I just got back from a lovely trip to Tahiti with my family. In addition to our first trip to French Polynesia, this marked my son’s first international flight, and his first trip to the southern hemisphere. That’s not to say our trip went hiccup free, though. In fact, our vacation ended up extending itself an extra day thanks to the Air Tahiti Nui cabin crew strike. Spoiler – we probably got lucky, but it could have gone much, much worse.
Trouble in Paradise – The Air Tahiti Nui Cabin Crew Strike
One important item to get out of the way first. This cabin crew strikes affects Air Tahiti NUI, the airline’s long-haul division. It does NOT affect plain Air Tahiti, which operates inter-island flights.
On June 29th, Air Tahiti Nui cabin crew issued a strike notice on June 29th, to take effect from midnight July 5th. Naturally, this occurred two days AFTER our arrival in Tahiti. Nevertheless, I paid little attention to this during our vacation, which went fabulously. Strike threats occur somewhat regularly at Air Tahiti, with most resolving fairly quickly. (Seems the French even taught their colonies on the art of striking). However, my concern started growing the day before our scheduled departure from Tahiti. The strike threat remained unresolved, with potential disruptions on the table.
Now, this sounded to me like a situation where flights might run, but with reduced service onboard. Big deal; our flight was an overnight redeye where I planned to sleep most of the way. Just the same, I started checking hotel availability in Papeete in case we got stuck. The Hilton by the airport showed plenty of rooms available, so I decided to just wait things out.
Things got dicier the next day (Wednesday). I received a text message showing a change to our reservation.
Oddly, the only change I could see was a change to the flight number, from 102 to 402. Still, this made me suspicious something was up. Sure enough, around 4 pm, I received this email about a potential cancellation:
Now, while I appreciate advance notice of a cancellation, the actual advice here is largely bulls***. Many who visit French Polynesia don’t stay on the island of Tahiti. Rather, they visit other islands, then connect on an inter-island flight to a long-haul back home. We found ourselves in this boat. Our itinerary included 3 days on the island of Tahiti to start, followed by 4 days in Huahine. There’s really no option to extend a hotel stay in this case. For that matter, how realistic is it to ask to extend a stay anywhere in Tahiti during the middle of summer tourist season? In any event, I decided to fly back to Papeete as scheduled, and deal with any potential disruption there. Worst case, I stay at the Hilton for the night, with rooms still available there. That gave us the most options to quickly address alternatives if necessary.
Arriving back in Papeete around 8:15 pm. we decided to have dinner at an aviation-themed restaurant in the terminal to await our fate. Hey, nothing you can do about the timeline, so might as well make the best of it, right? The food was alright, but overpriced (though what’s new 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, I received official notification of the flight cancellation.
Now, my rule number one of late night flight cancellations is, get a hotel room first, ask questions later. So I fired up the Hilton app and booked us a room for the night. As I told my wife and son, let’s get you two a comfortable bed, and I’ll work on fixing this mess. (I later found out Air Tahiti used the same hotel to house stranded passengers. This likely saved us a bunch of time waiting in line). After getting Ashok to sleep, I went to work booking refundable tickets on United via San Francisco on Friday as a backup. (We planned on visiting my mother-in-law for two days on the way back, so I only really HAD to get home by Saturday.) Then I settled into bed for the night.
Despite Air Tahiti’s promise, Thursday morning came with no update. We headed downstairs to breakfast, where Ashok enjoyed waffles and ham while we enjoyed the view outside.
After getting back to the room, I called Air Tahiti’s US number to see about rebooking. Surprisingly, I got an agent within 5 minutes, who rebooked me on Friday’s flight to LA. First order of business, I headed to the front desk to extend my stay a day. I booked a cash rate, but after showing the clerk my cancellation email, he switched our room to Air Tahiti’s account without issue. As an added bonus, we received lunch and dinner vouchers for the day. $60 per person for lunch, and $85 per person for dinner. And then we proceeded to – do absolutely nothing for the day. I headed across the street to the Carrefour to get some snacks for Ashok, then enjoyed our free lunch at the hotel. My wife enjoyed her fish, my son his pasta, and my Cornish game hen was OK.
The desert (a chocolate cake kind of thing) was quite good.
While waiting for our food, I took my son around the pool area, and we both enjoyed the walk.
As we finished lunch, I received a call from Air Tahiti. Great news, they found us 3 seats on that night’s flight back to LA. Of course I accepted the offer. Frankly, it surprised me they even did that, considering this was an Alaska Mileage Plan booking. Figured they’d tell me to pound sand and deal with Mileage Plan. But I also decided to wait until evening to check out in case things went south. In the meantime, we went back to the room to – do more of absolutely nothing. Around 5 pm, a band started playing Polynesian music at the pool. I opened up our balcony door to listen, and enjoyed a beautiful sunset.
Then we had an early dinner before heading to the airport. I had a steak, my wife more fish, and my son the same pasta. The steak was pretty good; the only thing we paid for was the glass of red wine.
With still no cancellation notice after dinner, we checked out and headed to the airport. Thankfully, this time we checked in with no issue. I didn’t cancel our backup tickets until right at boarding, though. (Good thing I booked them, too, because Air Tahiti Nui’s Friday flight ended up canceling.) The flight home itself was fine. Service levels on the flight were normal, and overall we enjoyed the trip home. Most importantly, my son slept well.
At the end of the day, the only “cost” to us was one day less with my mother-in-law. The trip ended uneventfully with a Southwest flight to Dallas that brought us home 16 minutes early. I expected to get home by 9 pm Saturday, and that’s exactly what happened. The end result was an extra day of vacation on Air Tahiti Nui’s dime, which I really can’t complain about. Now, I did end up flushing $180 worth of ferry tickets and a rental car in Moorea, which I booked after thinking we were stuck until Friday. But really, that’s small potatoes in the grand scheme of things.
We Got Lucky to Get Out While The Gettin’ Was Good…
Overall, I think this was handled about as well as could have been expected. But we also got very lucky in a few different aspects:
- I have the means to book refundable tickets as a backup plan. These aren’t cheap, and certainly this would create a hardship for those without such means.
- We had two days of buffer at the end of our trip. A 24-hour delay to Los Angeles only meant one less day visiting family. I didn’t have to worry about missing an unscheduled day of work.
- The situation seems to be deteriorating substantially as noted below.
Based on Air Tahiti Nui’s news release, the airline has increased cancellations on all routes. And as of Sunday, Air Tahiti Nui agreed to allow any passenger to cancel a reservation, whether their specific flight is affected or not. This Reddit thread also suggests things getting much worse, with no hotel rooms left, and little communication regarding replacement flights.
If any stranded Air Tahiti Nui passengers are reading this, there are a few options to get out:
- United has seats to San Francisco Thursday onwards at non-extortion rates.
- Air France (to LAX) has nothing until Friday, with more availability after that at lower prices.
- LCC French Bee operates flights to SFO Thursdays, Saturdays, and Mondays with plenty of availability.
- You could also try backtracking to Auckland via Air New Zealand and trying your luck from there.
If you’re scheduled to leave for Tahiti in the next week or two, I’d strongly consider creating looking at alternative flights. Or at least checking your travel insurance to see if it’ll cover forfeited hotel deposits if you must give up the trip.
I’d advise booking one of those flights as a backup if you haven’t already. And don’t cancel that backup until you actually get on board an Air Tahiti flight.