STARLUX, Taiwan’s newest airline, lands with Shakespeare’s origin story

(CNN) – With its first flights in January 2020, Taiwanese startup STARLUX Airlines could become the first new player in 30 years to turn the island’s duopoly aviation market around.

And even before the carrier, nicknamed Taiwanese the first luxury boutique airline to fly its first aircraft made a splash.

Eleven minutes after online ticket sales opened on December 16, the Taipei carrier sold out all seats on its first three flights – Taipei-Macau, Taipei-Penang and Taipei-Danang.

But both air watchers and the general public are excited for a different reason: a succession drama starring STARLUX founder Chang Kuo-wei that is so spicy that local media dubbed him the “Prince Hamlet” of the aviation industry.

Chan Guo Wei

Chan Kuo-wei founded STARLUX Airlines after being kicked out of the family business EVA Airways.

courtesy of Starlux Airlines

This Shakespearean tale took root in 2016 when Chan Yung-fa, founder of Taiwan’s Evergreen Group and EVA Airways, passed away at the age of 88, sparking a battle over who would lead one of the island’s largest family conglomerates.

Chang, 49, who has been chairman of EVA since 2013, said his late father named him as successor to parent company Evergreen in his will.

The son, highly regarded in the aviation industry, known for his outspokenness and expertise, had experience with EVA Airways as an aircraft technician and pilot.

But as the youngest son and only child of Chiang Yong-fa’s second wife, Chiang Kuo-wei’s promotion caused family feuds. He was soon expelled from EVA as chairman at a board meeting called by other family members.

A few months later, he announced that he was going to launch his own airline – STARLUX Airlines.

“He doesn’t think he’s Hamlet”

The local media called it Hamlet’s plan for revenge.

Anticipation for the new airline’s launch has intensified as Taiwan’s two main airlines, EVA Airways and China Airlines, have been hit by strikes and internal strife.

But according to the STARLUX team, Chang is not looking for retribution.

“He doesn’t think he’s Hamlet,” K. V. Nie, STARLUX’s director of public relations, told CNN Travel. “This has nothing to do with revenge.”

“Because of his passion for aviation, Chang just wants to build the perfect airline that reflects his style after breaking free from the shackles of the Evergreen Group. He is building STARLUX to meet his late father’s expectations.”

CNN Travel has reached out to EVA Air for comment.

Homegrown luxury airline

Starlux Airlines

Local designer Sean Yin created the STARLUX crew uniform.

courtesy of Starlux Airlines

It remains to be seen if Taipei-based STARLUX can outperform other big players on the island, but it has certainly boosted Taiwan’s aviation game.

The airline is introducing a new generation of passenger aircraft, including the A321neo and A350-1000, “both debuting in Taiwan for the first time,” Nye says.

Indeed, STARLUX is the first Taiwanese airline to be equipped with A321neo aircraft – all 10 of them will be delivered by the end of 2021. STARLUX signed the largest Airbus purchase agreement in Taiwan with the purchase of 17 A350XWBs in March 2019.

Chang himself flew the first A321neo STARLUX 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,” Nie adds.

The interior of the narrow-body cabin, designed by BMW Designworks, features elegant seats, leather head restraints and in-flight entertainment systems for all classes.

Economy seats will feature a 10.1-inch 720p screen, while business class seats, which feature narrow seats that recline into an 82-inch full-flat bed, will feature a 15.6-inch 1080p in-flight entertainment system .

Free Wi-Fi with basic access (text messages for economy class passengers only) will be offered for both classes on all STARLUX flights, also a first in Taiwan.

There are also plenty of local touches. A unique fragrance for the salon with notes of wood, leather and flowers was created by the Taiwanese perfume brand P.Seven. The airline crew uniforms, inspired by retrofuturistic travel from the 40s and 50s, are the product of local designer Sean Yin.

No toll war: STARLUX will charge more than the competition

Starlux Airlines

Positioning itself as an airline boutique, STARLUX seeks to capture the market for more expensive goods.

courtesy of Starlux Airlines

Aiming to become the Emirates of Asia, STARLUX also promises to provide premium services.

At a recent press event, Chang said that STARLUX Airlines will not start a fare war. Instead, its tickets will be reasonable but more expensive than the competition.

“We view flying as an enjoyable part of travelling,” Nih adds. “We offer first-class and refined services. This distinguishes STARLUX from other companies in the market.

“We position ourselves as an elite airline targeting the higher end market. We have featured 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 adviser at the Department of Aviation Policy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, this unique positioning is a smart move for STARLUX.

“Many new airlines are entering the budget sector of the market, especially in this part of the world,” Lowe says.

“This is definitely the main trend. There must be a reasonable demand for the high-end passenger segment in the market.”

But he expects the new airline will still influence airfare in the long run.

“From a passenger’s point of view, there will be new and significant benefits for them as they get new choices and possibly new fare discounts in the long run. There will be competition for better services on the plane,” Lo says.

Potential cutthroat competition

Both EVA Airways and China Airlines, Taiwan's two largest airlines, were hit by strikes in 2019.

Both EVA Airways and China Airlines, Taiwan’s two largest airlines, were hit by strikes in 2019.

PATRIK LIN/AFP/Getty Images

In recent years, Taiwan has seen a significant increase in the number of passengers and flights.

Boeing calculated that Taiwan Aviation Demand will be stronger than the annual average for the Northeast Asia region – 2% over the next two decades – as a whole.

But is there enough room to accommodate another major airline?

“The new full-service airline will definitely create new competition in a traditional aviation market like Taiwan,” Lo says.

“Whether a new airline, or even existing airlines, can survive because of this will largely depend on how fast the market grows and whether new demand can absorb or balance new supply opportunities.

“Otherwise it could be fierce competition and there could be casualties.”

One of the biggest questions is: can the newcomer find a place in the long haul and transit markets, two markets that STARLUX plans to explore?

“I expect to achieve a good high load factor for short haul markets, but long haul destinations that [major competition in Taiwan,] will definitely be more of a challenge,” Lo says.

“For starters, it will be difficult for new airlines to join a reputable alliance. Without being a member of the alliance, it will be quite difficult to get transit passengers. But it could be a long-term goal,” Lo says.

They, on the other hand, are confident.

“The development of STARLUX depends not only on the Taiwanese market. Taipei has an excellent geographic location — you can get to major Asian cities in five hours,” he says.

“Located at the center connecting North America, North Asia and Southeast Asia, Taiwan has the best foundation for development as an aviation hub. We hope that Taiwan’s aviation industry will become a transport hub in Asia through the introduction and creation of its own equipment and software. strengthen its transit services and attract a large number of international passengers to Taiwan.”

Nih points to recent research National Audit Office of the Government of Taiwan, which claims that only 10% of travelers arriving on the island are transit passengers.

“Compared to Hong Kong, Incheon, Shanghai and Tokyo, there is room for market development here,” says Nie. “We are very confident in this part.”

The initial ticket sales boom was good news for STARLUX.

“Macau sold out in six minutes, Da Nang sold out in nine minutes, and Penang sold out in 11 minutes,” Liwen Liu, director of corporate communications at STARLUX, told CNN.

“All 188 seats on each of the three flights.

“We are very happy about this. We had our own expectations, but the response was better than we expected,” says Liu.

“Hard Journey”

Chan Guo Wei

Chang (second from left) piloted the first STARLUX aircraft from Hamburg to Taipei.

courtesy of Starlux Airlines

Capturing a part of the market is not the only concern of STARLUX.

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 aprons with very limited resources, Nye said.

“The aviation industry is a huge investment and a labor intensive industry,” he adds. “It’s hard to make a profit. Therefore, the creation of an airline is a very difficult path. STARLUX employs top-notch talent who understands the unique nature of the industry. This helps to avoid unnecessary investments, ensuring stable and healthy growth of STARLUX.