The history of Air Tahiti is closely linked to the history of aviation in Polynesia.
The early days of seaplanes
Far from the continents, Polynesia was excluded from air routes for a long time. It was not until the Second World War that aviation really took off, with the construction of the first airstrip, in 1943, in Bora Bora, by the US military. In the aftermath of the attack on Pearl Harbour, the Americans sought in this way to protect and supply the routes between the US coastline and the southwest Pacific.
The advent of a scheduled commercial air service between the islands came in 1950, when a handful of entrepreneurs founded Air Tahiti. To begin with, flights were made in a seven-seater Grumman J-4F Widgeon seaplane. Its low capacity meant that the need for a second aircraft soon became apparent. In 1951, the French ministry for the overseas territories purchased a Grumman Mallard for the territory. Little by little, Air Tahiti spread its wings to cover all of the Polynesian islands. The first sea landing in the Gambier Islands was made on 25 June 1953. In October 1953, the first flight to the Marquesas and a sea landing in Taiohae/Nuku Hiva took place.
In July 1953, Transports Aériens Intercontinentaux (TAI), the commercial operator of the state-controlled inter-island air network, Régie Aérienne Interinsulaire (RAI), asserted its entitlement to the allocation of local transport services, under agreements signed with Air France. The territorial government withdrew Air Tahiti's operating licence for the Mallards, in favour of the TAI, and with it, the Air Tahiti emblem disappeared. The RAI operated on behalf of the ministry of public works and transport. It purchased two Catalina seaplanes to expand the service linking the islands of French Polynesia. These orange-liveried aircraft received a registration number with the prefix F-OA, reserved for aircraft operated overseas.
Gradually, the network continued to expand. In 1955, the Austral Islands began to be served by seaplanes, with the opening up of the waters around Tubuai and Raivavae. In 1958, the state-controlled "Régie" became "Réseau" (network) Aérien Interinsulaire.
The development of runways
Seaplanes may have seemed ideally suited to the island context, but in fact broad expanses of water free of obstacles and sheltered from the swell were hard to come by. It therefore soon became necessary to develop runways and aerodromes.
The opening of Tahiti Faa'a International Airport, in 1960, meant that Tahiti could now receive international commercial flights. Meanwhile, across the territory, an extensive runway-construction programme was launched by the French State. Four runways were built in the 1960s, and 27 in the following decade.
In 1970, the RAI became Air Polynésie, a subsidiary of UTA. Nicknamed "Air Po" by the Polynesians, the airline further asserted its Polynesian identity, putting in place scheduled flights throughout French Polynesia, in particular to the islands furthest away from Tahiti.
In 1986, the former UTA, which in the meantime had been taken over by Air France, sold its share in Air Polynésie to local investors. The sale gave rise, in 1987, to the birth of Air Tahiti, in its current form. The new airline was keen to modernise, and in 1987 acquired its first ATR 42, marking the start of a long-term partnership with aircraft manufacturer ATR.