At its peak, EVA Air hailed as Cathay’s successor. Now it’s paying off

It may be a story as old as the book itself: the promise of nobility, the disappointment of hubris, and a prince who “fell from grace”.

Aviation industry analysts had hailed Taiwanese airline EVA Air as the heir to Cathay Pacific for the romance of its corporate structure. “The tale of EVA and Cathay Pacific is a double-edged sword,” said Drew Feingold, vice-president at Wingspan Consultancy. “While EVA looks set to take over, Cathay continues to struggle.”

Miles away from Singapore’s retirement home, EVA Air opened its door for just six employees on its fifth day on the job. Now, 44 months on, it has notched up more than seven million passengers and a multimillion-dollar profit – and jet fuel prices remain a constant irritation.

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A company worth $3.6bn is funded by a 124-metre-high tower, financed by local firms, supported by the central government and driven by “chairman of the board” Chen Kuo-tung. It relies heavily on regional hires and uses cross-Taiwanese trading partners to give its planes fresh paint and boost its “regionally diverse” portfolio.

But aside from one crash-landing, the CV of the man leading it all is poor. Chen, a former car crash-prone pro-independence activist, is reviled by many for leading his revolution in a “dashboardless” BMW. He stirred further controversy with a brief flurry of overseas trips before becoming chairman in 2009 and a persistent refusal to comply with media requests to answer questions.

Chen at his first meetings with journalists at the company’s headquarters after taking over its helm in 2009. Photograph: Ian Lewis/Reuters

Chen was appointed chairman of Taiwan’s national airline in 2003, just a year after resigning from his post as vice-governor of Tainan, the second-biggest city on the island. His pro-independence campaign earned a reminder of his past in 2008, when an ex-convict and activist claimed he had attacked Chen. The CEO met police but no charges were brought.

The chartered Challenger 300 was owned by a Dutch private company, carrying passengers to Taiwan. The model was far from the sleek new aircraft – at 8,000 euros each it was only a rival for a Tesla Model S.

With its aircraft acquired by a British company, the government-backed airliner took off from the country’s strongest international airport in Taoyuan. The local media called it a “country club” because of its lush, manicured facilities at its freestanding, six-storey headquarters in a leafy suburb of Taipei.

Announcing the deal with American financier Ross per Varanis in 2014, Chen spoke of his “lavish suite”, extensive use of the company jet and apparent indulgence in custom cars – just two more perks for a leader known for his fatherly nature.

Chen ‘courteous’. Photograph: Michael Buckner/Getty Images

“We have an airplane for our boards, for our ministers and employees. I imagine I deserve it,” he said. In July 2016, he applied for citizenship – an addendum that only his peers on the world stage receive.

Two years later, he told reporters on one of his frequent trips outside Taiwan that his “self-confidence has increased, and the hand of the government seems open”.

On another occasion he complained of having to fly economy on his travels. “I wish I could be rich and generous, but I’m not,” he said.

A year after his departure, the publication of an edition of a rich young man’s magazine bluntly described the billionaire’s after-dinner table habits, his choice of guns and the role their use played in bolstering his image.

His approval rating among his voters was some 15 points down, with people simply wishing he was “had passed away many years ago”.

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