EVA Air Boeing 777-300ER photographed on October 31, 2015 from Clay Lacy Astrovision Learjet.

MIAMI — EVA Air will commence four weekly nonstop flights from its Taipei Taoyuan hub to Chicago O’Hare on November 2, 2016, and will be the first carrier to launch a new route to East Asia from Chicago since United Airlines began nonstop service to Shanghai in October 2004.

Currently, Chicago O’Hare offers daily nonstop flights to five cities in East Asia: Tokyo Narita, Seoul Incheon, Beijing Capital, Shanghai Pu Dong and Hong Kong Chep Lap Kok. Taipei Taoyuan will be its 6th link to the region, with EVA deploying a 777-300ER on the route. Within the broader Asia – Pacific region, Chicago also offers nonstop service to Abu Dhabi, Amman, Delhi, Doha and Dubai.

While Chicago has grown its international roster over the past 24 months, adding additional frequencies to Shanghai, Rome, Helsinki, Tokyo Narita, Dublin, Vancouver and Warsaw while also adding Dubai and Rekjavik, expansion to East Asian markets has been fairly muted over the past few years due to volatility in the region. However, the commercial aviation environment has become considerably favorable since 2010, permitting both U.S. and Asian carriers to expand their networks on both sides of the Pacific Ocean.

The spurt in 777-300ER aircraft orders has facilitated Asian carriers’ growth in the U.S. and Canada

The Boeing 777-300ER aircraft has essentially become the preferred replacement wide body jet for Boeing  747-400s and Airbus A340s. The two-engine 777 has over 800 orders in Boeing’s logbook, and offers a unique advantage in that it allows global airlines to fly long-range routes, such as Dallas/Ft. Worth to Hong Kong or New York JFK to Guangzhou, with high-density seating configurations and large cargo capabilities, while maintaining relatively efficient costs.

For a carrier like EVA Air, whose average age for its family of 777-300ERs remains relatively young at under 6 years, this is a prime advantage. Not only is Taiwan a massive cargo hub, but also it is geographically positioned to connect large flows of passenger traffic between North American and Southeast Asia as well as Oceania.

EVA was one of the earlier adopters to receive the 777-300ER variant, receiving its first frame in 2005 (the very first 777-300 went to ANA in 2004) but plateaued at 15 frames in possession in 2010, according to CAPA fleet database. The carrier resumed deliveries in 2014, and currently has 23 in service. Though the 777-300 was introduced as early as 2002, a large reason why orders stagnated in the late 2000’s was due to the outbreak of SARS, H1N1 virus, the Global Financial Crisis and skyrocketing oil prices.

By 2011, however, the value proposition of the 777-300ER had been recognized by global airlines, and the imminent retirement of the Boeing 747 family and Airbus A340 family had expedited the need for a replacement high-density aircraft. The operating costs and seating configuration of the Airbus A380 were not commercially viable for most global airlines, and the continued delays, plus smaller gauge, of the 787 was not suitable either. The 777-300, capable of seating as many as 458 passengers at peak density, provided the best alternative.

EVA has 13 additional 777-300ERs on order from Boeing, along with 10 of the 787-10 edition. EVA is one of the few Asian carriers that is still operating the 747-400 on several of its long-haul routes. Presently, EVA flies nonstop to seven North American markets (excluding Guam): New York JFK, Houston Bush, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle/Tacoma, Vancouver and Toronto Pearson. Its transpacific services to Vancouver are entirely operated on the 747-400, while Seattle receives the 747 on 3 of the 7 weekly services.

EVA Air weekly services, frequencies and gauge between North America and Taipei
EVA Air weekly services, frequencies and gauge between North America and Taipei

Interestingly, EVA Air’s primary competitor between North America and Taiwan, China Airlines, also serves North America utilizing a mixed fleet, serving Vancouver with a 747-400 and Honolulu with an Airbus A330-300. China Airlines was an even later adopter of the 777-300ER, receiving its first delivery of the Boeing widebody in 2014.

China Airlines weekly services, frequencies and gauge between North America and Taipei
China Airlines weekly services, frequencies and gauge between North America and Taipei

EVA returned to “growth mode” in 2015, and had been very transparent about intentions to serve Chicago

On a global network scale, EVA is playing catch-up compared to some of the larger heavy-hitters from the Asia-Pacific region. Though it currently ranks 9th in terms of largest transpacific carriers between North America and Asia, the carrier avoided growth between 2010 and 2015 owing to uncertainty over the horsepower its Taipei Taoyuan hub would be able to leverage in terms of connecting traffic between Mainland China and the U.S. Complex regulatory restrictions between Taiwan and China prohibit both EVA, as well as China Airlines, from carrying 6th freedom traffic over their respective Taipei hubs.

However, with a recent integration into Star Alliance in 2014 and the spooled up deliveries of its  777-300ERs, EVA is decided to no longer sit on its hands and watch the world pass by. Its move into Houston was significant given that its long-haul network is relatively small at 13 destinations. Nevertheless, EVA underscored the importance of the ethnic diaspora in Houston, hailing largely from Southeast Asia, a market that it could viably cater to without facing commercial restrictions, unlike mainland China. Moreover, its partnership with United certainly helped feed flights from the Southeastern U.S. and parts of Latin America.

In Chicago, EVA hopes to largely achieve the same outcome, but in an ideal world, the ability to connect Chicago traffic to mainland China would position EVA as a much more attractive option. Unlike in Houston, where only one carrier offers nonstop service to mainland China (via Air China to Beijing), Chicago has multiple daily flights, on numerous foreign carriers, to Beijing, Shanghai as well as Hong Kong.

Weekly nonstop service from Chicago to mainland China and Hong Kong, May 2016
Weekly nonstop service from Chicago to mainland China and Hong Kong, May 2016

The long-term hope is that Beijing will eventually permit transit rights to Taiwanese carriers, and small signs of progress have started to show. Of course, the granting of such rights, as is common in the aviation world where politics are dealt with a leaden hand, will take time to develop. Per CAPA, the general understanding is that Taiwanese carriers will initially be allowed to carry transit traffic to smaller and secondary Chinese airports, such as Chongqing, Kunming and Nanchang, which is not as optimal as alpha cities, but a start nonetheless.  Moreover, the ultimate goal is to align the increased bilateral access with the opening of Taipei’s new $1.5 billion international terminal and reconstructed runway.

Without relying on mainland China, EVA will turn to other transit possibilities

Undoubtedly, EVA Air has to rely far more on connecting traffic to Taipei relative to other Asian carriers, given that the local market sizes of non-coastal cities such as Houston and Chicago are small. Furthermore, Taipei is a much lower-yielding market that relies heavily on ethnic traffic, unlike Hong Kong, Tokyo and Shanghai. EVA has been known to offer round-trip fares from Houston to Southeast Asia for lower than $700 in economy, at relatively close-in booking windows.

As a compare point, EVA’s Chicago service will depart from and return to Taipei at relatively similar times as its Houston service. The new Chicago flight will leave Taipei in the evening and arrive in Chicago during the evening on the same day, and then depart for Taipei slightly after midnight Chicago time and arrive in Taipei in the early morning the following day.

Possible itinerary options afforded by EVA from Chicago, considering restrictions to transport 6th freedom traffic to mainland China
Possible itinerary options afforded by EVA from Chicago, considering restrictions to transport 6th freedom traffic to mainland China

EVA’s 6-weekly Houston flight leaves Taipei during the late evening and arrives the same day during the late evening, and makes a return journey to Taipei also after midnight arriving early the following morning. Utilizing a connection window of approximately two hours, EVA supports connections to Bangkok, Macau, Manila, Kuala Lumpur, Jakarta, Phnom Penh, Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, Denpasar and Singapore in under four hours.

Per O&D segment data on Diio Mi, in Q4 2015, the largest flow markets over Taipei, originating in Houston, were to Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi. The largest flow markets over Houston, terminating in Taipei, were Oklahoma City, Pittsburgh, Toronto, Denver, Austin and Raleigh/Durham. The largest flow markets that double connected over both Houston and Taipei were San Jose, Costa Rica to Jakarta, Denver to Manila and Toronto to Manila.

In the reverse direction, there appears to be a significantly larger concentration of traffic terminating in Houston, with the largest origins being Taipei (local), Ho Chi Minh City, Singapore, Phnom Penh, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur. The largest flow markets over Houston were Taipei to Austin, Taipei to Orlando and Taipei to Newark. Finally, the largest double connect markets were Hanoi to Charleston, Jakarta to Miami, Shanghai to Dallas/Ft. Worth, Hanoi to Dallas/Ft. Worth, and Jakarta to San Jose, Costa Rica.

Chicago will boast 17 peak-day departures to Asia, on 11 carriers

Inclusive of India, Chicago O’Hare will offer 17 peak day departures to Asia, on 9 foreign and 2 domestic carriers, to seven cities. Its largest outbound market will be Tokyo, offering 5 daily flights on four carriers, followed by Shanghai on 3 carriers, then Beijing on 3 carriers.

Chicago – Asia Winter 2016 timetable, frequency and gauge
Chicago – Asia Winter 2016 timetable, frequency and gauge
Chicago – Asia largest markets, based on ASMs and total daily seats
Chicago – Asia largest markets, based on ASMs and total daily seats

It is likely that EVA will increase frequencies to Chicago in order to remain competitive with its Asian and U.S. counterparts, all of who offer daily frequencies to Chicago (with the exception of Asiana). As is typical with Chinese carriers, most initiate service on a sub-daily basis before increasing frequencies to either 6 weekly or daily. Both China Eastern and Hainan, the most recent entrants to the Chicago – Asia market, each launched services at 2-3 weekly frequencies before up-gauging to daily. EVA may opt to wait until its 787-10 deliveries come in, or gradually up-gauge capacity as it receives more 777-300ERs.

As it turns its attention to other U.S. markets that may be commercially viable on its route map (Boston and Washington, D.C. have been mentioned previously), EVA can at least celebrate the fact that its brand awareness in the U.S. is growing. Liberalized airspace agreements would be a feather in its cap, but it has come a long way since it was only known as the carrier with Hello Kitty insignia printed on its liveries.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article, as well as any of Rohan’s published articles onAirways, are strictly his and do not reflect opinions of his employer in any capacity.