China Airlines Tries to Jump Start Ontario Service With a Smaller Airplane

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.

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Alex Hill
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I don’t have any sense: how do these numbers compare to typical startup routes? Obviously they’d be terrible for the annualized load factor on an established route, but doesn’t it take quite a long time for customers to start to use a new route?

Zack Rules
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Zack Rules

I have heard long-haul international flights take about two years to become profitable. The lower operating costs of the A350-900 should help.

James
Guest

Interesting to note, that CI ONT service regularly prices $70-150 cheaper than their LAX service, while business class is $700 cheaper consistently. So besides loads, yields are worse at ONT. Not good combination.

Also seems like they also shot themselves in the foot at LAX being left with single flight option against EVA’s 3x daily service.

Mark
Guest

These low fares are the typical introductory fares in a new market… I would posit that if they are that deeply discounted a year from now, it is a significant issue, but for now, it is to be expected (good marketing of a new service).

Lowry
Guest

CI ends up competing against itself across town at LAX. Even with the lower pricing its clearly not driving the traffic to use the ONT flight.

Mark
Guest

In the short term, yes… but if you consider the fact that 70% of all outbound SoCal ticket purchases to Taiwan originate from zip codes closer to ONT than LAX (as well as 70% of ticket purchases to Vietnam, 65% to China PRC, 50% to the Philippines, and 46% to South Korea), CI could also be deemed to be making a smart strategic decision in the medium and long-term… customers that can fly from an airport closer to home — particularly in the Los Angeles, the most heavily-congested city in the world since 2016 — pay a premium for the… Read more »

Michael Simpson
Member
Michael Simpson

I’m surprised at the point-of-sale stat for Vietnam considering the demographic cluster at the western edge of Orange County. Depending on precise ZIP data, the driving mileage LAX vs. ONT can split nearly evenly, which might help explain how ONT could be classified as “closer” than LAX. I’ll agree with the potential of ‘first-mover’ advantage for CI (and, to some extent, HA at LGB.) Both of these attempts represent opportunistic marketing strategies to capture further upstream proven sources of demand. Also, in the immediate to medium term, commuting to/from LAX will only worsen with traffic growth and landside construction. It… Read more »

grichard
Guest

Since this will largely be LA O&D traffic, I’ll bet they have trouble with searches missing them. Lots of people search by airport code, and if I were searching for a flight from Taipei to Los Angeles, I might well search on “LAX” and never notice this flight.

Kilroy
Guest

Makes sense, and as someone who has visited SoCal but isn’t familiar with the area, I didn’t even realize that ONT could do international flights of this length. I’m not an advertising guy, but as a layperson I would presume they are paying for web-based ads when people search for flights from LAX to Taipei, in addition to hitting the local ethnic media.

Mark
Guest

A few additional facts to consider: 1. CI’s load factor for June rose to 71.8% — not world-beating, but not terrible for a third month of a brand new international service. (And, yes, April and May are the lowest-demand months of the year in the U.S.-TPE market). 2. The imbalance of inbound and outbound load factors that marked the ONT-TPE service during April (64.3% inbound/50.4% outbound) and May (64.5%/52.3%) actually flipped during June, to 69.5%/74.1%). This doesn’t necessarily address the question of point of sale, but I would suggest that this change might have been influenced, at least in part,… Read more »

kayun
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kayun

I presume they were hoping for more interest from the Taiwanese community in Monterey Park/Alhambra/San Gabriel area or the Rowland Heights/Hacienda Heights area where you live within the same driving time between ONT and LAX (depending on traffic) and ONT is certainly easier to get in and out of than LAX. CI also offers a complimentary shuttle bus to Monterey Park or Rowland Heights for pax on their ONT flight. The problem is their reputation in said community is a bit meh. Most prefer EVA over CI to TPE unless a steep price difference comes into play. Not to mention… Read more »

PF
Guest

I’m curious about sales & discounting. What percentage of tickets are published full tariff, discounted corporate and consolidator.

Ed
Guest
Ed

Not that this factors into the economics, or many people’s purchase decisions, but I reckon the A350 is the best widebody currently flying. I’ve done a few sectors recently and it seems to deliver on the promise of the Dreamliner to enable you to arrive more refreshed.

It looks good too, sitting in MEL last week waiting for my CX A350 there were CI and TG A350s parked and it looks very sleek.

Uli
Guest
Uli

I noticed CI began announcing their change at ONT through their website. Knowing it’s the early days since the announcement I wasn’t expecting a big change though I went to expert flyer to see if there has been a change. I checked their economy section.

Noticed a slight rise on ONT though comparable to LAX. Let’s see what happens in the long term.

Uli
Guest
Uli

A few weeks back I had noticed a slight change regarding CI ONT Night time flights. Though, didn’t want to come off as novice since it could have been a fluke. Now its obvious. I went back to check again Expert Flyer (checked their economy/premium economy sections for CI23(ONT)/CI7 (LAX)), and checked the flights starting on Monday Sept 17 (ONT)/Tuesday 18 (LAX) and Thursday Sept (20) ONT/Friday Sept 21 (LAX). From what I see, the ONT flights are quickly filling up while LAX is struggling to get passengers. Tuesdays are toss up between LAX and ONT. Though LAX has the… Read more »