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Expansion of direct flights welcomed

TAIPEI, Taiwan -- The expansion of cross-strait direct flights promised by both presidential candidates has been welcomed by Taiwan's airline operators, domestic and international.

Ma Ying-jeou, presidential candidate of the opposition Kuomintang, unveiled his direct three-link plan at the end of February. He said if elected, he will see to it that weekend cross-strait charter flights be initiated by July 1, daily charter flights by the end of the year, and regular flights by June next year.

Frank Hsieh, Ma's ruling DPP rival, said he would expand cross-strait charter flights within three months after taking office, entailing the increase of weekly flights and addition of more mainland destinations to a list of places charter flights can now fly to.

Taiwan has restricted direct three-links — shipping, air and postal links — with the mainland since the Kuomintang retreated to the island in 1949 after losing China's civil war to the Communist Party. Calls for a change to that policy have been made, however, ever since a migration of Taiwan businesspeople to the other side of the Strait to operate their business, taking advantage of China's lower production cost. Making them stop at a third destination, such as Hong Kong and Macau, would add an additional three to four hours to an otherwise two-hour itinerary and had often left homebound businesspeople frustrated.

Meanwhile, calls for direct cross-strait transport have been augmented by foreign businesses with operations in both China and Taiwan, who said the lack of a direct link had often cost them additional money and would force them to move all operations to China to save costs. Right now, direct transportation links are offered on a charter flight basis, and flights are available only during special occasions, such as the Lunar New Year, Tomb Sweeping Festival, and other holidays important to the Chinese people. Now, with the landmark election just a few days away, airline operators said they welcomed any plans to expand direct cross-strait links, no matter who becomes the new president come inauguration day, May 20.

"As you know, domestic airlines have been hit hard by surging oil prices and the opening of the Taiwan High-Speed Rail, and we're pinning our hope on direct flights offered on a regular basis," said Fan Chih-chiang, chairman of TransAsia Airways who doubles as the chairman of the Taipei Airlines Association. "This will be a huge plus for Taiwan's air operators."

Perhaps no airline can feel the high-speed rail's impact more strongly than Far Eastern Air Transport, which is facing its biggest financial crisis since its founding as it is heavily in debt, threatening its very survival as a domestic operator.

"If direct flights were made official, it would be like rain in the midst of a drought and present an opportunity for investors to bail us out," the airline was quoted by a recent United Evening News article as saying.

EVA Airways, Taiwan's second largest airline operator, said it was ready to take on the task of operating increased cross-strait flights.

"If weekend charter flights began on July 1, we are ready for it," EVA said.

Yesterday, both China Airlines and EVA Airways Corp. rose in Taipei trading, despite a 1.9 percent fall of the TAIEX, on optimism direct flights will be expanded with the birth of a new administration.

China Airlines rose NT$0.5, or 3 percent, to NT$17.25, while EVA Air gained NT$0.35, or 2.1 percent, to NT$17.35.

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