After announcing it was evaluating service between Taipei/Taoyuan and Ontario nearly a month ago, China Airlines made it official on Friday in a ceremony at Ontario Airport. When I tweeted the news, the responses ranged from “are they insane?” to “this’ll be an interesting experiment.” I’m sure most of you are expecting a scathing take-down from me since I’m naturally skeptical about nearly everything. But after spending time at the airport, with elected officials, and with the China Airlines team (including an interview with Chairman Nuan-Hsuan Ho, below) on Friday, I’m actually starting to come around on this one. Keep reading and let’s see what you think.
The announcement itself was somewhat odd since it didn’t include a start date, flight times, or even a set number of weekly flight frequencies. Instead there was a signing ceremony where Chairman Ho officially agreed to start service in the spring. With such a vague announcement, how can I think this might work? It’s because this is about a lot more than just a flight. It starts with a city and county that loves and supports its airport, seeing it as an integral part of its economic growth plans. Considering most other cities in Southern California prefer to be at war with their airports, this is a huge breath of fresh, Jet-A-filled air.
The Vice Chairman of the San Bernardino County Board of Supervisors Curt Hagman began planting the seeds for this the old-fashioned way. He worked hard to develop a relationship between the two regions over time. He made it bigger than just an airport begging for its first Asian flights. Instead, he went over to Taiwan and tried to build something stronger. In February of this year, Taoyuan (where Taipei’s main international airport resides) became a sister city of San Bernardino County. (Also, fun fact: Apparently a county can take part in the sister CITIES program.)
In July, a delegation from Taiwan came out to Ontario as part of the program, and Chairman Ho was with that group. As he noted to me in our interview (through a translator), “Ontario Airport expressed a great interest in having us operate at Ontario Airport.” But this wasn’t just about the local relationship. The Chairman continued “Rep. Ed Royce also asked me the same question too.” Never underestimate the power of politics.
It should be noted that Rep. Royce was at the ceremony on Friday. He’s a Republican whose district straddles Northern Orange County, Eastern LA County, and Southwestern San Bernardino County. His district is just shy of 30 percent Asian, and every one of them would find Ontario far more convenient than LAX. He also happens to be the chair of the House Foreign Affairs Committee which means he has considerable influence.
He wasn’t the only national elected official at the event. Rep. Norma Torres, a Democrat whose district contains the airport, has been a recent champion of the airport. And Rep. Ken Calvert, a Republican whose district starts south of the airport and moves southeast toward Temecula, is a big supporter. As a member of the House Appropriations Committee, he too holds a lot of sway.
With this kind of political and economic willpower, it’s easier to understand how this service came to fruition far earlier than anyone anticipated. But will it be sustainable? I turn back to Chairman Ho.
Even before all this, the Chairman admitted “we had thought about flying to Ontario Airport before.” But after nearly 50 years of service at LAX, I asked why they would fly to Ontario now.
He laughed and said “we’re not giving up on Los Angeles” with a smile. But “we had done a couple evaluations, and there are many Chinese and Asian communities here.”
And that is true. The eastern San Gabriel Valley and northern Orange County are heavily Asian and also business centers for that population. They would all find Ontario Airport to be easier to use than LAX. Even southern Orange County, places like Irvine and Newport Beach, might be surprised to find that Ontario is about the same distance as LAX but with less traffic. And of course, the airport experience at Ontario will be far quicker and easier. (Chairman Ho mentioned the heavy traffic at LAX multiple times.)
The hard part will be getting these people to change their behavior since they just automatically think LAX first today. Oh who am I kidding, that’s only one of the hard parts. There’s also the issue of having no feed domestically. At LAX, Delta can bring people from all over the US and connect them to China Airlines. In Ontario, those handful of regional jets to Salt Lake City aren’t going to help, but Chairman Ho didn’t seem overly concerned.
The large local market between the region and Taiwan is a good base, but there is also tremendous opportunity to Southeast Asia. Apparently other airlines see the value as well. According to Chairman Ho after learning China Airlines would start flying to Ontario, fellow SkyTeam-member “Vietnam Airlines is asking us for a codeshare partnership.” Besides the large Vietnamese base in the region, Filipino traffic is expected to be a big driver as well.
If they’re so confident, why hasn’t the final schedule been announced? There is work that the airport needs to do to be ready for this service, so they don’t want to put it on sale until they’re confident it will be done in time. For its part, the airport has no doubt it’ll be ready. If all goes well, look for flights to begin at the beginning of the IATA summer season at the end of March with flights on sale by the end of this year.
Of course, there are incentives here. Ontario is waiving landing and terminal fees for a year (as it would do for any airline starting a long haul flight). Chairman Ho confirmed that the “majority of incentives are from Ontario,” but I didn’t get any specifics beyond that.
With all of this lining up, I can see why this service is happening and why it’s worth taking a shot. LAX continues to get more and more expensive with every multi-billion dollar project it starts, and it is starting to hit a point of gridlock on both the landside and the airside. It makes sense there would be an alternate airport to help deal with the region’s growth in the future. Ontario is the only game in town, and it happens to serve Asian populations in the Southland very well.
If there’s one thing I really don’t like, it’s that China Airlines is using a 777-300ER for this flight. That is a really, really big airplane. I’d feel much more comfortable with a 787-8 as a trial balloon, but China Airlines doesn’t have one of those. It does have the smaller A350-900 (306 seats instead of 358), but remember how I said politics was involved? One of the members of Congress (can’t remember which) noted how happy they were that China Airlines was using an American-made Boeing aircraft for the route. I’m not even going to get into how silly this argument is, because it’s all about optics. The 777-300ER was really the only option on a route where politics matters.
On its own, I would be cautiously optimistic, at best, about a 787-8 trailblazing a route like this. But seeing all the political and economic work that has gone into creating a relationship here, I think even a 777-300ER is going to work, especially if strict profitability isn’t the only metric that matters. Then again, maybe we’re all underestimating Ontario, and it will work on its own.
What’s most exciting to me about this is that we finally have a guinea pig. The airport is armed with data showing how the demographics make sense for an Asian flight from Ontario. The numbers never tell the full story, however. Now we can really find out if this will work in practice. If it does, I’d expect to see several other Asian airlines looking at service. After this announcement, I’m sure they already are.