Just got back from a nice trip to Tahiti with my family. In addition to our first trip to French Polynesia, this was my son’s first international flight and his first trip to the southern hemisphere. That’s not to say our trip went without a hitch. In fact, our vacation ended up being extended by an extra day thanks to the Air Tahiti Nui cabin crew strike. Spoiler – we probably got lucky, but it could have been so much worse.
Trouble in Paradise – Air Tahiti Nui cabin crew strike
An important element to eliminate first. This cabin crew strike affects Air Tahiti NUI, the company’s long-haul division. This does NOT affect Air Tahiti, which operates inter-island flights.
On June 29, Air Tahiti Nui cabin crew issued a strike notice on June 29, to take effect from midnight July 5. Naturally, this happened two days AFTER we arrived in Tahiti. Nevertheless, I paid little attention to it during our vacation, which went wonderfully well. Strike threats occur fairly regularly at Air Tahiti, with most resolving fairly quickly. (It seems that the French even taught their colonies the art of striking). However, my anxiety began to grow the day before our scheduled departure from Tahiti. The strike threat remained unresolved, with potential disruptions on the table.
Now, that sounded like a situation to me where flights could work, but with reduced service on board. Big deal; our flight was a red eye overnight where I had planned to sleep most of the way. All the same, I started checking the availability of hotels in Papeete in case we got stuck. The Hilton near the airport showed a lot of rooms available, so I decided to wait for things to happen.
Things got complicated the next day (Wednesday). I received an SMS indicating a modification of our reservation.
Oddly, the only change I could see was a change in the flight number, from 102 to 402. Still, that made me suspect something was up. Sure enough, around 4 p.m., I received this email regarding a possible cancellation:
Now, while I appreciate a notice of cancellation, the real advice here is largely *** bulls. Many of those who visit French Polynesia do not stay on the island of Tahiti. Instead, they visit other islands and then connect on an inter-island flight to a long-haul return. We ended up in this boat. Our itinerary included 3 days on the island of Tahiti to start, followed by 4 days in Huahine. There really is no possibility of extending a hotel stay in this case. Besides, is it realistic to ask to extend a stay anywhere in Tahiti in the middle of the summer tourist season? Anyway, I decided to fly back to Papeete as planned and deal with any potential disruption there. At worst, I stay at the Hilton for the night, with rooms still available there. This gave us the most options to quickly process alternatives if needed.
Return to Papeete around 8:15 p.m. we decided to dine at an aviation-themed restaurant in the terminal to await our fate. Hey, you can’t do anything about the timeline, so might as well make the most of it, right? The food was ok, but overpriced (but what’s up in Tahiti). My son and I shared a croque monsieur, while my wife enjoyed grilled fish. At least we wouldn’t end the day hungry.
And the aviation-themed decor made this avgeek happy.
Predictably, shortly after 9:45 a.m. I received official notification of the flight cancellation.
Now my number one rule of late night flight cancellations is, get a hotel room first, ask questions later. So I launched the Hilton app and we booked a room for the night. Like I told my wife and son, let’s go get you a comfortable bed, and I’ll fix this mess. (I later found out that Air Tahiti used the same hotel to accommodate stranded passengers. This probably saved us a lot of time waiting in line). After putting Ashok to sleep, I went to work booking redeemable tickets on United through San Francisco on Friday as a backup. (We had planned to visit my mother-in-law for two days on the way home, so I really didn’t have to get home until Saturday.) Then I went to bed for the night.
Despite Air Tahiti’s promise, Thursday morning came with no update. We went down for breakfast, where Ashok enjoyed waffles and ham while we took in the view outside.
After returning to the room, I called the US number for Air Tahiti to see if a new reservation was offered. Amazingly, I had an agent within 5 minutes, who booked me on Friday’s flight to Los Angeles. First order of business, I headed to reception to extend my stay for a day. I booked a cash fare, but after showing the employee my cancellation email, he transferred our room to Air Tahiti’s account with no problem. As a bonus, we received vouchers for lunch and dinner for the day. $60 per person for lunch and $85 per person for dinner. And then we proceeded to – do nothing all day. I headed across the street to Carrefour for some snacks for Ashok, then enjoyed our free lunch at the hotel. My wife enjoyed her fish, my son his pasta and my Cornish hen was ok.
The desert (a kind of chocolate cake) was quite good.
While waiting for our food I took my son around the pool and we both enjoyed the walk.
As we were finishing lunch, I received a call from Air Tahiti. Good news, they found us 3 seats on the flight back to Los Angeles that night. Of course, I accepted the offer. Frankly, it surprised me that they even did that, considering it was an Alaska mileage plan reservation. I thought they would tell me to beat some sand and take care of the mileage plan. But I also decided to wait until evening to check in case things turned south. In the meantime, we returned to the room to – do nothing more. Around 5 p.m., a band started playing Polynesian music at the pool. I opened our balcony door to listen and enjoyed a beautiful sunset.
Then we had an early dinner before heading to the airport. I had steak, my wife more fish and my son the same pasta. The steak was quite good; the only thing we paid for was the glass of red wine.
Still with no notice of cancellation after dinner, we left and headed to the airport. Luckily this time we checked in with no problem. However, I only canceled our reserve tickets upon boarding. (Good thing I booked them too, since Air Tahiti Nui’s Friday flight ended up being cancelled.) The flight home itself went well. Service levels on the flight were normal and overall we enjoyed the return trip. Most importantly, my son slept well.
In the end, the only “cost” for us was one less day with my mother-in-law. The trip ended uneventfully with a flight from the southwest to Dallas bringing us home 16 minutes early. I expected to be home at 9 p.m. Saturday, and that’s exactly what happened. The end result was an extra day of vacation at Air Tahiti Nui’s expense, which I really can’t complain about. Now I ended up buying $180 ferry tickets and a rental car in Moorea, which I booked after thinking we were stuck until Friday. But really, these are small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
We were lucky to get out while the Gettin was good…
All in all, I think it was handled about as well as one would expect. But we were also very lucky in a few different aspects:
- I have the means to book refundable tickets as a back-up plan. They are not cheap, and that would certainly create difficulties for those who do not have such means.
- We had two days of buffer at the end of our trip. A 24-hour delay in Los Angeles meant just one less day to visit family. I didn’t have to worry about missing an unscheduled day of work.
- The situation seems to be deteriorating considerably, as shown below.
Based on Air Tahiti Nui Press release, the airline has increased cancellations on all routes. And since Sunday, Air Tahiti Nui has agreed to allow any passenger to cancel a reservation, whether or not their specific flight is affected. This Reddit thread also suggests things are getting worse, with no hotel rooms and little communication regarding replacement flights.
If any stranded Air Tahiti Nui passengers are reading this, there are a few options for getting out:
- United has seats in San Francisco starting Thursday at extortion-free fares.
- Air France (to LAX) has nothing until Friday, with more availability after that at lower prices.
- LCC French Bee offers flights to SFO on Thursdays, Saturdays and Mondays with plenty of availability.
- You can also try flying back to Auckland via Air New Zealand and try your luck from there.
If you need to leave for Tahiti in the next week or two, I would strongly consider creating alternative flights. Or at least check your travel insurance to see if it will cover lost hotel deposits if you have to abandon the trip.
I would recommend booking one of these flights in reserve if you haven’t already. And don’t undo this save until you board an Air Tahiti flight.