ANALYSIS: Taiwanese carriers slow to take on low-cost threat

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Twelve foreign low-cost carriers (LCCs) may have entered Taiwan over the years, but the country still does not have a similar operation of its own.

The nation's three listed carriers - Eva Air, China Airlines and TransAsia Airways - have all talked about starting a low-cost operation, but not one has taken the plunge yet.

Late last year, TransAsia's chairman Vincent Lin even proposed that the trio come together to form a joint venture LCC.

Although his suggestion was largely seen as bizarre and impractical, considering it would mean that the competing carriers work together in the same market, Lin did raise a valid point - that Taiwan has not benefitted from the low-cost business because of the lack of such a homegrown operator.

It almost seems as if the low-cost phenomenon has swept across Asia, but somehow left Taiwan untouched.

Nearby in Japan, three such players - Peach Aviation, Jetstar Japan and Japan AirAsia - entered the market within the space of a year. In Hong Kong, Jetstar Hong Kong, a joint venture between China Eastern Airlines and Qantas Airways, is also due to start operations by the end of 2013.

In 2011, there were seven foreign LCCs with operations to Taiwan. The number has since grown to 12, with Peach as the most recent entrant, and they are mostly concentrated at Taipei Taoyuan International Airport.

LOW-COST ROUTES OUT FROM TAIPEI: JUNE 2013

 

taiwan route map

Innovata FlightMaps Analytics

taiwan lcc carrier share

Innovata FlightMaps Analytics

taiwan lcc routes

Innovata FlightMaps Analytics

Last year, the airport handled 1 million passengers who travelled with LCCs, 10% more than in 2011. This year, the number is expected to grow by another 10% at least.

So why has no investor jumped in to set up a low-cost unit in the country?

Taiwan's relatively small domestic market, compared with countries such as Indonesia and Malaysia, combined with its reliable high speed rail network, do not make the most ideal environment for such an operation, says Paul Sheridan, Flightglobal's Ascend head of consultancy Asia.

Analysts add that Taiwan's slots allocation policy, which tends to favour larger existing carriers, also means it will likely be tough for new entrants to break in.

Even TransAsia, which has been in operation for close to 30 years, has publicly complained about difficulties in getting the slots it wants, often losing out to flag carrier China Airlines and the more established Eva Air.

"Because of this, access to more lucrative market can be challenging for new entrants," says Richard Wu, a senior lecturer at University of New South Wales' school of aviation. "If a new LCC comes in, they'll possibly face this problem. If they are a subsidiary of say China Airlines, it will be different because they may be able to shift existing capacity within their own group. This is probably why no independent LCC has set up in Taiwan."

Both China Airlines and Eva Air have said they could convert their regional subsidiaries Mandarin Airlines and Uni Air into low-cost operations, if necessary.

Recently, however, China Airlines seems to be taking a more serious look into the matter, saying it has formed a special team to evaluate the possibility of launching a low-cost arm. It adds, however, that the project has to be carefully considered as operational conditions of a full-service carrier are "completely different" from that of budget carriers, and that the project would also require assistance and support from the government.

Over the last five years, the main carriers have also put the threat of LCCs at the back of their minds, as they focused on exploiting the opening up of cross-straits flights, analysts say. This is a lucrative market where about a third of the Taiwanese carriers' revenue now comes from.

Regular cross-straits flights between Taiwan and mainland China began in 2008 creating a boom for these airlines, opening up a market that did not exist five years ago.

"The current situation is cosy for the existing players because the cross-straits market is regulated. It is a cash cow for them. They're enjoying the profit so there's no strong urge for them to change," says Wu.

To make the environment more conducive for low-cost operations, Taiwan would need to liberalise or at least expand bilateral agreements, and drop high barriers of entry such as requiring entrants to have an annual business turnover of at least NT$10 billion ($334 million), and an equity capital of more than NT$100 million. As a step forward, the airports are also considering lower charges for low-cost operations.

Wu adds that a homegrown LCC would likely appear when the Chinese market opens up more. The carrier could focus on the travel market between Taiwan and Japan, where tourists are price sensitive, and also, regional business traffic.

"The best strategy for a Taiwanese LCC to find success is to fly to China, but that's easier said than done. They should concentrate on shorter flights, flying to areas similar to each other because when you fly to quite similar markets, it makes it easier to be consistent with the product and branding," says Sheridan.

"Taiwan may not be the first place to start an LCC, but it could be the next in line."