Since I was reviewing this flight, I exited security with my carry-on bag to check out the Air Tahiti Nui check-in desk. A few hours before departure, the check-in desk wasn’t too crowded:
But I didn’t head up to the counter for visit at this point. Instead, I left the airport. I had to run an errand at the nearby REI store, and returned to LAX’s international terminal around an hour and a half before departure.
I didn’t think that this arrival time would be an issue, as I only had a carry-on bag and had an AA-issued boarding pass to rely on. And it’s a good thing that I did.
When I arrived back at the Air Tahiti Nui desk, it was completely abandoned. Bummed that I wouldn’t be able to review the check-in experience, I headed for security. A contract LAX security agent took one look at my AA-printed boarding pass and turned me away, saying that I needed to check in at Air Tahiti Nui to get an Air Tahiti Nui boarding pass. For me to get past this gatekeeper, I had to show her a photo that the Air Tahiti Nui desk was shuttered. She insisted that TSA wouldn’t let me through, but I ended up having no issues using the AA-printed boarding pass.
From there, it took more than 30 minutes to clear security. Air Tahiti Nui isn’t one of the 67 participating PreCheck airlines, so I needed to go through the standard line. Just my luck, I was routed to a screening checkpoint that was using a new, experimental screening, which made the wait even longer.
By the time I cleared security, I needed to beeline it for the gate. While I got there before boarding, the Air Tahiti Nui agents needed to confirm my return itinerary before they issued an Air Tahiti Nui boarding pass.
During this process, I asked the agent when the check-in counter closed.
“We closed one hour before departure,” was the firm response.
I insisted that wasn’t the case and asked when they’d closed the check-in counter that day. She doubled and then tripled down that the counter was open until an hour before departure. She had no comment when I showed her the timestamp on the photo that I’d taken 90 minutes before departure of the empty check-in counters.
I wasn’t able to board until most of the flight was boarded. Thankfully, Katie was the third passenger on board and was able to snag a few photos.
A note about the operational performance of this flight: Don’t plan to arrive right on time. Since this flight switched from an Airbus A340 to the new 787-9 Dreamliner on March 28, the flight has landed after the scheduled arrival time 22 out of 27 times — including every flight from April 9 through our flight on May 7.
However, there’s not usually much of a delay. According to FlightRadar24 records, these 22 late-arriving flights have averaged landing at 10:23pm versus the 9:45pm scheduled gate arrival time.
Our flight pushed back seven minutes late, and we were in the air 21 minutes after scheduled departure. With the taxiing delays that LAX has become infamous for, that was borderline miraculous. I figured that’d mean that our flight would be on time, but we didn’t land until 15 minutes after scheduled arrival.
The good part of the ground experience came once we landed in Tahiti. After disembarking by stairs and once inside the building, we were welcomed in a truly Tahitian way.
Cabin and Seat
For Poerava Business on its brand-new Boeing 787-9 Dreamliner, Air Tahiti Nui selected a rather ho-hum business-class seat. The B/E Aerospace Diamond seat is found on numerous airlines, including American, Delta and United, but is better suited as a premium domestic seat rather than a long-haul business-class seat.
The seat first debuted on Continental Airlines in 2009. In the decade since, we’ve seen a number of far better business-class products. That made this feel like an out-of-date choice for an aircraft that the airline took delivery of in late 2018.
That said, it was a practical choice. The seat lies completely flat. The 2-2-2 seating arrangement is good for couples traveling together, though not every seat has direct aisle access.
If you’re all about that window view, don’t pick seats in Row 4, as it has a missing window right next to the seat.
The open 2-2-2 arrangement means that the seating is fairly tight. Seats measure 20.5 inches between armrests. For reference, economy seats on most Airbus A350 aircraft measure at least 18 inches between armrests.
Also, these seats have a noted lack of privacy unless you’re seated in the back of the cabin.
In the front starboard side of the cabin, it felt especially open, as the middle seats angled toward starboard. If you want more privacy, choose further-back seats on the port side of the cabin (A/B seats).
We saw overhead bins above a majority of the seats with the exception of the middle bulkhead seats, due to the crew rest.
Between the seats, there was a drink table measuring approximately 7.5 by 13 inches.
Behind this table were the seat controls. There were only two controls controlling the recline of the seatback and the elevation of the legrest. There were also two buttons that would return the seat to takeoff/landing position or recline it fully into a bed.
When the bulkhead seats were reclined flat, the bed measured 77 inches long.
The tray table folded out from the center console. The bifold table measured 19.5 inches wide by 11 inches deep.
These seats don’t have much storage. There’s an open area located awkwardly behind my shoulder. At boarding for our flight, this area was stocked with a water bottle.
The only other storage area is a slim opening underneath the inflight-entertainment screen and above the footwell. For our bulkhead seats, the opening to this measured 20.5 inches wide and just 2.5 inches tall. The footwells in the bulkhead seats are the biggest by far. Ours measured approximately 21 inches wide and 12.5 inches tall. The footwells for most rows had to squeeze between the seats in front, meaning the openings are much smaller.
The Air Tahiti Nui version of these B/E Aerospace Diamond seats have a shoulder belt that had to be fastened for takeoff and landing, and the flight attendants double-checked to make sure that everyone complied.
The business-class cabin had a dedicated lavatory in the front of the aircraft with a decent 35-inch width from wall to wall. There were also two lavatories behind the cabin that seemed to be shared with the premium economy cabin.
For now, Air Tahiti Nui’s seating arrangement isn’t too far behind the competition. United is using the exact same seat and 2-2-2 seating arrangement on this route but plans to upgrade to 1-2-1 Polaris seating, at least eventually. Air France has a more private and spacious 1-2-1 seating arrangement between LAX and Tahiti.
Amenities and IFE
At boarding, seats were stocked with a decently large 17-inch-by-12-inch pillow, an amenity kit, a pair of headphones and a white bag containing a feltlike comforter, which wasn’t needed because of the warm cabin.
The amenity kit was packed with a number of items, including a pair of socks, an eye mask, a comb, a packaged wet towel, face cream, hand cream, lip balm, earplugs, a pen, a lens wipe, a toothbrush and toothpaste.
The Air Tahiti-labeled headphones were of solid enough quality that I was able to lose myself in a movie without being distracted by the sounds of the open cabin.
During boarding, the flight attendants passed through the cabin with a cart of magazines including an eclectic blend of English and French publications. During our quick interaction with the cart, we noticed that there were multiple editions of certain magazines, such as Time.
After takeoff, the bathroom was adorned with multiple sets of flowers and three bottles: face cream, sanitizing lotion and a facial mist.
Each business-class seat has a 15-inch inflight-entertainment screen containing dozens of movies and TV shows. The system listed 18 new releases, 14 action and adventure, nine thriller and sci-fi, 24 comedy, eight kids and family, eight TV shows, 19 documentaries and nine film festivals. However, many movies and TV shows appeared in more than one category, so it’s hard to say exactly how many movies there were.
Air Tahiti Nui started the flight with a very well-produced safety video that creatively worked in features of French Polynesia into each scene. The audio for the safety video was only in French, but there were English subtitles.
Movies began with 45 seconds of ads, which wasn’t bad. Passengers could skip forward 30 seconds at a time.
In addition to the main screen, there was a small, handheld remote measuring approximately 4 inches diagonally.
You could use this handheld remote to set Do Not Disturb mode. It was unclear how this was communicated to the crew, as there was no noticeable light activated on the seat when this was turned on.
One of the unique features of this IFE system was that it contained “Discover Our Islands,” an informative slideshow on the islands and culture of French Polynesia.
The IFE system didn’t have live TV or a tail camera.
Power was provided via two universal power outlets in the console between seats and a USB outlet next to each IFE screen.
Wi-Fi was installed on the aircraft, but the Wi-Fi service wasn’t operational on this flight. Unfortunately, this wasn’t announced until minutes after takeoff, after the Wi-Fi service had been highly touted in the IFE system. So passengers (like me) who hadn’t loaded or saved work offline were out of luck.
Food and Beverage
Dine on Demand
Welcome drinks were offered shortly after boarding. We each opted for the Champagne, which was a Charles Heidsieck Rose Reserve.
Just after takeoff, the crew announced the plans for meals: drinks, a lunch and then a light dinner before arrival. FAs handed out warm towels served on an oyster shell for passengers to freshen up.
The multicourse meal started with a mise-en-bouche of chicken curry, served in a verrine glass with a bag of snack mix. The small dish of chicken curry was served on top of quinoa, which was too refrigerated as the grains were icy.
The appetizer was served from a drink cart rolled through the aisle along with a choice of drink. The appetizer was a lentil salad with marinated shrimp and smoked duck breast along with a green salad. A choice of white baguette or raisin roll was offered with this course.
There were three choices for the main course: grilled chicken breast and shrimp with rice and cherry sauce; Florida red snapper and tarragon sauce with ratatouille; and braised short ribs of beef with wasabi mashed potatoes
Flight attendants waited until passengers were finished with their appetizers before taking orders for the main course. Immediately after taking the order, the flight attendant retreated to the galley to bring out the main dish.
After an awful experience, I always order the red meat on a plane when I’m reviewing a flight to see how well it’s cooked, so I ordered the braised ribs. The meat was overcooked, but the sauce helped make the meat less dry. The potatoes tasted freshly mashed rather than powdered.
There was no follow-up drink service with the main course, but there was another round of bread.
After the main course came a selection of cheeses with fruit, nuts and even more bread.
Finally, for dessert, the menu listed coffee with tiramisu, an apricot tart and a mango sherbet or fresh fruit, although we received all of the above for dessert. For the tea and coffee, there was no fresh milk or cream. Instead, powered milk and sugar were available.
In all, the “lunch” — which was served between 5:40pm and 7:00pm Pacific time — was a massive feast. But the food and drink weren’t over yet. After less than four hours of sleep, it was time for “dinner.”
Despite being more than two hours from landing, the crew flipped the lights on and made an announcement that dinner would be served shortly. Sure enough, within 10 minutes a warm towel was handed out and collected, tablecloths prepared at each seat and meals served.
The meal consisted of a Caesar salad, cheeses, fruits, a raspberry cheesecake and — of course — more bread.
After dinner plates were collected, the lights were flipped back off, leaving passengers an awkward choice of whether to try to go back to sleep for a bit before landing or stay up and choose from the limited IFE system.
Setting aside the awful service from the ground staff in LAX, the service for this flight was pretty bipolar. We were warmly welcomed on board, and flight attendants were friendly during interactions like when I was passing through the galley to use the bathroom. During meal service, FAs passed through with bread often but didn’t proactively offer drink refills.
However, one service failing was in lack of helpfulness with the menu choices and drinks. For example, I asked for Grand Marnier when the flight attendant was taking premeal orders. It seems that Grand Marnier is only supposed to be served as a digestif. The flight attendant rather awkwardly rejected my order and asked me to choose another drink. Not only was it strange to have a drink order rejected, but the flight attendant wasn’t good about handling the situation.
Another way that we felt less welcome was the crew’s reluctance to speak English. Based in French Polynesia and catering to a French clientele, it’s understandable that the announcements and videos would be in French first. However, there were multiple announcements that weren’t translated into English. And even through the arrival meal, flight attendants who knew by that point that we weren’t French speakers continued to address us in French — even though they seemed to know English.
This experience fell short in many regards. Despite having a brand-new plane, Air Tahiti Nui installed a business-class seat that was more than decade old. While it may have been groundbreaking in 2008, this seat is narrow and lacks privacy. Between the eight-hour flight time, the extended departure meal and early-arrival meal service, we got less than four hours to sleep.
The ground experience in LAX was very poor, and the service was hit-and-miss once on board. The IFE screen was large, but the system lacked options. The one bright spot of the experience was the great food and numerous drink options.
This certainly was a disappointing experience — especially for the high mileage cost. With all of that said, for as poorly as this flight scored, we didn’t leave the flight that upset with the experience. Perhaps that was because we’d just arrived in Tahiti. And it’s hard to complain about paying just $5.60 out of pocket for a flight to paradise.
If you’re considering a trip to French Polynesia, TPG has tons of material on the topic:
- The Best Ways to Get to Tahiti Using Points and Miles
- Moorea or Bora Bora — Which Island Paradise Is Right For You?
- 3 Stunning Islands in French Polynesia That Will Make You Forget About Bora Bora
- Private Island Paradise: A Review of The Brando in French Polynesia
- Paradise, Perfected: Hilton Moorea Lagoon Resort and Spa in French Polynesia
- Last Leg to Paradise: Air Tahiti (ATR 72) in Economy From Tahiti to Bora Bora
- Gateway to French Polynesia: InterContinental Tahiti Resort and Spa
- Sunset Special: A Review of the Manava Suite Resort Tahiti
All photos by the author.