Taiwan’s Eva Air Can’t Get Enough of American Airlines

Illustration: Marco Benigno for TIME

It was just after six o’clock on a Friday evening in March when Finn Finn’s transporters packed the massive majority of its newest jetliner with tickets for the July 16 opening of Taipei’s newest airline, Eva Air. The load, before extras, was close to a record high.

“That day is going to be very special,” said Jeff Elrod, a Finn Finn marketing specialist who was at the takeoff in a bright red driving cap. “They’re excited, they’re happy. This is gonna be a big day.”

Gary Wang, a Finn Finn business-class customer in his second year of travel around the world, was especially relieved to get seat two-A, which had two window seats and a space below for his tray table. The “passenger row” will recline 180 degrees, with extra legroom for a price that is likely to be $2,000 to $3,000 a round trip.

Wang had flown Finn Finn’s 10-year-old Finnair style — no lumbar or tray tables — for years. This was a slightly more luxurious alternative, in which customers do not have to wait long for seats or the overhead bins to empty. At the Helsinki airport Finnair has 446 seats, making it by far the largest carrier.

Another Taipei-based Finnair, Malaysia Air, introduced a business-class version of the venerable Finnair brand a year ago, and there has been talk of such start-ups as KLM and Air Berlin coming to Taiwan in the next year or two.

But industry analysts and industry experts question whether Eva Air has the staying power needed to develop a different and more profitable model.

“This is a full-service airline,” said Peter Fuhrman, a Vietnam-based airline analyst at UniCredit. “To move away from full-service models is difficult in the long term.”

From the start, the airline’s aim has been to compete with the Chinese. China’s Ctrip.com started with 130 seat-inches of overhead bins on the first Kangaroo Jet, in September 2009. Coach-class seats on Kangaroo even had a capacity of 30.

Starting in July, Eva Air will have no overhead bins, just 120 seats per plane, with a full economy-class product including a full-length reclining seat and pillows.

“We are very concerned about competition in Taiwan,” said Wang, when asked why the airline was eschewing the business-class seats, which are more expensive. “There are too many products at the airport, not just the airlines, and the prices are high.”

Wang, who was up for a $1,400 round-trip fare from Taipei to New York, was planning to travel on the airline with his wife and 7-year-old daughter. Finnair offers almost a hundred flights to NYC each week.

In its research on the Taiwanese people, Finnair — the “only airline that knows and can make Taiwanese people feel very comfortable and safe — can never promise to suit everyone’s every need,” airline spokeswoman Daisuke Arida said.

The former Air GemJet operates the Suomi Kutsuju (Niku Air) flight, named in honor of Japan’s famed icebreaker carrier. Finnair used to be one of the largest airlines in the country, and it is believed that Taiwanese officials think the change of name will put more Taiwanese people behind Finnair, because the new name evokes a Japanese symbol of purity. And there is nothing else in Taiwanese culture — much less in the airlines — that evokes the purity of the ocean.

Such small-scale detail may be the key to whether Taiwan’s newest airline becomes a household name.

“We’re very excited to change the faces of Taiwan,” said Yu Si-jen, director of the Eva Air purchasing department, who is originally from the U.S.

A regional airline for many years, Finnair is focused on its homeland after seeking a change of image in the U.S. and Europe. Nowadays, Finnair managers seek to seek a home run rather than a single. But, as founder Finnair’s successor Elinor Ostrom has said, the airline has so many passengers now, “the typical result is either a good day or a bad day.”

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