SHANGHAI, China - A Taiwanese airliner picked up passengers yesterday at the international airport in Shanghai, China, and returned to Taiwan, breaking a 54-year freeze on commercial aviation across the Taiwan Strait.
The flight by the China Airlines Boeing 747 was the first of 16 charter flights to help Taiwanese living in China return home for the lunar new year holiday and was billed as an important step toward restoring transportation links between the two political rivals.
Like most efforts to improve relations between China and Taiwan, this one was characterized by caveats and hair-splitting. The charter flights must touch down in either Hong Kong or Macau before making their way to Taipei, a diversion that adds about four hours to what would be a one-hour direct flight. Fully restoring normal transportation ties will likely require months or years of delicate negotiations and security arrangements.
Still, Taiwanese airline executives and Chinese government officials celebrated what they described as a milestone and a sign that economic necessity was drawing the rivals closer together. They marked the event with champagne and watched a lion dance before the purple-and-white jet took off with 200 passengers for Taipei, via Hong Kong, yesterday morning.
"This is a breakthrough in cross-strait relations," said Han Zheng, deputy mayor of Shanghai. "Like most Taiwan investors in Shanghai, we hope that the day of direct flights will come soon."
Symbolically, among the handful of Taiwanese passengers who traveled on the plane to Shanghai was John Chang, a Taiwanese legislator and the grandson of the late Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang fled to Taiwan with his army in 1949 after losing a civil war to the Communists.