Saturday, February 28, 2009

Jetset: "A Straight Path across the Strait"

The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. When it came to air travel between mainland China and Taiwan, however, the shortest flight path was anything but straight. For more than five decades, political reality forced travelers to connect through a third country or region, adding hours of hassle to what should have been an easy hop across the Taiwan Strait.

Those days are thankfully over. After years of negotiations, mainland and Taiwan authorities launched daily nonstop flights last December. Eleven airlines are currently permitted to fly 108 weekly flights between two dozen cities, potentially carrying three million travelers every year (that’s still only half of the current annual mainland-Taiwan passenger volume). Without the required Hong Kong stop or overfly, these flights have cut travel time by two-thirds. That’s a huge boon for the 600,000 or so Taiwan businessmen living in Shanghai, who can now reach Taipei in 90 minutes instead of six hours.

Closer to our home city, travelers are happy to see their Taipei flights curtailed from a seven-hour slog to a three-hour glide. Grabbing a seat can be difficult, though, especially during holidays, as demand far outstrips supply. The shortfall in capacity is likely to worsen when Taiwan starts to allow more mainland tourists in. Some analysts say Beijing has capped the nonstop flights to cushion the economic impact upon the Hong Kong and Macau airports, which earn a considerable chunk of revenue from transiting Taiwan-bound passengers.

Not surprisingly, passengers save little even as airlines save on transit and fuel costs with more direct routing. A dummy booking on Air China’s website for a mid-March Beijing-Taipei economy-class roundtrip yielded a fare of RMB 4,750 including taxes, comparable to previous prices. But at least you can earn 2,144 miles for the trip (or redeem 50,000 Air China miles for the ticket). That’s not bad considering these flights are technically charters, which usually forbid mileage accrual and redemption. On the other hand, the normalization of air links has taken the shine off cross-strait flights, with frequent fliers reporting the disappearance of special onboard amenities such as Taiwan cuisine, real chinaware and luxury pillows – at least for those stuck in the back of the plane.

For aviation enthusiasts, one bright spot remains – Air China’s dedicated fleet of jets with special paint schemes. Since the mainland’s flag carrier is unable to display the red banner in Taiwan due to local restrictions, it has instead painted the fuselages of a dozen planes with national symbols such as pandas and peonies. China Airlines – Air China’s island counterpart – went through its own makeover more than a decade ago, prior to Hong Kong’s return to the mainland. Its distinctive hand-painted plum blossom tails have since earned rave reviews worldwide. Steven Jiang

This article was originally published on page 94 of the March 2009 issue of The Beijinger magazine.

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