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Asia’s Bright Star: Eva Airways continues to shine

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Asia’s Bright Star: Eva Airways continues to shine

Asia’s Bright Star: Eva Airways continues to shine
May 04
17:22 2016

Published in March 2016 issue

For many outside East Asia, EVA Airways (BR) is a mystery, albeit a good one. Let’s start with the name; it’s not Eva, as in a woman’s name, but rather simply the three letters E-V-A. The distinctive green livery and the stylized globe on the tail of its aircraft reflect the airline’s owner, the Evergreen Group, which also operates one of the world’s leading shipping companies, Evergreen Marine.

By Ken Donohue

Eva which took flight in 1991 with service to Bangkok (BKK), is Taiwan’s first privately held international airline, and is quietly growing its network to over 60 cities across four continents. EVA is like that good old reliable friend, always there for you. But don’t mistake modesty for an unwillingness to be innovative; in 1992, EVA was the first airline in the world to offer a Premium Economy service on flights to Los Angeles (LAX), its first destination in North America. Some airlines are just now introducing this kind of service, nearly 25 years later.

EVA isn’t concerned with flying the biggest planes or serving the most destinations. It has lofty aspirations of a different kind; it wants to be the best service airline, focused on quality and safety. The airline’s CEO, Austin Cheng, tells Airways that EVA’s goal is to be one of the top five airlines in the world in five years. Cheng acknowledges that it won’t be easy, especially to ensure consistent service delivery from the company’s 3,000 Cabin Attendants.

TAIPEI: THE PERFECT LOCATION

Geography can either be a curse or a blessing; in EVA’s case, it’s the latter. Taiwan is ideally situated for the airline to capitalize on the flow of traffic between Eastern Asia and North America; in fact, more than half of EVA’s passengers connect through Taipei (TPE). With a couple of exceptions, all inbound flights from North America arrive in TPE in the early morning, between 05:00 and 06:00. These aircraft are then quickly turned for service throughout Asia, returning to TPE in the late afternoon and evening. From there, the outbound flights to North America typically depart in the late evening, before midnight.

AIMING AT NORTH AMERICA

EVA serves seven destinations in North America, and is very selective about growing further. It recently added Houston (IAH) because of that city’s substantial business traffic and large Philippine and Vietnamese ethnic populations. While other carriers in the region, including ANA (NK), Cathay Pacific (CX), and several Chinese airlines, have been making aggressive advances into the US, Houston was EVA’s first new long-haul destination in five years.

“There is lots of traffic between Asia and North America, and we expect this to continue to grow,” says Andrew Su, EVA’s Deputy Senior Vice President of Corporate Planning. “North America is our priority, and we are confident we can compete and fight for market share.” The airline currently offers 63 flights a week to North America and anticipates that these will increase to over 100 per week over the next five years.

In recent years, the airline focused on building frequencies on US West Coast routes and Toronto (YYZ) and New York (JFK), rather than expanding into new destinations. But Su says that EVA is poised to explore new opportunities: pending final regulatory approvals, Chicago (ORD) is likely to launch in 2017, with Washington, DC, (IAD) showing on the airline’s radar.

In Europe, however, EVA has a limited presence, serving just four cities: London (LHR), Vienna (VIE), Paris (CDG), and Amsterdam (AMS), with daily service only to LHR. The airline is analyzing opportunities to expand in Europe and anticipates starting service to Istanbul (IST) in 2016.

Much of the airline’s capacity is dedicated to its Taipei–Hong Kong (HKG) service. Once known as the ‘Golden Route’, it’s still the world’s busiest international route, with five carriers operating more than 80 flights a day between the two cities. With a few exceptions, most flights involve wid body Boeing 747-400s, Airbus A330-200/300s, and Boeing 777-200/300s.

EVA alone offers 60 flights a week between these two stations, which are just over 500 miles (800 km) apart—less than two hours away.

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GEOPOLITICAL RESTRICTIONS

As a result of the Chinese Civil War—which, officially, is still unresolved more than 60 years after the founding of Mao Zedong’s People’s Republic of China (PRC) on the mainland and the creation of the nationalist Republic of China on Taiwan—no direct flights were allowed between Taiwan and China until 2003. Thus, passengers had to transit through a third city—such as Hong Kong or nearby Macau (MFM)—which gave rise to the huge number of flights between these destinations. Since nonstop flights between China and Taiwan were allowed, initially with some restrictions, they have opened up in increasing numbers, although most passengers still use HKG or MFM as a transit point. EVA now serves 29 cities in mainland China, with 127 weekly flights—a number the airline expects will increase.

One thorny issue for EVA is that passengers holding Chinese passports are not permitted to use TPE as a transit point for onward flights—to the US, for example. This puts EVA at a disadvantage compared with other carriers in the region. “These are political decisions,” says Su. “We are hopeful that there will be some changes soon, so we can have an opportunity to serve the growing numbers of Chinese travelers.”

THE EVOLVING FLEET

EVA operates 66 aircraft, with eight of those being dedicated freighters. The Boeing 747-400 used to make up the bulk of the airline’s long-haul fleet but, over the years, the Boeing 777-300(ER) has gradually taken over. Only three passenger Boeing 747-400s remain in the fleet, and these will be phased out in the next two years. The airline operates 22 Boeing 777-300(ER)s, with eight more on order.

Once predominantly a wide-body operator, EVA introduced the Airbus A321 for some of its low-demand flights, which last two to three hours. Currently, it has 16 Airbus A321s in its fleet, but these will increase to 26 over the coming years. The carrier is also expanding size with a recent agreement to purchase 24 Boeing 787-10 Dreamliners and two additional Boeing 777-300(ER)s. These aircraft are expected to be delivered between 2017 and 2022.

The Dreamliners are intended for long, thin routes to Europe, Australia, and New Zealand, where the demand is not enough for the Triple-Seven fleet.

Seven aircraft, including five Airbus A330s and two Boeing 777-300s, are painted with a special Hello Kitty theme which, while appearing kitschy to some, has led to fuller flights and heftier duty free sales on the flights where it is deployed. These aircraft currently fly from TPE to four airports in Japan; Guam (GUM); Singapore (SIN); Seoul (ICN and GMP); Shanghai (SHA and PVG); Paris (CDG); and Houston (IAH). The Hello Kitty theme extends beyond the colorful paintwork on the outside of the aircraft. It continues into the cabin and in-flight service for a fun and playful experience.

CHAIRMAIN, CAPTAIN, ENTHUSIAST

The airline’s energetic Chairman, K.W. Chang, who also captains his company’s Boeing 777s, has said flying should be fun. Chang is forever developing service enhancements for the airline. Once, for example, he was eating at a restaurant in Osaka, Japan, and liked the food of Michelin three-star chef Motokazu Kyoto. He asked Kyoto if he’d be interested in designing special menu items for EVA’s Business and Economy Class passengers on flights between TPE and Osaka (KIX). Kyoto obliged, and made several trips to Taiwan to work with Evergreen Sky Catering and EVA’s Flight Attendants (FA) on the perfect preparation, reheating, and serving times for each dish. Likewise, Kyoto brought the airline’s chefs to his restaurant to learn from him.

TPE: OLD, SMALL, INEFFICIENT

Perhaps the comparison is unfair, but unlike those cities in the region that have opened brand new airports within the past two decades—such as Hong Kong, Seoul, and Bangkok—Taipei’s main international gateway is still operating with just two terminals, the first of which opened back in 1979. Sure, that original terminal recently underwent a major renovation, but plans for an expanded airport—including a third terminal and, eventually, third runways—have been beset by delays. Construction of the new terminal was to begin in 2014, with completion in 2018. Shovels have yet to break ground, and the opening is now anticipated for 2020. Similarly, the express train, which promises a 35-minute trip from central Taipei to the airport, was scheduled to be completed three years ago, but is not expected to be operational until this year.

TPE is equipped with two parallel runways, 05L/23R and 05R/23L, with the planned third runway to be located north of 05L/23R, which will require an expropriation of land.

“The Taoyuan Airport infrastructure is not adequate to meet growing demands,” says Su. “If we have a new terminal and third runway, it would definitely help our operations. In the meantime, we are working with the airport to try and make the existing runways more efficient.” Su adds that the airport facilities and space need improving: more check-in counters, better customs and immigration areas, and an enhanced baggage handling system.

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FIERCE COMPETITION IN ASIA

TPE is competing against some of the best airports in the world. Likewise, EVA operates in a region with some of the best airlines. It’s not easy for the airline to make itself known outside Taiwan. “We are still a young company, and our brand is young,” says Su. “Other carriers in the region with international cachet have been around longer. We are devoting ourselves to be one of the best airlines in the world and, year over year, we are getting better and our service  quality is being recognized.” While not revealing any specifics, Su tells Airways the airline is working on a campaign, including a celebrity spokesperson, to increase EVA’s global awareness.

As in other parts of the world, low-cost carriers (LCCs) have been building a presence in Taipei. Currently, these airlines hold about 10% of the market share, although this figure is surely set to rise given the history elsewhere.

EVA is unruffled by the LCCs’ rise because its strategy focuses on premium travelers and on those connecting through Taipei. To make the point, Su uses the Taipei-Singapore route as an example. “There are seven carriers operating between these two cities, four of which are low-cost carriers, and EVA has the highest load factor on that route,” says Su. “We are targeting the higher end of the market.”


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CARGO: VITAL PART OF THE BUSINESS

EVA’s roots in the shipping business have always meant that cargo is an important component of its business. The amount of cargo shipped by air, however, has been shrinking—and for a possibly surprising reason: electronic devices, a major export for Taiwan, have been getting smaller. Increasingly compact laptops and cell phones are great for consumers, but less so for shippers. For 2016, the airline is expecting an 11% decrease in cargo carried. In a move that would have been unprecedented in years past, EVA is beginning to reduce its freighter capacity and to accommodate more cargo lift in the belly of its passenger aircraft. The cargo division is still profitable, but the airline is planning to replace its current fleet of eight Boeing 747-400 freighters with five Boeing 777 ones between 2017 and 2019. The airline operates dedicated freighter service to seven destinations, including four in the United States.

It looks like Su’s insistence on the airline’s commitment to service quality is paying off; EVA was recognized as the ninth best airline on SkyTrax World’s Best Airlines of 2015—and best in the world for cabin cleanliness.

“Our goal is to enhance the travel experience,” says Su. “We are investing in our in-flight service to attract the premium passenger, and we are seeing positive results.”

MUCH TO LOOK FORWARD TO

EVA has quietly grown into one of the world’s leading airlines. No easy task, given the unforgiving and hugely competitive industry. Recently, while taking delivery of its 22nd Boeing 777-300(ER) at the new Boeing Delivery Center in Paine Field, Washington, the airline unveiled a new livery—a fresh take on its timeless look. The original compass design on the tail remains, joining a more contemporary palette of green. The overall look is modern, sharp, and maintains the legacy of this important Asian carrier.

EVA may not be a household name but, if its first 25 years are any indication, it’s an airline about which you will start to hear more.

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EVA’S PRODUCT: TESTED

EVA’s signature premium product is its Royal Laurel Class, introduced in 2012 on its New York route and now available on all of the airline’s Boeing 777-300 aircraft. I had the opportunity to experience this product on a recent flight from Seattle to TPE.

Check-in at Seattle was quick and efficient, with separate queues for each of the three cabin classes. Royal Laurel Class passengers have access to the Club at SEA, which offered basic lounge services. Boarding began 40 minutes before our scheduled 01:50 departure, and the FAs greeted the passengers warmly, with a smile but not by name, as I would have expected.

EVA’s Royal Laurel Class is configured in a reverse-herringbone 1-2-1 configuration, offering privacy while still providing a window seat with a view. Shortly after settling into seat 1A, I was offered orange juice, water, and hot towels. A Flight Attendant distributed RIMOWA overnight kits featuring skin care products from Thailand’s top spa and skin care brand. The kit boxes were made of the same material used in RIMOWA’s premium luggage products. Before departure, the FA asked whether I would have liked to sleep once airborne or enjoy the dinner service. I chose the latter.

Doors closed on schedule and, with the minimal traffic of that time of the morning, there were no delays as we taxied to runway 34R. With an announced flying time of 12 hours, and noise reduction procedures in play, Captain Joshua Su initiated takeoff to the north at 02:00.

Soon after takeoff, an exquisitely designed tablecloth, to match the equally detailed menu and wine list, was laid across the oversized table in front of me. The stunning design featured artistic elements representing Taiwan, created by awardwinning and four-time Grammy nominated visual artist, Qing-Yang Xiao.

Royal Laurel Class passengers (and those in Premium Laurel Class, a Business Class service offered on the airline’s Airbus A330 aircraft) have the option of pre-ordering their meals online, prior to their flight, from a selection of options wider than the one available on the day of flight.

A selection of canapés was served along with a delicious starter of smoked duck and crab salad. Then, as if by magic, the stir-fried lobster I had ordered two days earlier appeared on my table. The lobster burst with flavor, and the noodles were cooked to perfection, just as one would expect in a fine restaurant. The wine list included a choice between two reds and two whites. I chose the Islander Estate red, an Australian vintage, which was refreshingly chilled. Fruit and cake followed the main meal. Perhaps it was just me, but the only disappointment was that the dinner service felt rushed, with not enough time elapsing between courses to savor the culinary delights.

With my stomach full, I changed into the comfortable pajamas that had been provided, reclined my seat to the fully lie-flat position, pulled the cozy and stylish duvet over me, and gazed at the stars shining on the aircraft’s ceiling, before closing my eyes. Some mild turbulence, for an extended period halfway through the flight, made it difficult to sleep; however, I was so comfortable that I was surprised to see that we were already flying over Japan when I checked the inflight map: three-quarters of our flight already completed. Two hours out of Taipei, came breakfast.

While not available on my flight, EVA has introduced Wi-Fi on some of its Boeing 777-300s, and lists the flights in which this service is available on its website. Upon arriving in TPE, I noticed an EVA advertisement that read, ‘Excellence is in the details’. Indeed, it is. Overall, my Royal Laurel Class experience was excellent and, with some attention to a few minor details, it could have been even better.

On my return flight, I tried the airline’s Premium Economy product, known as Elite Class. The seats offer a 38-inch seat pitch and are laid out in a 2-4-2 configuration. The service was good, although I was disappointed by the use of plastic cutlery. Perhaps that would be a small issue for some, but if EVA wants to distinguish itself as one of the world’s top carriers, it should reconsider its use of plastic, which cheapens the product.

 

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Ken Donohue

Ken Donohue

Curious by nature. Inspired by flight. Fascinated by the places, people and stories that make flying possible.

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