How Taiwan’s ‘cosmic parent’ airline changed the world

BBC “We’ve done a pilot for a part one,” said a pilot on Taiwan’s inaugural flight on Friday. As the aircraft descended, it lit up a gold-toned arc with the words “Taiwan Air” printed…

How Taiwan's 'cosmic parent' airline changed the world


“We’ve done a pilot for a part one,” said a pilot on Taiwan’s inaugural flight on Friday.

As the aircraft descended, it lit up a gold-toned arc with the words “Taiwan Air” printed boldly in a sky-blue airbus.

“It took three years to develop this, so now I’m so excited to see it get ready for action,” said Lucique Kawai, one of the original planters at the company.

Ms Kawai grew up in Oregon, where her father was a pilot and her mother a nurse. The family’s interests when they moved to Taiwan were shaped by her mother’s career.

“I would visit her there on the weekends and she gave me a very strong belief of a family business. Because her background was in the public health sector, she always wanted to improve health, through health promotion. I think my aspiration to start up a family business is pretty much where my love for business is developed.”

In 1969, it was only a dream. In the 1970s, the history of Taiwan’s airline industry is filled with more dreams. It began with the brutal military dictatorship of President Chiang Kai-shek, which banned any company from government investments. Its first year of operation was 1979.

However, a small group of businessmen — most of them radical leftists — did find a way around the ban and set up China Airlines in 1969. Like most entrepreneurs of the time, they gained prominence quickly, and the airline grew at breakneck speed.

Then came the reform movement in the 1980s, under the auspices of then President Lee Teng-hui. Almost overnight, Taiwan’s economic system came into its own. A wave of privatisation wiped out many of the country’s state-owned corporations.

“Companies like Chunghwa Telecom and China Airlines were on our agenda. We tried to lure them with our new market,” said Mr Lin, who works for the shipbuilding company Formosa Plastics, which was spun off from CEN Investment, a company formerly owned by the government.

At the same time, the Revolutionary Democratic Alliance for Democracy, spearheaded by activist Lin Cheng-hua, took control of the presidency and stripped Lin Yi-shih, the man whose 1979 coup d’etat had brought Taiwan into political hands, of control over the state-owned enterprises. Mr Lin was detained and on self-imposed exile in France for almost a decade.

The President began to flex his muscles and the private sector flourished. Taiwan Airlines took the lead.

“The industry looked at the other companies and said, we need more competition and we want to come up with something that would meet the high standards that these companies have,” said Mr Lin.

When Mr Lin returned to Taiwan in 2000, after fleeing Cuba, he started thinking about what he wanted to achieve with his business. His company, Formosa Plastics, immediately gained recognition as a top player in the shipping sector, which is dominated by mainland China.

“It seemed that now is the right time. We had very strong assets. The economy has been doing well and at the same time the young people were growing up in a capitalist society.

“So why not start a revolution in the airline industry? We should try to provide our best services and competitive prices, and we will be unstoppable.”

I spoke to two Taiwan Airlines pilots — one of whom is a new hire — who recounted the teamwork that helped to turn the company from a backwater carrier into a success. But its founder says it will not be easy.

As for critics who say Taiwan Airlines is just another carrier – a corporate vanity project, founded by a man who won’t stay in one place for too long? Mr Lin disagrees:

“We have to think strategically, not to give in to what has to be done, but to think what is right for Taiwan and the people of Taiwan.”

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