AIR TAHITI SEEKS PAPEETE TRAVEL HUB

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PAPEETE, Tahiti (Tahitipresse, Feb. 18) – Air Tahiti Nui has announced plans to make the Tahiti-Faa'a International Airport a South Pacific hub with a variety of flights going in several directions.

The launching date for the hub concept coincides with Air Tahiti Nui's plans to offer a new flight schedule providing direct access to Tahiti from Paris, Los Angeles, New York, Sydney and Auckland.

The objective is to connect the big cities of the northern hemisphere to South Pacific destinations, Air Tahiti Nui CEO Nelson Lévy and Marketing and Sales Manager Richard Hall explained during a press conference.

The the airline is seeking to increase passenger traffic by generating increased stopover passengers involving business and vacationing travelers who represent an untapped market for Air Tahiti Nui, the two officials indicated.

The launching of the hub concept, which is popular among big carriers operating in the U.S.A. and Europe, will coincide with Air Tahiti Nui's March 26 start up of a third weekly non-stop Sydney-Papeete flights. Those flights, plus the airline's three weekly non-stop Auckland-Papeete flights will provide a direct link between Sydney and New York as well as Auckland and New York. Those links will be extended to Paris with the opening of a service from New York to Paris, still subject to government approvals.

The hub concept also will work in the opposite direction, as Paris becomes the gateway to the South Pacific from Europe. The new summer flight schedule that begins on March 26 will enable Air Tahiti Nui to fill more of its seats and provide Tahiti's tourism industry with a broader range of potential visitors, Lévy said.

The announcement of the hub concept follows word that Air Tahiti Nui has won another Skytrax Award. The airline is the winner of a 2006 Skytrax Award for "onboard service excellence for a small airline".

Connecting four continents with a small fleet of just five Airbus A340-300 wide-body aircraft, Air Tahiti Nui's Skytrax Award "honors both the high quality and consistency of in-flight service delivered by" Tahiti's international carrier, Skytrax announced.

"It's the first time this award has been conferred," said Christophe Dalat, Air Tahiti Nui's communications manager. Last June, Air Tahiti Nui received a Skytrax Award for the third straight year as the best airline in the Pacific and for the best cabin staff in the Australia-Pacific zone.

The London-based Skytrax bills its several yearly awards as "the most prestigious recognition of outstanding quality excellence for product and consumer service delivery across today's world airline industry. These independent awards . . . are the result of the most comprehensive analysis of product and service standards.

The Awards panel is made up of directors and audit staff at Skytrax, with additional grading for the 2006 award process utilizing a selective study among 3,424 members of the Skytrax Business Research Group." Those members must travel on a minimum of six roundtrip intercontinental flights over a 12-month period. They come from some 59 countries and represent some 78 nationalities.

"It is important for us that this jury has given us this award," Dalat said of this year's onboard service excellence award for a small airline. "That enables us to have a feedback from our customers . . . but also to reassure our passengers with regard to the quality and product that they're going to find on each one of our flights."

Meanwhile, Air Tahiti Nui's management said it was not worried about the airline's treasury this year despite last year's deficit of about 1.8-2 billion French Pacific francs (US$18.4-16.76 million/15.1-€16.8 million). That loss has been attributed to soaring jet fuel costs and a tourist volume struggling to take off.

But this year presents a new problem, which involves Air Tahiti Nui's two biggest passenger markets in Europe—France and Italy. Those are the only two European countries that are yet to produce the biometric passports required by the U.S. for all visiting and transiting passengers. French and Italian nationals who have European passports issued after last Oct. 26 must obtain a U.S. visa in order to transit the U.S. via New York or Los Angeles en route to Tahiti.

Since January, Air Tahiti Nui has experienced a 15% drop in French and Italian passengers, which, according to the airline's management, amounts to a drop in earnings of some 100 million French Pacific francs (US$1 million/€838,000).

That situation has forced the airline to cancel 10 flights since Jan. 1 that management felt could not be adequately filled.

Air Tahiti Nui's management said Friday it hopes that this past week's meetings in Paris between Tahiti political and tourism industry officials and French Foreign Affairs Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy and Léon Bertrand, the minister delegate for tourism, will find a solution to this problem.

"It appears that the French government will intervene with the American government to authorize (a U.S.) transit with any (unexpired) passport," Lévy said.

February 20, 2006

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