Report by Henry Tenby (December 2016)
Although not the largest airfield in French Polynesia, the idillic South Pacific French protectorate’s busiest international airport is situated on the Island of Tahiti, in the town of Faa, a few kilometers from central Papeete. The destination is certainly well off the beaten track, but the location’s laid back way off life coupled with its stunning physical attributes make it a spotter’s dream come true.
French Polynesia’s longest runway is actually at Bora Bora, which was built by the US military during World War ll, as a forward logistics and operating base to suppress Japanese aggression in the region. Today, Faaa is the airport where all the action is, and where most incoming air passengers will arrive to start their bucket-list Tahitian holidays.
The dominant international carrier is of course Tahiti-based flag carrier Air Tahiti Nui with their fleet or Airbus 340s (to be replaced by Dreamliners) that serve France, the US, Australia and Japan. To a much lesser extent, international services are also offered to Tahiti by Hawaiian Airlines, Air France and Air Cailan of nearby Reunion, which is just a few hours air time from Tahiti.
Most of the international long haul services arrive and depart just before or after midnight, thus not ideal for spotters, reggie bashers and photographers. Depending on the day, there are sporadic daylight departures of long haul services, the author having witnessed mid-day Air Tahiti Nui and Air Calin flights leaving around the lunch hour.
A visit to the airport’s departures hall reveals all scheduled flights and anticipated times for the coming 24 hours, and proved useful for spotting purposes. As there can be long lulls where the airport is completely dead. Internet access to the airport’s website arrivals and departures page is also useful in determining the best times to be on watch on one’s day of spotting.
Faaa boasts two fabulous spotting locations which will satisfy the most demanding of spotter. Both spots allow all airfield movements to be seen, and both spots are excellent for photography, with no hassles of fences, or need for ladders.
The first location is a small roadside observation point that is situated a few minutes by car or public bus to the east of the main terminal building on the way towards Papeete city centre. There is level parking spot for vehicles and the perch offers an elevated view of the runway perhaps a few thousand feet from the eastern threshold of the runway.
There are no amenities and little shade from the sun, so spotters should exercise caution. French Polynesia is an affluent society that attracts affluent tourists and is extremely safe for tourists.
One can leave ipads and valuables on the beach with little risk of theft, so one does not have to be concerned for personal safety whilst spotting at this location. Locals often stop by in their vehicles and scooters to watch the planes, and it can be quite busy, but there is no problem of wild dogs or other inhospitable pests and animals. Bring plenty of sunscreen and water.
The other spotting location is the premier vantage point to soak up the action in full comfort. The Tahiti Airport Motel situated directly across the main road from the Faaa airport terminal building, provides three levels of shaded open air viewing balconies with 180 degree full-on airport views.
These balconies are accessible by all guests of the hotel, and each balcony level is complemented with comfortable chairs. The sun is favourable and from behind, bathing the airfield in beautiful light conditions for the entire day. Hotel guests come and go to spend time relaxing, to enjoy a snack or drink. It is the perfect place to put one’s feet up to soak up the proceedings.
The Tahiti Airport Motel is situated on the small hill that overlooks the airfield, so the viewing balconies are probably a hundred feet above the airfield elevation, thus the tropical blue ocean and the neighbouring island of Moorea provide what can honestly be described as one of the world’s best backdrops for aviation photography and spotting.
The two peak periods for aircraft movements are morning and late afternoon. Papeete based inter-island operator Air Tahiti operates a fleet of ATR turboprops on an extensive network of tourist, cargo and essential air service routes through French Polynesia.
Between 0730 and 0930, there is a flurry of Air Tahiti ATR departures, there is a lesser mid-day flurry, and between 1600 and 1800 the aircraft all arrive back at Faaa at the end of their daily flying duties. Air Tahiti inter-island services mostly take place during daylight hours for flight safety reasons.
The most affordable Air Tahiti sector is between Faaa and Moorea, which typically costs about 50 Euros each way for the 15 minute flight. It needs to be booked in advance as the flights are 100 percent sold out by the day before or morning of desired travel date.
The more adventurous travel enthusiast might be interested in Air Tahiti’s travel pass, which provides unlimited travel for a fixed cost with several options available. Just depend how one wants to spend their precious time in French Polynesia; savouring the beaches or logging ATR flights.
From the Tahiti Airport Motel viewing balconies, spotters can view the full length of the runway, as well as aircraft on extended approach, and the inbound ATRs as they enter the pattern on downwind for the base and landing.
During the author’s two day stay at the Tahiti Airport Motel, the home field based French Air Force Falcon jet and Twin Otter flew several times each day, which was a nice treat. Otherwise, the vast majority of the airfield traffic consisted of the Air Tahiti ATRs coupled with the occasional day time long haul service.
Most tourists and/or aviation fans will only use the Tahiti Airport Motel twice: on the night of their long-haul arrival to French Polynesia, and the final day or night of their stay on the island, as a pre flight resting place for the midnight departure, which was the case for the author. Depending on the season, a room for two costs 100 to 150 Euros per night, and the property can be booked via all the regular online booking sites. Check-in time is 1500 and the hotel charges an extra 50 Euros for early check-in if available.
A grocery store is located a short walk along the main road to the right, and food provisions can be kept in the small fridge in each room. A very basic bread, cheese, cereal and coffee breakfast is included in the room price. The rooms are quiet, basic, and immaculately clean.
A word of caution is in order for first time visitors arriving during the darkness of midnight. Whilst the hotel is incredibly convenient, and barely a few hundred metres from the arrivals haul, it is located up a small road, and small set of steps.
After sunset, the area is pitch black, the walking surface is uneven with broken stones, and could be extremely hazardous to those unfamiliar with the lay of the land. Specially when carrying heavy bags. Twisting an ankle, or breaking an arm or leg at the start of a Polynesian holiday would be less than ideal. First time visitors should bring a small flash light to illuminate their way.
French Polynesia’s stunning, uncrowded beaches, welcoming island hospitality, and remarkable ocean experiences will make for an unforgettable holiday. Consider the following statistic: French Polynesia receives the same number of tourists in one year that the Hawaiian Islands receive in one week. So its very much a boutique destination unspoiled by the crowding throngs of mass tourism.
French is main spoken language of the islands, not English, and this facet coupled with high international airfares and high accommodation costs explain the small tourism footprint. That said, the visiting aviation fan can easily enjoy some spectacular aviation spotting and photography, for an overall holiday experience and memories that will last a lifetime.