When you think of the world’s busiest international air route, perhaps you think of New York-London, or maybe Dublin-London, or even Seoul-Tokyo. You’d be wrong.
Surprisingly, this distinction belongs to the 500-mile (800km) route between Taipei and Hong Kong. According to data from the International Air Transport Association (IATA), last year more than five million passengers were carried between the Taiwanese capital and Hong Kong.
The second busiest international route is Jakarta-Singapore, where 3.4 million passengers are carried annually.
Once known by some as the Golden Route, five carriers currently operate between Taipei and Hong Kong, with most operated by widebody Airbus A330 or Boeing 777 aircraft.
What’s with the popularity you may be wondering? Politics, really. 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 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 were forced to transit through a third city—such as Hong Kong or nearby Macau.
This gave rise to the huge number of flights between these destinations. While there are still some restrictions, the number of nonstop flights between China and Taiwan have increased. For example, Taiwan-based EVA Air now serves 27 cities in mainland China with 115 weekly flights—a number the airline expects will increase as air transport policy is changed in coming years to allow more nonstop flights.
Still today, most passengers traveling between China and Taiwan route through Hong Kong. More than 280 flights a week are offered, with Cathay Pacific having the most capacity with 15 daily flights, and operating a wide variety of aircraft, including the Airbus A340, A330, A350, and the Boeing 777. Hong Kong Airlines and Cathay Dragon have only very modest offerings accounting for just six flights a day between the two carriers.
In recent years, EVA has been reducing capacity on the route by operating the Airbus A321 on 70 percent of its flights to and from Hong Kong. The airline says it is more efficient to operate the narrow body aircraft on this route given current market conditions. Despite cutting capacity, the airline has no plans to cut flight frequency and foresees stable demand on the sector. Approximately nine percent of passengers on the Hong Kong-Taipei sector come from China.
I recently experienced this route with EVA Air.
Taipei – Hong Kong
Flight BR 891
Having flown EVA several times before, I can attest to their efficient hub at Taipei. Most flights from North America arrive in the early morning, allowing for easy onward connections to the airline’s Asian network. Fresh off a 12-hour flight from Vancouver, EVA had extended a lounge pass on arrival in Taipei, and even though my connection was just 90 minutes I still availed myself of the lounge.
Under rainy skies, the winglet equipped Airbus A321 was waiting at Gate D4. This 07:00 departure is EVA’s first of the day to Hong Kong, and on this occasion, was full in both cabins. The aircraft is configured with eight business class seats and 176 in the economy cabin, and was delivered new to the airline in May 2016. It had a welcoming and fresh feel, as I made my way to seat 24K.
Pushback was on schedule and a short taxi brought us to runway 05L. We waited several minutes while waiting for an inbound China Airlines Boeing 737 to land. We taxied to position while the 737 exited the runway. At 07:15, takeoff commenced with the aircraft’s two CFM56 engines coming to life with a lively whine.
It was surprising and refreshing to see that even in the economy cabin, pillows and blankets were distributed to passengers on this relatively short flight. The hot meal of shrimp rolls and noodles was delicious and the broccoli was perfectly crisp. And before landing, candies were offered to each passenger.
The service reminded me of what it was like flying decades ago in some parts of the world, before airlines in those regions cut back service. There is good reason why EVA was recently awarded 5-star status by SKYTRAX, one of only eight airlines in the world to receive such distinction.
Nearing our destination, we passed by Hong Kong’s famed Victoria Peak, and in the distance, I could make out the old Kai Tak airport, much of which has now been swallowed up by new apartments. At 08:40, we landed from the south on runway 07L.
Hong Kong – Taipei
On the return flight to Taipei, the airline offered me a business class upgrade, which on the airline’s Boeing 777 would be the EVA’s Royal Laurel Class, its premier business product.
At Hong Kong, business class passengers have access to Virgin Atlantic’s Club House, which is one of the better business lounges I have experienced. Located next to our departure gate, the lounge is stylish, comfortable and offers excellent views of the airside operations.
Made to order meals are available, which along with drinks are delivered by gracious lounge staff. While in the lounge, an EVA attendant informed me that my seat had been changed to 1K, as the inflight entertainment system wasn’t working in my original seat 1A.
Boarding was delayed by 15 minutes, and a further delay ensued while passengers were seated.
Sparkling wine was offered, and while the aircraft was adorned with its Hello Kitty livery, we didn’t get the full Hello Kitty service, as this wasn’t a designated flight with this unique EVA experience.
With doors closed at 19:50, we taxied to the departing runway, and at 20:10 air traffic control gave us take off clearance ahead of a Qantas Boeing 767, which had already been waiting at the end of the runway.
Before we departed, the cabin attendant brought around a menu, and I chose the pan-fried chicken wrapped in bacon slices, with onion brown sauce. Dessert was a delicious coffee-flavored apple and almond crumble cake, served alongside a plate of fruit.
Because of the short flight, the entire meal was served at once, rather than served by course, as one would typically experience on longer flights.
If your flight is running behind schedule, as ours was, then you want to be powered by the world’s largest commercial jet engine. We had two of 777’s big GE-90 engines winging us to Taipei. In less than 90 minutes after takeoff, we had landed at Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport. I utilized EVA’s lounge facilities before transferring to my final flight to Vancouver.