A top-notch airline: Review of Starlux Airlines A321neo in business class
[tpg_rating ticket-class="business" tpg-rating-score="89" ground-experience="18" cabin-seat="26" amens-ife="12" food-bev="18" service="15" pros="Top notch food and drink, the best business class seats you can find on a single-aisle plane and polished, professional service from a three-week old airline" cons="Limited route network, no bathrooms in the lounge and an IFE selection that could definitely be bigger" /]
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We've seen a lot of new airlines come and go in the last few years, but most of them have been of the budget or low-cost variety. It's been a while since a new airline burst onto the scene with the promise of a luxury experience from day one.
That's exactly what Taiwanese startup Starlux Airlines set out to do, with the poetic, if confusing, slogan "Born to be luxury, shining like stars." If you've never heard of Starlux before, you aren't alone. The carrier began operations at the end of January and currently only flies to two destinations from its hub in Taipei (TPE): Da Nang, Vietnam (DAD), and Penang, Malaysia (PEN).
That's unfortunate timing, with the coronavirus that's caused flight cancellations and snarled travel in China and elsewhere. But since new-airline launches are so rare, we've decided to cover it anyway. Starlux originally flew to Macau (MFM) as well, but suspended the route because of the virus.
Further Reading: Everything you need to know about ‘luxury startup’ Starlux Airlines
Most new airlines start small, often by buying or leasing used planes, but Starlux made a bold statement by ordering 10 brand-new Airbus A321neos and 17 long-haul A350s. Starlux's founder, Chang Kuo-wei, used to be the chairman of EVA Air, one of the best airlines in the world; his father founded Evergreen Group, the parent company of EVA. The Chang family is an aviation dynasty, and has built EVA into an airline with an unrelenting focus on the small details of the passenger experience.
I had high hopes for Starlux, and the airline met them, wowing me from start to finish. Its business class scored well above the 79-point average of our reviews of long-haul business in 2019.
While Starlux did launch with a fully fledged frequent-flyer program, Cosmile, presumably no one has amassed enough miles yet to redeem for a free flight. And you still won't find Starlux tickets on many online travel agencies including Google Flights, so for now your best bet is to book directly through the Starlux website.
We paid 16,650 Taiwanese dollars (~$550) for a one-way business class ticket on Starlux's longest route, the 4.5 hour flight from Taipei to Penang. This is very close to what Taiwan's largest carrier China Airlines charges on the same route, though its business-class passengers will be on a 737 with standard recliner seats instead of fully flat beds like Starlux offers. As with most of our airfare, we used The Platinum Card® from American Express to earn 5x points on the purchase (when booked directly with the airline), netting us about 2,750 points (worth about $55 based on TPG's latest valuations).
There were some bugs on the Starlux website initially, but I had no trouble pre-selecting my seat and meal online.
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Starlux flies out of terminal 1 at TPE, and it was very easy to find its check-in area. (Incidentally, while I'd been traveling around Asia most of the month, this was the first time I'd had my temperature checked on arrival at the airport as opposed to when I was clearing customs in a new country.)
The airline has not skimped all on its "galactic" branding, and it has even managed to adopt "Starwalker" as its call sign.
There was a short line for economy passengers, which seemed to be moving quickly, and no one ahead of me in the business queue. Only passengers flying to Penang would have been checking in at this time.
I had assumed that the personnel in mustard-colored uniforms hovering over the check-in desks were Taiwanese health officials there to conduct an additional temperature check, but it turned out they were Starlux baggage handlers that would transfer luggage to the conveyor belt.
I'd checked in online the night before but had some trouble receiving my mobile boarding pass, likely because my reservation was booked using a different email address from the one I was trying to get my pass sent to. This created a bit of confusion, but I had five Starlux agents huddled over a computer trying to help me, and within about 10 minutes I was handed a boarding pass plus an invitation to Starlux's Galactic Lounge.
I also noticed a very cute and helpful graphic Starlux had printed out in a branded leather holder at each check in counter, identifying at what stages of flight you could use your various electronic devices.
Security and customs were rather quick with the airport operating below its usual capacity, but I was treated to a very casual 15-minute questioning on my travel history once the immigration officials noticed several pages of Chinese entry/exit stamps. The entire process was very friendly, and after recounting my month of travel to the smiling agent, my passport was returned and I was free to go.
Between the map I was handed and the updated airport signage, it was very easy to find the Starlux lounge, located up one level from the main terminal and sandwiched in between a China Airlines and Plaza Premium lounge.
From the outside the lounge looks pretty large, and it certainly has the sleekest entrance on the floor.
I just handed over my lounge invitation and was quickly escorted in and shown around the space. From the inside, the lounge is much smaller than it initially appears. Starlux's A321s only feature eight business class seats, and given how flights are staggered you'd never end up with more than ~15 passengers in this lounge. This is certainly going to change as the airline grows, especially once it starts flying long-haul routes with A350s.
Most of the seating is clustered around small tables with curved couches, though there are also a few more conventional dining tables in the corner. Most importantly, nearly every seat has both an outlet and USB charger attached to it, a simple but important detail that many airlines and hotels forget.
Within a minute of settling down, one of the attendants came by to present me with a menu as well as a few Starlux candies. They were only serving breakfast when I was there at ~7:30 am, and I opted for the eggs benedict set.
The food was brought out about five minutes later, and while the portion was small it was a fresh and delicious way to start the morning. I was never proactively offered anything to drink, but when the attendant saw me getting up and looking at the tea selections she quickly rushed to help me. A la carte dining is a rare option in any business-class lounge, and just another example of how Starlux is looking to differentiate itself from its more established competition.
The lounge also has a small buffet, featuring a few hot dishes in the back and some salads and cold cuts, as well as a decently stocked self-serve bar, some sweet treats, and a fridge with fresh fruit juices in addition to the usual soda and beer selections.
I was the only person in the lounge for most of my stay; two other guests showed up near the end. The lounge affords plenty of privacy for the small number of guests it serves, and is a stark contrast to the overcrowding you'll often find in Asian airlines' business-class lounges.
Most carriers don't differentiate well between long-haul and short-haul business class, so passengers flying from Taipei to Hong Kong get invited to the same lounges as passengers flying Taipei to New York. When you add in Priority Pass access and the jumbo jets often flown on these shorter routes, it tends to create overcrowding. Starlux's Galactic Lounge, by comparison, was very peaceful.
Further Reading: 5 reasons Asia is the best continent for short-haul flying
The only bad thing I have to say about the lounge is that it doesn't have its own bathroom. You have to go back out into the terminal and walk a few steps down the hall to use a public bathroom. Given Starlux's incredible attention to detail I assume that this was due to space constraints.
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Boarding was scheduled to begin at 8:50 am, and I managed to persuade the gate agents to let me board 10 minutes before that to take pictures. The 26-day old plane looked gorgeous.
Starlux uses Collins Aerospace Diamond seats in business class, with eight seats spread across two rows in a 2-2 configuration. It's the same seat you'll find in American Airlines' transcon biz class on the Airbus A321. The airline has added customized finishes, especially the stitching down the center of the seats.
The seats are staggered with a small privacy partition, which doesn't extend all that high.
The biggest downside to this configuration tends to be the narrow footwells, which have to fit into the space in between the seats in the row in front of them.
If at all possible, I'd select a bulkhead seat in row 2 which does not have this problem.
I'd personally selected seat 2A, the left-side window seat in the front row of the cabin. Only three out of eight business-class seats were taken on this flight.
Seat controls are located on the console in between the two seats, and I always find this to be the most awkward part of this configuration. On more than one occasion I've bumped into the passenger sitting next to me trying to adjust my seat, but with an almost-empty cabin it was not a problem.
Each seat has a USB port, outlet and headphone plug in a small area above the shoulder. There is also a water-bottle holder here, though Starlux hadn't pre-loaded bottles on this flight — a small area I think the airline could improve.
I tested out one of the beds in the empty third row. Starlux provides a nice thick blanket (balanced out by individual air nozzles at each seat so you won't get too hot) and I could see myself getting a few hours of comfortable sleep in this bed, though the footwell looks even tighter when the seat is in bed mode.
Before general boarding began I also had a look at the economy cabin, which looked very sleek.
Seats are laid out in a standard 3-3 configuration, with 31 inches of pitch, a personal television and USB port.
One thing I found interesting was the yellow hard plastic covers over bulkhead/exit row seats indicating that those seats were pre-selected. I'm not sure what passengers were supposed to do with them after boarding; the crew might collect them.
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Waiting at my seat upon boarding was a pillow and blanket. It was a lot of bedding, but I was able to store my blanket under the TV for the duration of the flight with no problem.
There were also a pair of headphones which continued the beautiful Starlux branding.
In a touch you don't often see on shorter regional flights, there was also a pair of slippers waiting at every seat in the small tray below the TV.
There was no amenity kit, which makes sense on a relatively short flight, but the bathrooms had a number of skincare products from Thann.
Each seat features a very crisp 15.6 inch HD touchscreen which I found to be very responsive. There is also a handheld remote in the side of the seat right next to the tray table. When flying American Airlines' A321s with this same seat in the past, I've had problems inadvertently bumping into the handheld remote during flight and messing up my movie selection, but that didn't happen this time around.
Since I had an empty seat next to me I kept that TV on the flight map the entire time as we made our way south and then west to Penang. Meanwhile, I used my TV to watch some movies. The content selection was just good enough that I had no complaints for a four-and-a-half-hour flight, though this is also an area that needs to be improved before Starlux commences long-haul operations. Specifically, the TV selection: while there were about 50 different "shows" listed, most of them were airline or destination programming and not actual TV. Five episodes of Friends is a good start, but I'd like to see more of an investment here.
Starlux has also installed Wi-Fi. All passengers can use messaging apps including WhatsApp and WeChat for free, or can pay for a data-based package. Business-class passengers get it for free, and all they have to do to sign on is enter name, email and birthday. I connected as soon as we crossed 10,000 feet, and the service was decently fast. I was able to message and browse the internet with no problem, and you can even switch devices for free. One small thing I appreciated was that on descent, the service didn't cut out as we crossed through 10,000 feet and remained active until just a minute or so before we touched down.
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Shortly after settling in and before general boarding had even commenced, purser Grace came by my seat to introduce herself and offer me a welcome drink. Starlux serves a signature welcome drink of cold guava and pineapple juice, which was presented with a hot towel.
Grace was friendly, and I knew right away I was in for a treat. I'd find out later that she used to work for ANA before joining Starlux, which explains why I received such polished, professional and personable service from an airline that was less than a month old.
Already waiting at my seat were the menu and wine list, and I really appreciated the map that showed not just what country your wine was from, but the specific region or province. It's little details like this that separate a good airline from a great one.
There were three meal options available on this flight, including a short rib and chicken Normandy. I had pre-ordered the contemporary Asian meal, designed by Michelin-starred restaurant Longtail in Taipei.
Shortly after takeoff Esther, the flight attendant looking after me, came by to confirm my order and even apologized for interrupting my movie to do so.
About 25 minutes after takeoff I was presented with a mise en bouche of a truffle pastry and a skewer of olive, feta and sun-dried tomato.
To drink I had a glass of the Bollinger champagne. First, Grace brought out an empty glass and placed it on my tray. Then she returned with the bottle to present the label to me before pouring.
After I was done, Grace came by my seat to let me know that my main course would be ready in about 10 minutes. I've never had a flight attendant give me a precise update like that during the main meal; only if I was ordering a snack that would take longer to prepare.
You could have served this meal in long-haul first class, minus the tray, and still left me smiling. The Taiwanese black pork with lemongrass and rice noodles was sweet and flavorful, and the banh mi pâté with pickled veggies was a perfect starter. Even the custom cocktail that goes with this dish, the "Mekong mule," was a perfect pairing. Grace asked if I wanted the mocktail version, and while I didn't, that's a great option for anyone not looking to start happy hour at 10:30 am.
I was given a few minutes to breathe after finishing that dish before being served dessert, a panna cotta with soy caramel. This was accompanied by a small fruit and cheese plate and served with a chocolate.
Start to finish, the meal took about 90 minutes which was a perfect pacing. Service throughout was great, though it did take a little while for my dessert tray to be cleared. The couple seated across from me went to sleep shortly after takeoff, and I think the flight attendants were trying to minimize noise and stay out of the cabin as much as possible.
To wrap up, I had a cup of peppermint tea and was also offered another hot towel.
Even on some of the best airlines in the world, like Cathay Pacific or EVA, meals in regional business class often fall flat. Starlux hit it out of the park with this dish, from the flavors to the presentation to the pace of the meal service. The entire time I was eating I couldn't help but think "if this is what they can do on a four-hour flight, I can't wait to see what they come up with for a 10+ hour journey."
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I simply don't have enough good things to say about Grace and Esther. First of all, it was clear they both had experience working for top-notch airlines, and I didn't witness any of the growing pains you might expect from a startup airline's service. They walked the fine line between staying out of my way while I was photographing the cabin and then rushing to serve me as soon as I sat down and started settling in. I was addressed by name at every interaction, and they knelt at my seat to speak with me. It was the little touches though, like providing me updates on when my meal would be ready and apologizing for interrupting my movie to serve me, that showed just how dedicated they were.
While I don't believe Starlux has a formal dine-on-demand concept, with a small plane they had no problem serving me right after takeoff and serving the other passengers later in the flight after they woke up. They also kept the bathroom spotless during the flight, and while that's easy to do with only three passengers, the toilet paper was folded into a point every time I went in to the bathroom. As we were descending, Grace came by to thank me for flying with Starlux and ask if I had any feedback. She also gave me some more Starlux candies and a pack of Starlux branded playing cards as a take-away gift.
Starlux entered a crowded market, as Taiwan already has two established and well-respected carriers. Furthermore, EVA and China Airlines are members of Star Alliance and SkyTeam respectively, giving them a huge boost in traffic. Add in the coronavirus, which started to negatively affect travel just days after Starlux's first flight, and the airline clearly has an uphill battle. But I am rooting for it to succeed.
It's easy to make big promises and bold claims of luxury, and Starlux certainly went heavy on the branding. But the airline lived up to it and then some. The lie-flat seats on a brand-new plane were as close to perfect as you're going to find on any narrow-body jet, and the food and service (which are much harder to get right) were better than what I've experienced on competing airlines for short inter-Asia flights. Not only that, but Starlux did all of this while competing with China Airlines on price, which is not an easy feat when you don't have economies of scale working for you.
Assuming Starlux can navigate the challenges of the current aviation environment, I have no doubt that it will get better with time and I'm eagerly awaiting the day it launches long-haul flights.