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China Airlines is the flag carrier of the Republic of China (commonly known as Taiwan). The airline is based at its main hub in Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, the major international gateway to the island. China Airlines’ main competitor is the privately owned EVA Airways. Both carriers focus on international routes rather than the domestic market, which has been impacted by the introduction of a high-speed rail service connecting the north and south of the island. Despite extensive land based transport infrastructure and the small size of the island there are five carriers serving the Taiwanese domestic market, two of which (Mandarin Airlines and Uni Air) are subsidiaries of the international airlines.
Airports in Taiwan
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After over a year of very public discussion about home-grown low-cost carriers, Taiwan in a matter of weeks has received commitments from both China Airlines and TransAsia Airways to start LCC subsidiaries in the next year, making Taiwan the last major market in Asia to have an LCC. The unusually public – and sometimes fanciful – discussion has perhaps rushed these decisions ahead of what a normal commercially-oriented process would produce. These "LCCs" are still sometime away from having a coherent strategy, and then maturing. But the upside seems to be support, both internally and from the government – critical and sometimes overlooked.
In announcing their own LCC subsidiaries, China Airlines and TransAsia are each embarking on a dual-brand strategy, a popular concept seldom achieved proficiently. The dual-brand strategy will be very different for these carriers, as between each other and from other global examples. Hub carrier China Airlines has 54 aircraft, only a quarter of which are narrowbodies. The use of narrowbodies is increasing as regional liberalisation opens thinner routes and expands frequencies. So as China Airlines begins to work through the intricacies of an LCC operation, it is also seeing its own business transform rather significantly. This creates opportunity to mould the future but also adds complexity. Meanwhile TransAsia only has 11 regional aircraft, creating a challenge to gain scale on the existing operation and new LCC.
There will be much reconfiguration as the carriers test the market and discover what it means to be an LCC (as opposed to merely a low fares airline) and as the region itself undergoes much change. So perhaps Taiwan's second-largest carrier, EVA Air, will also be well advised to reconsider its past statements that it has no interest in operating an LCC. But nor is there rush for it to move from its current position of sitting on the sidelines.
Privately-owned Shanghai carrier Juneyao Airlines is looking to capture growth across multiple segments. Complementing its full-service brand with an increasing array of partnerships is a pending new low-cost carrier, Jiu Yuan Airlines, which will offer “jiu yuan fares” (CNY9/USD1.48) in China's domestic market.
Jiu Yuan will be based in Guangzhou, well away from Juneyao's base, and is a by-product of recent change in China that supports new private carriers, the LCC model and deregulation of minimum fare pricing. It is early days for this more relaxed – but still restricted – environment, so Juneyao’s Jiu Yuan strategy may change. For now the intent is to keep the two carriers separate, which should be easy as Juneyao's only service from Guangzhou is to Shanghai. A shakeup could occur if, or when, there is the emergence of an LCC subsidiary from China’s largest domestic carrier: China Southern, whose fortress hub is at Guangzhou.
In its first year of pursuing partnerships, Juneyao has secured 15 interline agreements and two domestic codeshare partners. It now awaits its first international codeshare.
Asian carriers continue to pour additional capacity into Myanmar, building on increases which were initially pursued in 2H2012 after the market quickly opened as economic sanctions which had been in place for two decades were lifted. The Myanmar international market will exceed 110,000 weekly international seats in Jan-2014, representing an increase of about 40% compared to Jan-2012 and almost 130% compared to Apr-2012, when Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy won landmark elections.
But so far the additional capacity has outstripped demand. International passenger traffic in Myanmar has grown by about 70% over the past two years – an impressive figure but not sufficient to keep up with the capacity increases. As a result load factors to and from Myanmar are significantly below the global average.
Nearly all of the 14 foreign carriers which were already serving Myanmar before Apr-2012 have seen load factors on their Myanmar routes drop over the last year. The nine foreign carriers which have launched and retained services to Myanmar since the market opened have also so far recorded lower than normal load factors – generally in the 50% to 70% range.
The growth of China’s “Big Three” airlines – Air China, China Eastern and China Southern – has been spectacular. China Southern’s RPKs have increased from 20 billion in 2000 to nearly 140 billion in 2012. Outside China, the airlines' growth has generally been noticed in terms of international flights, leading to some misconceptions about the sector.
While the Big Three are increasing international flights, they are also increasing domestic services in the same proportion. Domestic RPKs in 2012 accounted for 79% of China Southern’s total RPKs – little change from 2000’s figure of 78%.
This is perhaps baffling to those aware of the huge potential of the outbound Chinese market. While the demand exists, Chinese carriers have failed to capitalise on it – and for good reason. International yields are often significantly lower than domestic yields, and international services are often unprofitable. The implication for the international community is huge: China will continue to hesitate to dispense traffic rights until its airlines have stronger performance, which will enable them to balance foreign growth. But many of the problems are well within their power to solve.
The cargo industry has been clear it is suffering from the external problem of weakened supply amid a gloomy economic environment. But less apparent is the fact that the pain is largely self-inflicted: long-haul passenger flights are growing rapidly, increasing 25% on trans-Pacific routes between 2006 and 2013. That also directly increases the amount of belly capacity available for cargo, and the trans-Pacific is the world's largest cargo market.
Increasingly the aircraft of choice across the Pacific is the 777-300ER, which can carry upwards of 18% more cargo volume than the 747-400. And the 777-300ER is displacing the 747-400, with the twinjet increasing its share of trans-Pacific flights from less than 1% in 2006 to 27% in 2013. The 747-400 meanwhile accounted for 40% of flights in 2006 but only 15% in 2013.
This trend is structural and ongoing as carriers look to add trans-Pacific passenger capacity. Northeast and Southeast Asian carriers hold 29% of the 777-300ER backlog, and airframe manufacturers plan for their next-generation aircraft to carry even more cargo. This all brings into focus: just how strong is the future for dedicated freighters?
Positive change continues to occur in Taiwan. A year ago its attitude towards new local entrants was obscure but now it is becoming clear and has fewer obstacles, further illustrated by recent changes that lower the entry barrier for a company that wishes to establish a new airline – such as a low-cost carrier. Majority Taiwanese ownership is required and the Taiwanese company establishing a LCC must be in air or sea transport or trade enterprise, a wide but not unlimited category. A new entrant would not be restricted to the tiny domestic market. The mood is that a home-grown LCC (or two) is now a question of when and who.
AirAsia and Peach could be contenders in addition to LCC subsidiaries of existing Taiwanese airlines. While air service agreements are liberalising, especially in the key Japanese market, it may still be sometime before Taiwan receives its own LCC. Landing fees outside of Taipei are being reduced but there is no definitive plan for a low-cost terminal or other incentives.