SHANGHAI: Taiwan and China took a step yesterday towards lifting a ban on direct air links with the completion of the first commercial flight for more than 50 years between the bitter political rivals.
A Boeing 747-400 of Taiwan’s China Airlines, carrying 243 passengers and crew, flew here via Hong Kong and returned to Taipei the same way – the first of 16 charter flights to help Taiwanese get home for the Lunar New Year holidays that begin on Feb 1.
“After going through some twists and turns, our dream has come true at last,” Yeh Hui-teh, chairman of Shanghai’s Taiwan Businessmen’s Association, said at the Taipei airport in front of a giant poster that read “It’s good to be home.”
Taiwan airline executives, Chinese government officials and other dignitaries here popped champagne corks and exchanged toasts before the passengers boarded the plane, which flew here carrying only crew and a few politicians.
“This is a breakthrough in cross-strait relations,” the city's vice mayor Han Zheng said. “Like most Taiwan investors here, we hope that the day of direct flights will come soon.”
John Chang, a grandson of late Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek who fled to Taiwan with his troops in 1949, was one of the few passengers on the plane when it landed here and he called for a repetition next year.
“It needs a lot of preparation and discussion, but I don’t think it’s impossible,” said Chang, a member of Taiwan’s parliament who pushed for the charter flights, after a ceremony and a traditional lion dance on the tarmac.
Taiwan has banned direct air links since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1949, so the plane touched down in Hong Kong. But passengers, for the first time, did not have to change planes and got to Taipei in four hours instead of the usual five.
Despite the political differences, Taiwan businesses have invested some US$100bil (RM382.5bil) on the mainland and an estimated one million Taiwanese have moved across Taiwan Strait.
Around 300,000 usually go home for the Lunar New Year and the charter flights, while still not flying directly over the Strait, mean passengers can take the same plane all the way.
China allowed six Taiwan carriers – China Airlines, Far Eastern Air Transport Corp, EVA Airways, UNI Airways, Mandarin Airlines and TransAsia Airways – to make the flights.
From Feb 5 to 9, planes will fly passengers back to China’s business capital in a venture more symbolic than commercial with only half the seats filled as most people booked flights well in advance to avoid the holiday crush.
“I bought the charter flight tickets because I heard that there were still a lot of seats left and I couldn’t get a ticket on a normal flight,” said Jerry Wang, 56, who runs a consultancy.
The cheapest tickets on the chartered planes cost 3,700 yuan (RM1,710), about 20% less than a regular flight. – Reuters
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