A China Airlines passenger jet taxies in front of a giant Taiwanese flag at Taoyuan International Airport. Photo: Central News Agency, Taiwan

Taiwanese are asking for the name of their national airline to be changed after a plane sent to Europe loaded with donations of medical gear to help fight Covid-19 was mistaken as being from mainland China.

Taiwan, having largely squashed a spike in new Covid-19 infections since March and with no new cases reported on Tuesday, is now sending medical gear to its unofficial allies across Asia and the West.

Cargo jets dispatched by Taiwan fully laden with masks and hazmat suits are frequenting Europe and America after the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen announced earlier this month donations of 10 million surgical masks, among other things, to help the world combat the virus.

Tsai said Taiwan had pumped up mask production since February and factories islandwide could churn out more than the amount the island would need.

Yet Taiwan’s largesse has, at least in one recent incident in Europe, been mistaken for goodwill and donations from China after jets deployed by China Airlines (CAL) touched down at an airport there.

The airline is Taiwan’s flag carrier, yet most cannot tell it apart from its mainland counterpart Air China.

The issue was raised after photographs of CAL planes delivering pallets of masks led some officials in Europe to thank China, not Taiwan.

To avoid causing more confusion, Taiwan has now started adding its national flag on the pallets of medical supplies to be flown by China Airlines, the island’s national carrier, to other countries. Photos: CNA

An online petition demanding a name change for CAL continues to gain traction, with more than 40,000 Taiwanese signing up as they do not want other countries to confuse Taiwan with China.

Taiwan’s Premier Su Tseng-chang on Tuesday backed calls from pro-independence lawmakers and the media to ditch “China” in the airline’s name. Su also spoke of the possible commercial and operational ramifications, as a new name for the flag carrier could affect the island’s aviation rights and must be acknowledged by the International Civil Aviation Organization, now headed by a Chinese official, who would probably refuse to assign a new International Air Transport Association code for the carrier.

As a stop-gap remedy, Su told the island’s parliament that the government would highlight “Taiwan” on the fuselage of all CAL jets hauling supplies to other counties and all packages of goods would bear Taiwan’s national flag as well as the slogan “Taiwan can help.”

“The ICO is unlikely to interfere with how an airline decorates its planes and packages its goods, as that is entirely up to the airline itself,” said the premier.

When pressured by lawmakers if CAL would be renamed “Taiwan Airlines,” Su reminded them that Chiang Kai-shek International Airport, the island’s pivotal aviation gateway serving Taipei and northern Taiwan, was renamed Taoyuan Airport amid the nascent “desinicization” movement when he first served as premier under then-president Chen Shui-bian in the 2000s.

Taiwan’s transportation ministry also chimed in, noting that even though the name change may involve aviation rights and many other factors, the national airline carrying the name Taiwan is something the government must endeavor to achieve.

Although the transportation ministry is CAL’s major shareholder, the airline is a publicly-traded firm and renaming it may also require a vote by other stakeholders. CAL now maintains a fleet of 88 planes with extensive routes to Europe and North America as one of the largest carriers in Asia.

Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen flies China Airlines to visit countries that still maintain diplomatic ties with the self-ruled island. Photo: TVBS screen grab
The ailing China Airlines will not have extra financial resources for a name change as Covid-19 has thrown its operations into a tailspin. Changing its corporate livery across its entire fleet and altering its existing pacts with global partners will not be cheap either. Photo: WeChat

Even if the name change can go ahead, the airline would rack up huge costs for rebranding as it would need to repaint its standard and special liveries on all its jets and redesign its ads and products, not to mention the cost and time to alter commercial contracts and pacts with various agencies worldwide.

Taiwan’s Central News Agency quoted a CAL executive who wished not to be named as saying that the total expenditure for a new name could be to the tune of hundreds of millions of US dollars, a bill too big to foot now that like all other major carriers, CAL is fighting to stay afloat and keep flying as Covid-19 hammers the global aviation sector.

It will also be a question if the government and CAL’s shareholders will agree to share the cost, on top of a bailout package that has already cost the island’s taxpayers more than NT$5 billion (US$166 million).

A new name without “China” would also ruffle Beijing’s feathers after it had already lambasted the island for trying to take advantage of the global pandemic to further its independence agenda.

Other than the flag carrier, Chunghwa Telecom and Chunghwa Post, Taiwan’s telecommunications and post service providers whose shares are mostly owned by the government, also has “Chunghwa” – China’s transliteration in English – in their names.

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