Five years after it started clamouring to end China Airlines' monopoly on the world's busiest air route, EVA Airways has finally gained the right to compete on the lucrative Taipei-Hong Kong sector. With the simultaneous prize of Macau, one might expect EVA to rejoice, but both victories ring somewhat hollow.

EVA may have gained designation as Taiwan's second carrier to Hong Kong, but the new bilateral limits its access to only the new frequencies available, allowing the incumbents to dominate. From the Taiwanese side, this means China Airlines retains 105 weekly passenger flights and 6 cargo flights, leaving EVA only 16 flights, or 15 per cent of the passenger capacity.

Moreover, EVA's Hong Kong clearance is still not certain. At presstime, the Sino-British Joint Liaison Group had still to approve the new bilateral. Speculation abounds over whether Beijing will accept any agreement extending past 1997 and what conditions it might impose. The most likely outcome is that, as the agreement complies with China's previously disclosed criteria for an acceptable bilateral, approval should be something of a formality.

Even after approval, the scheduling of EVA's flights at saturated Kai Tak airport is problematic. It has already pushed the launch date back to the start of February due to scheduling delays, and it still does not know what slots Kai Tak will offer.

EVA can take some comfort in stealing a march on China Airlines in landing the designation to serve neighbouring Macau. CAL had urged Taipei officials not to designate the same rival on both the Hong Kong and Macau routes, but that plea failed to the extent that EVA must share Macau with another Taiwan designee, TransAsia Airlines.

Unlike Hong Kong, the Sino-Macau Liaison Group has already blessed the new Taiwan-Macau bilateral, which straddles Macau's return to Chinese control in 1999. Also unlike Hong Kong, EVA already has its schedule confirmed, starting with ten weekly flights in December, increasing to 14 in January, with most from Taipei.

But the biggest damper for EVA is the competitive advantage Air Macau and Hong Kong's Dragonair will enjoy over any Taiwanese carrier. Simply by changing flight numbers, both Air Macau and Dragonair will be able to carry Taiwanese transit passengers, exempt from local immigration formalities, over their hubs between China and Taiwan on the same aircraft.

EVA's only consolations are that Dragonair will not be flying from Taipei (Cathay Pacific is only conceding Dragonair the new frequencies to Kaohsiung) and Air Macau currently only serves three Chinese destinations.

As its fleet and network grow, however, Air Macau flights from Taipei could quickly become the fastest route to China.

David Knibb

Source: Airline Business