Debuting its first flights in January 2020, Taiwanese start-up STARLUX Airlines could be the first new player in 30 years to upend the island’s aviation market duopoly.
And even before the airline, dubbed Taiwan’s first luxury boutique airline, put its first plane in the air, it was making waves.
Eleven minutes after online ticket sales opened on December 16, the Taipei-based airline sold out all seats on its first three flights: Taipei-Macau, Taipei-Penang and Taipei-Danang.
But both aviation watchers and the general public are abuzz about another reason: a succession drama involving STARLUX founder Chang Kuo-wei that’s so juicy he’s being called by local media the “Prince Hamlet” of the aeronautical industry.
This Shakespearean story had its origins in 2016, when Chang Yung-fa, founder of Taiwan’s Evergreen Group and airline EVA Airways, died at the age of 88, sparking a battle over who would take control of one of the most large family-owned conglomerates on the island.
Chang, 49, EVA’s president since 2013, revealed that his late father had named him successor to parent company Evergreen in his will.
A much-loved figure in the aviation industry, known for his frankness and expertise, his son worked for EVA Airways as both an aircraft technician and pilot.
But as the youngest son and only son of Chang Yung-fa’s second wife, Chang Kuo-wei’s promotion sparked a family feud. He was soon ousted from the EVA as president in a board meeting called by other family members.
A few months later, he announced that he would launch his own airline: STARLUX Airlines.
Local media called it a Hamlet-style retaliation plan.
Anticipation for the new airline’s launch has grown as both EVA Airways and China Airlines, Taiwan’s two major airlines, have been hit by strikes and internal strife.
China Airlines and its crew reached a settlement after a week-long strike in February 2019, while EVA Airways suffered a 17-day strike in July, the longest in Taiwanese aviation history.
But according to the STARLUX team, Chang isn’t out for revenge.
“He doesn’t think he’s ‘Hamlet,'” KW Nieh, communications manager at STARLUX, tells CNN Travel. “This has nothing to do with revenge.”
“Because of his passion for aviation, Chang simply wants to build an ideal airline that reflects his style after breaking free from the shackles of Evergreen Group. He is building STARLUX to meet his late father’s expectations.”
CNN Travel has reached out to EVA Air for comment.
Whether or not Taipei-based STARLUX can outperform the island’s other major players remains to be seen, but it has certainly upped Taiwan’s aviation game.
The airline is introducing a new generation of passenger planes, including the A321neo and A350-1000, “both debuting in Taiwan for the first time,” Nieh says.
In fact, STARLUX is the first Taiwanese airline to be equipped with A321neos – all 10 will be delivered by the end of 2021. STARLUX signed Taiwan’s largest Airbus purchase deal, purchasing 17 A350XWB aircraft in March 2019.
Chang himself flew STARLUX’s first A321neo to Taipei from Hamburg last month.
“The fleet will grow to 27 aircraft by the end of 2024 and 50 by the end of 2030,” adds Nieh.
The interior of the narrow-body cabin, designed by BMW’s Designworks studio, features elegant seats, leather headrests and in-flight entertainment systems in all classes.
Economy class seats will feature a 10.1-inch 720p screen while business class seats – featuring narrow seats that can recline into a fully flat 82-inch bed – will offer a 15-inch in-flight entertainment system. 6 inches at 1080p.
Free Wi-Fi with basic access (SMS for Economy passengers only) will be offered for both classes on all STARLUX flights, including the first in Taiwan.
Local touches also abound. A unique cabin scent – with notes of wood, leather and flowers – was created by Taiwanese-grown fragrance brand P.Seven. The airline’s crew uniform, which brings back retro-futuristic travel themes to the 1940s and 1950s, is the product of local designer Sean Yin.
Aspiring to become the Emirates of Asia, STARLUX promises to also provide premium service.
At a recent press event, Chang said STARLUX Airlines will not start a fare war. Instead, its tickets will be reasonable but more expensive than its competitors.
“We consider flying an enjoyable part of the trip,” adds Nieh. “We offer top-notch and exquisite services. Differentiates STARLUX from other companies on the market.
“We position ourselves as a boutique airline, targeting the high-end market. We have introduced the most advanced aircraft models with the latest aviation technology and seats. We offer exquisite services, so the fare will be slightly higher than other airlines.
According to aviation expert CK Law, senior advisor of the Aviation Policy Department of the Chinese University of Hong Kong, this unique positioning is a smart move for STARLUX.
“Many new airlines have tapped into the low-cost sector of the market, especially in this part of the world,” Law says.
“This is definitely the main trend. There should be reasonable demand for the high-end passenger segment of the market.”
But he expects the new airline will still have an impact on airfares in the long run.
“From the passengers’ point of view, there will be substantial new benefits for them as they will have new choices and possible new long-term fare reductions. There will be competition for better amenities on the plane,” Law says.
Taiwan has enjoyed good passenger and flight growth in recent years.
Boeing estimated that Taiwan’s aviation demand will be stronger than the annual average of the Northeast Asia region – 2% over the next two decades – as a whole.
But is there enough space to accommodate another major airline?
“A new full-service airline would certainly introduce a lot of new competition into a traditional aviation market like Taiwan,” Law says.
“Whether the new airline or even existing airlines can survive will depend mainly on how fast the market grows and the ability of new demand to absorb or balance the new supply capacity.
“Otherwise, it could be a fierce competition and there could be casualties.”
One of the biggest questions is: Can a newcomer carve out a space in the long-haul and transit markets, the two markets STARLUX plans to explore?
“I would expect a good, high load factor to be achieved for short-haul tourism markets, but for long-haul destinations, which have [major competition in Taiwan,] it would definitely be more challenging,” says Law.
“It won’t be easy for new airlines to join a reputable alliance, to begin with. Without being a member of an alliance, it will not be easy to get transit passengers at all. But it can be a long-term goal,” says Law.
Nieh, however, is confident.
“The development of STARLUX is not exclusively based on the Taiwan market. Taipei has a superior geographical position: you can reach major Asian cities in five hours,” he says.
“Located in a central location connecting North America, North Asia and Southeast Asia, Taiwan has the best foundation to develop as an aviation hub. By introducing and building its own hardware and software, it is hoped that Taiwan’s aviation industry will become the transportation hub of Asia, strengthen its transit services and bring a large number of international passengers to Taiwan.”
Nieh cites a recent study by the Taiwan government’s National Audit Office that found only 10 percent of travelers arriving on the island are transit passengers.
“Compared with Hong Kong, Incheon, Shanghai and Tokyo, there is room for market development,” says Nieh. “We are very confident about this part.”
The initial rush of ticket sales was good news for STARLUX.
“Tickets for Macau sold out in six minutes; tickets for Danang sold out in nine minutes and tickets for Penang sold out in 11 minutes,” Liwen Liu, director of STARLUX’s corporate communications division, told CNN.
“All 188 seats on each of the three flights.
“We are very happy with it. We had our expectations, but the response was better than we expected,” says Liu.
Winning a market share is not STARLUX’s only concern.
Delays in the construction of Taoyuan Airport’s third terminal have forced the airline to build its check-in counters, airport office, maintenance hangar and apron spaces with very limited resources, Nieh says.
“The aviation industry is a huge investment and a labor-intensive industry,” he adds. “It’s difficult to make a profit. Starting an airline, therefore, is a very arduous journey. STARLUX has world-class talent that understands the unique nature of the industry. It helps avoid unnecessary investments, ensuring constant and healthy growth for STARLUX.