Until recently, China Airlines flew two relatively successful flights from Los Angeles to Taipei every day. But on March 25, the airline took the risky step of moving one of those flights to Ontario, an hour east (in no traffic) of LAX, the region’s primary airport. Though I came around to thinking a flight like this could actually work, the way China Airlines set it up initially seemed, shall we say, far less than optimal. Now, a few months in, the airline is making big changes by shifting times and swapping aircraft to try to make the service viable.
On the surface, this kind of service seems crazy. Ontario, an airport that had no intercontinental flights at all, suddenly found itself with a massive widebody jetting off to Taipei every day. I and many others figured it was too early for service like this. Eventually, it’s inevitable this kind of route will work since LAX is pushing toward its capacity with no hope for additional pavement, but I didn’t think we were there yet. After talking to a whole host of people at the airport and the airline, however, I started to see some of the rationale develop. There is a large nearby Taiwanese community, not to mention Vietnamese. Those people would gladly flock to Ontario and avoid LAX if given the option. There are also growing economic and manufacturing ties pushed by political relationships that would undoubtedly help the flight succeed. I started to warm to the idea when I wrote about it last year.
Once details about the implementation began to leak out, I started getting nervous once again. China Airlines was originally going to start this as a sub-daily service, but it decided to just jump right in with a daily flight. The right airplane probably would be a 787, but China Airlines doesn’t have any of those. Instead it would use the much larger 777-300ER. Sure, the airline cut a frequency at LAX hoping to nudge people to Ontario, but that could also have had the problematic effect of simply pushing people to one of EVA’s 3 daily nonstops. This had to be too much capacity in Ontario.
To make things worse, the schedule didn’t make much sense. The flight from Taipei was ok, leaving at 4:10pm and arriving Ontario at 1:50pm, but it was the westbound that was problematic. That flight left Ontario at 4:15pm and didn’t arrive Taipei until 8:55pm. That did allow for a handful of connections in China Airlines’ late Taipei bank, but it didn’t allow the flight to benefit from the full power of the Taipei hub.
The end result of all this has been less than stellar performance. We don’t know a ton of detail, but Ontario puts out a monthly traffic report. That report breaks down the number of passengers per airline for each month. Since China Airlines has only one flight at the airport, we can calculate load factor for that flight. The last report release was for May, so here’s what we know up through that point:
Remember, it only operated for 7 days in March, so that first month doesn’t really count. April and May are more representative of what’s been going on. There are a couple potential issues with the data here. First, I assumed a flight operated every day. If there were any cancellations, then that would positively impact the load factor. Second, this is for both directions. If there is an imbalance for some reason, then it may be that one way does well and the other doesn’t. I don’t have that information. Third, this isn’t exactly high season, so it may not represent what an annualized load factor would be. Hopefully June and July were better.
Regardless, it’s not good. So what is China Airlines going to do about it?
Earlier this month, it announced it was going to tweak the timing of the flight. Starting September 17, the westbound flight will switch to a redeye leaving near midnight and arriving Taipei in the early morning. Even though I personally hate westbound redeyes, that will open up a ton of new connecting opportunities beyond Taipei. The return will shift a couple hours later as well, but that will only help in allowing more inbound connections into Taipei. At the same time China Airlines cut the flight to operate only 5 days a week from September 17 through October 27, a slower time period.
Now, China Airlines has quietly updated its winter schedule operation which begins on October 28. From that day, the airline will use a smaller A350-900 with 32 business (compared to 40 on the 777-300ER), 31 premium economy (vs. 62) and 243 in coach (vs. 256). It looks like the flight will go back to operating daily at that point. Will it help to have 306 seats on every flight instead of 358? You bet it will. But will it be enough? If the A350 had flown in April and it May, it still wouldn’t have cracked a 70 percent load factor. Maybe with better connections that will change, but this is far from a guaranteed success story.