While direct flights to Taiwan are still politically impossible, a smooth journey directly across the Taiwan Straits will soon become reality for thousands of Taiwanese doing business in the mainland.
In a joint press conference yesterday, Xiamen International Airport Group and Taiwan-based Uni Air announced that the two sides will work together to provide daily seamless transfer services for passengers travelling across the straits, beginning later this month.
According to the arrangement, passengers from the mainland must first fly to Xiamen, where they will pass through a special air-sea joint operation service counter at the airport.
The counter will clear customs and handle ticket and baggage issues for the passengers before they are transferred to Jinmen by boat to take another flight to Taiwan proper via Uni Air. Jinmen is the closest Taiwanese island to the mainland, about 13 kilometres from Xiamen.
Currently, Uni Air's flights connect Kinmen with the Taiwanese cities of Taipei, Taichung, Chiayi, Tainan and Kaohsiung. Service counters like that in Xiamen will also be set up in the airports of these five cities, where travellers will get the relevant procedures settled before they make the transfer to the mainland.
"Taiwanese passengers only need to make a phone call to us to get everything settled, including the air tickets, shipping tickets and relevant procedures," said Chen Shyong-jyh, vice-president of Uni Airways Corp. "Their baggage will also go to their designated places directly."
Such seamless services will save travelling costs for Taiwanese businessmen by at least one third and the travel time can also be greatly shortened, according to company executives of the Xiamen airport.
For example, a round trip between Shanghai and Taipei would need only 5 hours under the new arrangement at a cost of 2,500 yuan (US$312), compared with at least 7 hours and 4,000 yuan (US$500) through non-stop charter flight via Hong Kong or Macao.
Statistics showed at least 80,000 trips by Taiwan business-people to and from Shanghai every month. There are almost a million such visits a year.
"It is really a boon to Taiwan business-people and investors to have such a co-operative arrangement," said Jiang Xinda, vice secretary-general of the Association of Shanghai Taiwan Businessmen Invested Enterprises, which has a membership base of at least 1,000.
"However, we have to see how this works out in the long run."
Shanghai reportedly has the largest Taiwanese community in the mainland, with registered Taiwanese companies numbering at least 5,000.
Direct links have become a pressing issue in cross-Straits exchanges with the development of economic and trade relations between the two sides.
The mainland has been pushing for the two-way implementation of "three direct links" in mail, transport and trade, but the political attitudes of Taiwanese authorities had stalled progress on the issue.
The new arrangement by Xiamen International Airport and Uni Air can be called a "mini direct link," which is a good compromise based on the current political environment, said experts.