The Plum Blossom Soars: How Taiwan’s largest cargo carrier makes freighters work

  • Charles Kauffman
  • November 2, 2017
  • 0

On the tail of every China Airlines aircraft, blazoned across the vertical stabilizer, there is an image of the iconic pink and white plum blossom. The flower is symbolic not only as the official flower of Taiwan, where China Airlines is based. It is also revered for its robustness and ability to endure harsh winter conditions.

For China Airlines (CI), which was founded in 1959 as the flag carrier of Taiwan, the resilience of the plum blossom is deeply ingrained in the carrier’s DNA. Like seeds that must be planted before flowers can blossom, the new additions to the airline’s fleet have gradually been added over the years to enable the company to break new ground – from the turboprops it began with to accommodate regional demand, to the jets it acquired to serve long-haul international routes. But perhaps the most important are the freighters it originally added to connect high-value Taiwanese exports to the world.

“China Airlines is able to leverage the advantages of having its own freighter fleet, global network and capacity planning capabilities, and the cargo holds of passenger aircraft to provide customers with stable cargo capacity,” said Eddy Liu, vice president of cargo and logistics, whose 30-plus-year career within the cargo unit of CI has had him stationed across Europe and North America before he made his triumphant return to Taiwan in 2010, when he was appointed to his current role. During his tenure, Liu has pushed for “the provision of real-time cargo information, and upgraded cargo system functions,” and has made dramatic improvements to cargo pricing and space utilization.

In the mid-2000s, China Airlines was one of two Taiwan-based combination carriers that maintained substantial freighter fleets tasked with feeding the world’s seemingly perpetual demand for semiconductors and high-tech goods. At its peak, CI operated a fleet of 21 widebody freighters, and derived 45 percent of its revenues from cargo, while its counterpart, EVA, operated 19.

Although semiconductors and other high-tech commodities continue to be in high demand, much of the production has shifted to lower-cost countries outside of Taiwan, first to mainland China and, more recently, to neighboring countries in Southeast Asia. Shifting centers of regional production, combined with increasing competition from other carriers in the region and headwinds from a slowing market, certainly challenged EVA and CI.

Operational restrictions resulting from politics with mainland China, across the Taiwan Strait, proved to be an additional limitation that was largely out of the airline’s control. Prior to 2006, Taiwanese carriers were not allowed to operate direct flights between mainland China and Taiwan, meaning that, even if the carriers found sufficient demand to justify a new route, neither EVA nor CI were able to fly it.

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