This is Part Three in a short series of trip reports aboard European ultra-low-cost carriers. To view Part One, click…
Review: Traveling to Taiwan During the Covid-19 Pandemic in EVA Air Economy Class
Throughout the pandemic, people in Taiwan have led relatively normal lives. They went to work in offices, attended classes and ate in restaurants — all because Taiwan tightly controlled its Covid-19 case numbers. Although Taiwan has temporarily banned all non-essential travel, it has still been receiving returning nationals and eligible international travelers throughout the pandemic. With the suspension of Taiwan’s Visa-Exempt Entry, foreigners now have to apply for a visa in order to visit Taiwan. According to the Taiwanese consulates in Los Angeles and San Francisco, both consulates issued 2,777 Taiwan visas in 2020 compared with 1,222 in 2019. This increase is partly because of demand from ethnic Taiwanese who hold only U.S. passports.
Most Taiwanese nationals are not traveling to Taiwan during the pandemic, but China Airlines and EVA Air have not suspended their services to Los Angeles and San Francisco since the Covid-19 outbreak took hold in March 2020. For the past few months, both airlines have operated approximately two to three flights per week from both West Coast cities. However, with the wide distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in the U.S., both carriers are anticipating a rise in travel to Taiwan and Asia from the U.S. this summer.
China Airlines and EVA Air have plans to ramp up service to Los Angeles and San Francisco for the summer travel season and return to operating service daily by July. China Airlines is also restarting its service to Ontario International Airport this June after a 14-month suspension. However, all these plans are dependent on directives from Taiwan’s Central Epidemic Command Center (CECC) to keep the pandemic under control.
While Taiwan has generally kept Covid-19 under control, since last month, it has been dealing with an outbreak linked to China Airlines pilots and an airport hotel at Taoyuan Airport where many of them stayed. Thirty-five infections were confirmed from the China Airlines outbreak. As a result, all China Airlines pilots currently in Taiwan, and those returning, are required to quarantine for 14 days and test negative. China Airlines passenger and freighter flights have been severely impacted by the CECC directive.
It is still unknown how open to travelers Taiwan will be this summer. However, the Taiwanese government had proposed during the China Airlines outbreak shortening the mandatory 14-day quarantine period for inbound travelers to seven days for those travelers who show certificates proving they are fully vaccinated and test negative for Covid-19.
What’s it like to fly to Taiwan on a Skytrax 5-Star Airline in the era of Covid-19? I jumped onto one of EVA Air’s Los Angeles-Taipei services in Economy Class to find out. The service is still operated by EVA Air’s flagship Boeing 777-300ER, but now only operates three times weekly on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays departing at midnight. Before the pandemic, EVA Air flew the route up to three times per day. The Los Angeles service is expected to ramp up to daily by this summer.
Why EVA Air?
EVA Air has been a go-to choice for those returning to Taiwan from the U.S., not only because it offers more flights to Taiwan than its competitors during the pandemic, but also because of the 5-star quality of its seats, amenities, dining, and service of its cabin crew and ground staff. The airline has been certified as a five-star airline by Skytrax for several years in a row.
China Airlines also offers a competitive Economy Class product and the same quality service, but their operations were very limited during the month I chose to fly — only one flight was scheduled to depart from Los Angeles on the week I few. United Airlines is the only other carrier flying non-stop to Taiwan from their West Coast hub in San Francisco. Although United’s tickets are drastically cheaper, their planes are almost always filled to capacity with no social distancing. EVA Air does not guarantee social distancing on its planes either, but the airline does its best to keep seats open between travelers. The airline says it only sells up to 75% of its seats, but it is unlikely you would get a plane that full on a flight to Taiwan during the low travel season.
Travel Planning and Preparation
I applied for the Visitor Visa through the Taiwanese consulate in Los Angeles. The processing time from the day I mailed in my passport to when it arrived back in my hands was just less than two weeks, although the consulate’s website asks you to factor in 30 days of processing time. As of May 2021, the Los Angeles consulate is still only accepting visa applications by mail.
In my case, as a U.S. passport holder of Taiwanese ethnicity, I had to prove my relationship to an immediate relative in Taiwan in order to acquire the visa. I was advised by EVA Air to book my flight only once the consulate issued my visa in the event my application wasn’t successful. Although the consulate’s website says a confirmed air ticket is required for the visa application, a printout of the flight I intended to book sufficed for my visa application.
Taiwan’s Quarantine System for Entry
About a day before my flight’s departure, I filled out Taiwan’s “Quarantine System for Entry” required of all travelers entering Taiwan, but not required for those only transiting at Taoyuan Airport. On the online form, I had to disclose the location of my quarantine and sign an affidavit stating I have met their regulations to quarantine for 14 days. At check-in, EVA Air staff asked to see some sort of proof, such as a phone screenshot, that I completed the form. The form was also checked at several stages on arrival at Taoyuan Airport, from disembarking the plane up to ordering a taxi to take me to my quarantine location.
EVA Air reminds passengers to fill out the form no more than 48 hours prior to their flight’s arrival, or else it expires before you arrive at Taoyuan Airport. A Taiwanese phone number is also required to complete the online form so the government can trace the location of your phone during the 14-day quarantine. The form won’t be valid without it. For those travelers without a Taiwanese phone number, you are able to fill out the form on arrival at Taoyuan Airport once you acquire a local SIM card.
A Closed Terminal, But Gradually Reopening
My last international flight was more than a year ago during a time when LAX was an airport of crowds, queues and busy terminals. The airport literally became a ghost town during the Covid-19 outbreak, but with the gradual reopening of international travel, LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT) is no longer as near-empty as it was during the pandemic’s peak. There was a good amount of travelers traveling that evening. However, virtually all the shops airside were shuttered. The only business open that night was the Duty Free.
All the airline and alliance lounges at TBIT are not operational, with the exception of The Centurion Longe which is only offering a grab-and-go snack box service for its American Express members. Only a few food & beverage outlets airside were open in the terminal’s main dining area.
All the moving walkways inside were shut down, apparently because there are fewer international travelers, but on the night I was traveling, there was a good number of people traveling abroad to far-flung destinations like China, El Salvador, Hong Kong, Japan, Mexico, South Korea and Taiwan. My flight departed from the farthest end of the terminal, making the trek from the check-in counters slightly burdensome, but only taking me 15 minutes walking at a steady pace.
Check-In & Boarding
Despite being a codeshare flight with Avianca, Copa Airlines, and Thai Airways, the flight was more than half empty. Thus the wait to check-in was very quick. There was no separate queue for those passengers who checked in online like in the past, but the number of staff checking in travelers at the counters was more than abundant. Each agent spent at least 10 minutes with each party checking in confirming travel documents and reviewing Covid-19 RT-PCR test reports.
Staff carefully confirmed I had a valid Taiwan travel visa, a negative Covid-19 RT-PCR test report and some sort of proof that I filled out the Quarantine System for Entry. If you have all these items on hand, you’re good to go. I was also asked to fill out EVA Air’s own travel declaration, their Passenger Health Declaration Form. It’s a brief one-page form that asks you to confirm you haven’t experienced symptoms of Covid-19 within 14 days of the flight.
The checked and carry-on baggage allowances for Economy Class are still the same as before — two pieces, up to 50 pounds each for check-in; one personal item; and one bag up to 15 pounds for carry-on. I interacted with at least three check-in agents in total, one checking me in and tagging my bags, another checking my travel documents and forms and the other checking my forehead temperature in order to complete my check-in. It was all very hectic, yet still organized.
Boarding commenced on time at 11:25 p.m. for all passengers. The entire expanse of the boarding area was used to line up all passengers into five boarding groups, and each traveler was asked to scan their own boarding pass. It was very efficient and orderly, and the entire boarding process was completed in less than 25 minutes. With everyone on board early, the flight was able to leave the gate on time.
Economy Class and Its Amenities
Contrary to most traveler’s expectations during Covid-19, not everyone had a row to themselves in Economy Class. Most travelers were able to secure an empty row, but a good number of travelers had to share their row with another traveler. Passengers entering Taiwan were separated from travelers transiting in Taiwan. Those passengers entering Taiwan were arranged to sit in the forward cabin, while those travelers transiting in Taiwan sat in the back cabin.
This arrangement resulted in the back cabin being more occupied than the forward cabin. Thus travelers in the forward cabin had a better possibility of getting an empty row. Flight attendants reminded travelers to avoid changing seats at random during the flight as the location of their seat had been recorded for contact tracing. Luckily, I had the entire row to myself for the flight, which gave me plenty of legroom and space to stretch out for the 14-hour flight.
The Economy Class product is pretty standard and offers ample leg space and recline. The seat comes with an individual 11-inch entertainment screen, a 110V power outlet under the seat, as well a USB port to keep your devices fully charged. Passengers can also use the inflight Wi-Fi service for a separate charge. Each seat also has a handy coat hook and seat pocket with enough space to keep your laptop or tablet within reach.
With the pause in Hollywood film production, western movies were almost non-existent on the inflight entertainment system. Instead, there are a plethora of new release films from Taiwan, China, Hong Kong, South Korea and Japan where film production was still taking place in 2020. As per usual, English captions were provided for the Chinese language films, while only traditional Chinese captions were provided for the non-Chinese language films.
There were no Duty Free sales conducted onboard the flight. However, cabin crew apologized and advised travelers they could preorder from EVA Air’s Sky Shop online and pick up their goods onboard their next flight. Service items such as magazines and newspapers are also no longer provided on the flight, but the airline’s inflight magazine — enVoyage — and the Duty Free catalog could be downloaded through EVA Air’s in-flight Wi-Fi service. Unfortunately, the airline is no longer publishing enVoyage, and the latest version of their magazine is from February 2020.
Economy class passengers are also able to request different disposable service items from cabin crew such as headphones, pillows, sanitizing wipes, slippers and bottled water. Despite wearing extensive protective gear and limited service in the cabin, the flight attendants were very approachable and were glad to bring these items when I called for them. For those airline geeks in the know, EVA Air, like many Asian airlines, still readily stocks souvenir playing cards and postcards in the galley if you ask.
A brisk dinner and breakfast service were provided on the redeye flight. Hot meals were served in normal proportions, however, there was only one choice available for selection. In normal circumstances, the airline would offer two meal choices, which usually varies between seafood and poultry or between a Western and Chinese option. Special meals can still be arranged by booking ahead. Beverage selections were about the same as before consisting of alcoholic beverages, sodas and fruit juice. Ice was also provided upon request. Breakfast was served two hours prior to arrival. For both services, silver cutlery was provided.
Cabin Crew & Safety
EVA Air requires its cabin crew to wear surgical masks, protective eyewear, gloves and hospital gowns for the entire service onboard. On arrival in Taiwan, they have a shorter quarantine period of three days, and thus the airline has these protections in place for their safety. In the event they are found to have come into contact with a passenger that is suspected of having or confirmed to have Covid-19, they would not have to extend their quarantine to for as long as 14 days like normal passengers as they have worn personal protective equipment. The flight attendants were also allowed to wear glasses instead of contact lenses to prevent transmission of the virus.
During the flight, the cabin crew cleaned and disinfected lavatories approximately once per hour. The lavatories were always kept clean and were stocked with hand sanitizer and a range of other toiletry products by Payot, including hand wash, lotion and moisturizing spray. After boarding, Payot sanitizing wipes were also distributed to all passengers on board.
The cabin crew made fewer rounds during the flight in light of possible virus transmission. However they were readily available in the galleys and responsive to passenger’s requests. All announcements by the cabin crew were made in Chinese and English as well as the local Taiwanese dialect. The flight deck also made their introductions and announcements to passengers in both English and Chinese.
After breakfast service concluded, an informational video from Taiwan’s Center for Disease Control was shown to travelers pointing out toll-free numbers to call if one experiences emergencies or symptoms of Covid-19 while in Taiwan. The flight attendants then provided information about what travelers should expect upon arrival at Taoyuan Airport. The flight touched down 1 hour earlier than scheduled and with no other planes on the tarmac, we were quickly directed to EVA Air’s D Gates at Taoyuan Airport T2.
As per usual, deplaning was done in sections starting with business class. Those passengers transiting in Taiwan to reach their final destination were asked to stay onboard the plane so ground staff could separate them from passengers arriving in Taiwan. Those passengers were not allowed to roam freely until they passed the security checkpoint and were taken by ground staff to their connecting flight. The cabin crew wore their personal protective equipment until all passengers deplaned.
Although COVID-19 has altered the presentation of EVA Air’s products and services, the airline has still maintained the quality of its airport and onboard products while ensuring the health and hygiene safety of its customers. Their staff are very well-trained and truly represent the five-star recognition EVA Air is known for.
Although the airline doesn’t guarantee entire rows to each passenger, passengers are still seated with at least one seat of distance from others. The service was as phenomenal as before and the cabin product was adequate for the 14-hour trek to Taiwan. EVA Air is definitely a solid choice for traveling to Taiwan and Asia safely and comfortably during the pandemic.
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This is Part Two in a short series of trip reports aboard European ultra-low-cost carriers. To view Part One, click…
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