On October 5, the arrivals screen at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport lit with a new name among all the usual Portlands and Chicago O'Hares: the city of Papeete. Air Tahiti Nui flight 52 landed mid-morning to great fanfare from the airline and airport, marking the first direct flight from Tahiti to Seattle. But why do we need air route to a far-off South Pacific island?
Bringing a new flight to Sea-Tac Airport can be a complicated process, sometimes taking years. Sea-Tac isn't New York City or London, says airport media relations manager Perry Cooper, so it's not so congested that airlines have to wrestle over "slots" in Sea-Tac's schedule. By federal law, he notes, the Port of Seattle can't deny an airline the chance to fly in and out of our runways, so once an airline wants to come in, they start working on finding them office space and leasing them ticket counters.
So it was really the small outfit—just four airplanes—of airline Air Tahiti Nui that made the call to link Seattle to the Southern Hemisphere. Mostly owned by the country of French Polynesia, it otherwise operates routes from Tahiti to Paris, Tokyo, and New Zealand. The airline's vice president of the Americas, Caroline Borawski, noted that when they landed on Wednesday, few people in Seattle had ever seen their floral tail fin.
The capital of French Polynesia, Papeete, sits on the island of Tahiti, surrounded by more than a hundred atolls and islands in the South Pacific—but English speakers generally call the whole nation "Tahiti." It calls to mind Mutiny on the Bounty and palm trees, or maybe just the honeymoon destination of Bora Bora. Seattleites like a good tropical breeze as much as anyone else, but why make such a cross-global link to the Pacific Northwest?
First of all, says Borawski, "It is not this far off destination." Though south of the equator, the island nation shares a time zone with Hawai'i, making it a plausible alternative to that popular vacation spot. Eying the North American market, they saw Seattle as hungry for international travel after the pandemic, plus a code share partner in hometown Alaska Airlines.
Also, the flight goes both ways, says Borawski. They saw interest from Tahitians in skiing, and Seattle is the rare urban hub that has easy connections to ski spots. The airline will fly its signature Boeing Dreamliners in two round-trip flights per week.
Though Borawski has seen new routes take up to six or seven years to finalize, Air Tahiti Nui jumped on the Seattle idea very quickly—she estimates it was about a three-month process. Sea-Tac has bounced back from pandemic route closures with more direct flights than ever, launching Helsinki and Istanbul as well this year. The brand-new international arrivals center, costing nearly a billion dollars, has spruced our front door.
The new route launched with fares starting at $769 for the nine-and-a-half hour flight, a good three hours more than a hop to Honolulu. But as Seattle finally descends into winter, Tahiti's year-round sun might make that direct trip not seem all that long at all.