Interview with Glenn Chai, CEO of Taiwanese start-up Starlux Airlines

31 Dec 2019 by Michael Allen
Starlux A321neo

Starlux Airlines, a start-up airline based out of Taipei, is planning to launch its first flights on January 23, 2020. The carrier plans to operate three-times-daily flights to Macau, twice-daily flights to Da Nang in Vietnam, as well as a daily flight to Penang in Malaysia.

Earlier this month, the airline revealed some of its inflight food and drink offerings, as well as other inflight amenities.

We caught up with Starlux’s CEO Glenn Chai to find out more about this intriguing new airline.

Starlux Airlines president Glenn Chai / photo courtesy of Starlux Airlines

Some might say the airline market in Taiwan is already quite saturated, with two major carriers – EVA Air and China Airlines – as well as low cost carriers. Why is Starlux needed in the market?

Starlux is based in Taipei, with an advantageous geographic location within the fast-growing Asia-Pacific market. We are aimed at the transfer market and intend to serve business travellers. At present, the number of transfer passengers only makes up about 10% of the total passenger volume through Taoyuan Airport. Compared to Seoul, Shanghai and Tokyo, there is still a lot of room for growth. From our hub in Taipei, we can reach most major cities in Asia within five hours. From Taoyuan Airport, transfer passengers can fly to further destinations in North America and Europe.

How do you plan to communicate to passengers how you are different to EVA Air and China Airlines, and what will be the benefit for passengers of having another airline in the market?

We are positioning ourselves as a “boutique airline” [and] are focused on the transfer and premium traveller market. Our narrow-body aircraft will be offering passengers with fully-flat bed seats in the business class, and passengers of all cabin classes will be enjoying their own personal entertainment system. In terms of service, we would like to provide a passenger-oriented service that caters to everyone’s need. For example, all meals, including regular meals, can be pre-ordered. Starlux is the first and only one to offer such service in Taiwan.

It is always good news for consumers that they will have a brand-new choice. Starlux will differentiate itself by always providing more and the best. We chose the most advanced aircraft in the market, employing the newest technology and seating in the cabin. For example, Wi-Fi and personal entertainment systems are provided in all cabin classes. When it comes to service items, we are devoted to offering our passengers quality and unprecedented amenities. We hope flying with Starlux will be something that our passengers will look forward to. We hope they will enjoy every second of their flight, where all five senses (olfactory, gustatory, auditory, tactile and visual) will be addressed and satisfied.

How did you go about deciding which routes would be your launch routes? So far, you’ve got Da Nang, Macau and Penang. What other Southeast Asian destinations do you want to fly to?

We believe Taiwan has the potential to develop in the transit market in Asia. Starlux views the whole Asia-Pacific region as our focal market and our target audience will be transfer passengers, business travelers and frequent flyers. Therefore, we intend to build an extensive network in the first few years as the cornerstone to further develop our long-haul flight routes to North America and Europe. Upcoming potential destinations are still under evaluation and will depend on the fleet delivery and market demand.

Since Southeast Asia is a rising region with growing demand in air travel, major cities in countries like Thailand, Singapore, Vietnam, the Philippines and so on are all being closely evaluated.

What about cross-straits flights to mainland China?

Like many other destinations, the capacity of routes between China and Taiwan are limited due to the traffic right agreements. However, Starlux will make every endeavor to serve the passengers traveling between Taiwan and China when there is a chance.

Where do you see as underserved markets from Taiwan?  

When it comes to underserved markets, our first consideration is not just the destination, but the limited choice of airline service to that destination. These are the areas where we would like to make a breakthrough. We hope to open up new travel opportunities for Taiwan passengers.

Are you focusing mainly on Taiwan as a point of sale, or other markets too? If others, which?

Taiwan is definitely our main point of sale as it is our home base. However, we also value sales outside Taiwan. We now have city offices at our first three destinations—Macau, Da Nang and Penang—to develop local sales in these markets as well.

How much percentage of your traffic do you expect to be connecting traffic? How do you see inbound and outbound growth prospects in the domestic market?

We’ve set a ten-year goal that among Starlux’s passengers, the percentage of transfer passengers can reach 30-40%.

What can passengers expect your price point to be like, given that you are pitching yourself as a more premium flying experience? 

There is a market mechanism regarding ticket fare. Our pricing strategy will be practical by proposing ticket fares that are attractive and competitive. But with better services and cabin equipment, our price may be a little bit higher than the others. However, with the design of fare family, every passenger will be able find the right ticket product that suits them the best. It is Starlux’s ultimate goal to further enhance the overall quality of Taiwan’s aviation market, and thus making all Taiwanese airlines more competitive in the global arena.

Why did you feel it was important to partner with a fashion designer to create your uniforms?

We hoped to find someone who could think out of the box to create a series of uniform that is very different from what people usually think of when it comes to airline uniform. Fashion designer Sean Yin was the perfect person to achieve this goal. He was passionate about Starlux and had the ambition to give Starlux an appearance of not just another airline but a luxury brand.

We are also happy to say that Starlux has been awarded “Best New Airline Uniform” in TheDesignAir Awards 2019. It is a great honor and recognition for a start-up airline like us that has not launched yet.

Why did you go for a more casual style with the uniforms?

Our uniforms are function-oriented, meaning that they are designed based on the users’ needs in everyday work. We wanted our uniforms to not only be stylish but to also be practical and comfortable to wear for everyday work for our frontline staff. We had the employees with first-hand work experience contribute to the design of the new uniforms by providing opinions and suggestions. Combining those with Sean’s talent, we modified many of the more typical accoutrements to be simple yet functional and as a result, a satisfying collection of uniform was born.

“Safety is our attitude” is a slogan on your uniforms. Why did you choose to have this slogan? Does this have anything to do with Taiwan’s sometimes poor safety record?  

Safety is always the most basic yet important requirement and top priority for an airline. Our passenger give us their trust when they choose to fly with Starlux. The slogan is to remind the front-line staff of their commitment to provide the safest journey possible to our customers.

Starlux Airlines uniform / photo courtesy of Starlux Airlines

Why did you decide to partner with BMW Designworks to create your cabin interior?  

Designworks specialises in innovative industrial designs. With its diverse experience working on not only high-end cars but also different airlines and railways, we believed the team can really understand what we want. They were able to adopt a human-centric, systems approach in their design, delivering a cabin that is luxurious and innovative, yet warm and homey. 

What are some key features of the business class seats on your A321neo?

“Pure Tea” is the conceptual theme underpinning the whole of the cabin design of our A321neo aircraft. We provide a homelike atmosphere, featuring warm colors, rich appealing textures and innovative materials. The atmosphere we have created for our business class is sedate and tranquil, employing dark and elegant colors to evoke the majesty of the galaxy. While the cushions and privacy dividers are a classical dark grey and rose gold, the exclusive Cashmere Silver, inspired by BMW, adds a futuristic, hi-tech touch to the back shells. Each passenger is provided with his or her own 15.6-inch 1080p inflight entertainment system screen while seated cozily in the first narrow-body airliner seat in Taiwan that can transform into an 82-inch fully flat bed. There are two seat control panels situated beside the headrest and the armrest respectively so that a passenger can reach the button easily to return the seat to an upright position.

What are you planning for your Airbus A350 in terms of seat product?

The seats and cabin design of our A350 is still in process. We will once again do our best to provide interiors with superior aesthetics and comfort.

What classes are you planning to have on your A350? Will you have premium economy? First class?  

As we are entering an era of M-shaped society, we see potential in the demand for premium travel experience. Therefore, Starlux will re-introduce first class cabin, which is not offered by the other two home carriers. For our A350 fleet, we are planning to have four cabin classes including economy, premium economy, business and first class.

Starlux Airlines business class seat / photo courtesy of Starlux Airlines

Tell me about your frequent flyer programme

The name of our frequent flyer programme is “COSMILE.” The name has two meanings. The first meaning relates to “Cos (cosmos)” and “Mile,” keeping with the galactic theme behind Starlux. But it also stands for “Cos” and “Smile,” which symbolises the pleasant feeling of flying. There are four tiers: Traveler, Adventurer, Explorer and Insighter, which represent different levels of travelling. At first, you are a traveller who maybe just follows the travel guide and makes brief stops. As you travel more, you begin to adventure and then explore something new on your own. Finally, you have your own perspective and insight about travelling.

How will your loyalty programme compare with other programmes on the market, both in Taiwan and internationally?

We offer a family account for our members. Minor applicants from 2 years old to 19 years old can be registered under a family account, which has a primary member, who is maybe the mother or father of the family. The whole family can accumulate their mileage together and enjoy more benefits faster. 

What are your plans for providing airport lounge access for customers?  

As an airline that aims to provide the best service, there will be an airport lounge exclusively for our passengers. Nevertheless, we will also seek partnership with other lounge operators. The service details are still being planned. We will distinguish what we serve in the lounges from what is served on board so that passengers can enjoy different style of cuisine on every stage of their journey with Starlux. 

What kind of F&B do you plan to offer onboard?

We want our guests to experience the unique flavour and culture of their destination from the moment they step on the plane. 

We had the renowned Japanese-style grilled meat restaurant “Hutong” design a set of menus. Passengers can enjoy Barbeque Beef Belly Donburi or Magao Salted Pork Belly Donburi on our flights from Taipei. Another of our great partners, Transasia Catering, also designed many special meals like Taiwanese Assorted Braised Snacks and Roasted Honey Chicken with Penne in Garlic Oil.

Besides coffee and tea, we are the first Taiwanese airlines to offer “soup” as an option. We hope passengers will enjoy a warm and cozy flight with our signature soup.

In business class, we offer an exclusive contemporary Asian menu created by Michelin starred Chef Lam Ming Kin for flights departing from Taipei. Chef Kin’s Longtail restaurant was rated Michelin one star for two consecutive years. Specialty dishes include Vietnamese paté, with char siu and homemade pickles, Taiwanese black pork shoulder with Vietnam rice noodle. He also designed a special cocktail called Mekong Mule to go with the meal.

Transasia Catering is also a source of a unique inflight menu for Starlux, like Grilled US Short Rib Steak with Yorkshire Pudding and Taitung Corn Fed Chicken with Braised Shallot Sauce and Rice.

Starlux Airlines - Hutong Economy Class Meal (Credit - Starlux Airlines' Facebook)

When it comes to beverages, we carefully select red, white wine and champagne from around the world to go with our exotic gourmet dishes onboard, offering you the variety of food-and-wine pairing you would expect in a fine Bistro. We even serve the famous Champagne Bollinger Special CuvéeIf, James Bond’s favorite champagne on board. For those who want something non-alcoholic, we also offer refreshing cold-pressed juice in different flavors including Guava and Pineapple Mixed and Pitaya Mixed. Our business class passengers can enjoy the fine tea of the long-established brand Whittard.

Online meal pre-order for all cabin classes is available from 60 days to 24 hours before flight departure. In this way, our passengers can make sure they get what they want to eat and avoiding wasting food at the same time. 

Many airlines are implementing sustainable practices on board, such as eschewing plastic cups, straws etc. As a new airline, do you feel some responsibility to be sustainable? If yes, what measures are you taking to ensure your airline is environmentally friendly?  

We definitely want to do our part to protect the environment and mother earth. First, fuel efficiency is one of the important factors that influenced our choice of the advanced aircraft A321neo and A350 XWBs. Take our A321neo as an example; with the new-generation CFM LEAP-1A engine, the aircraft can deliver per-seat fuel improvements of 20%, reducing carbon emissions.

We are also devoted to being sustainable when choosing our inflight amenities. For example, in economy class, we chose Sea Wool blankets by Kuan’s Living. The fabric is made from recycled oyster shells and recycled plastic bottles. It is not only eco-friendly but soft, warm and breathable.

Regarding the use of biofuels, there are still under regulation improvement in Taiwan. However, Starlux is open to any eco-friendly solution and will be happy to introduce them to our fleet when suitable. 


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