The Matsu archipelago is definitely off the beaten track. Not a single of my Taiwanese colleagues ever set foot there, since the military opened it to tourism in 1994. You saw it on the map: Matsu is really close to Mainland China, which for decades sent commandos slit the throats of sentries at night to convince the Taiwanese to give up their nasty separatist ideas. This approach was a total failure, maybe because of their bringing back the left ears for accounting purposes, and they eventually stopped these neighborhood visits.
The Chinese failed to conquer Matsu on the ground or in the hearts, but they did score some success in the cyber-space. This is what Beigan looks like on OpenStreetMap :
On rivaling Google Maps, Matsu appears carefully as nameless blank spots, unless you zoom in. That may not help you keeping track of them.
Five daily flights from Taipei and one form Taichung? The traffic in LZN, on Nangan (the main island) was too busy to my taste, and I decided to start with Beigan, which boasts Taiwan’s northernmost airport. Three daily flights (early morning, mid-day, late evening) from Taipei must not be much of a nuisance to the local folks. Even less so than you might expect, as this FR will teach you.
When you discovered Uni-Air's logo on top of this FR, you thought Didn't I already read that name somewhere? Good point, the likeliness between Lirong Hangkong Gongsi (Fortune Building Airline) and Changrong Hangkong Gongsi (Eternal Fortune Airline) is not a matter of pure chance, since the former has been renamed after being taken over by the latter.
Initially, I wanted to go there on May 7th, but trying to go Matsu in May is high stakes risk taking business. Not a risk of an accident, because the Taiwanese eventually determined in the late 90's that crashes were bad for their corporate image, but a schedule risk. In spring time, Matsu is regularly fogged out, and the navigation equipment of the airport is minimal. The result is that cancelled flights are more a rule than an exception.
Look at Tuesday May 3rd, for instance: the two afternoon flights to MFK were cancelled. To make it back to Taipei, you could board the night ferry which takes seven hours between Nangan and the harbor of Keelung, but that one is often cancelled too. Good thing that there are B&Bs in Beigan to spend the night.
OK, now, but since the planes are often booked full, how can you hope to find a seat back to Taipei the next day?
Don't panic! Uni –Air knows very well that there are a hundred or so planewrecked passengers off the coast of China, and adds flights the next day. Let's say that there is an average of one and a half flights per day on that route in spring. Sometimes zero and sometimes six, literally weather permitting. Or even more than that, unless they have last minute second thoughts, like on May 5th, when they cancelled Flight 3308 which was extra, like 3112, 3118 and 1322. I assume they had managed to cram all passengers on the first flights out of the island. There is something to say about the flexibility of Uni-Air's trade unions.
That was the reason why I wanted to go to Beigan on a Saturday rather than a Sunday: it was easier to handle an unexpected extension of my visit. I was checking the weather forecast closely, since it had rained all week. Partially sunny for Saturday 7 May: there was room for hope.
On Friday, the situation deteriorated:
Close meant Closed, i.e. MFK (and LZN too) were closed to any traffic. Zero flight to/from both airports that day.
On Saturday morning, I checked the airport's website: all flights were confirmed. It was very early, too early actually, and the website had not been updated yet. When I arrived at Taipei-Songshan airport, a look at the display was enough: CLOSE (it was written in Chinese, actually). Just to make sure, I went to the check in counter, and the employee confirmed what I already knew: MFK was closed, and nobody knew when it would reopen. Of course, LZN was closed too.
KNH (Kinmen, another Taiwanese island located next to the Mainland) was opened, but better not stay there for too long: all flights from 15:15 were to be cancelled, and flights TNA2371 and FAT1007, scheduled at 14:15 and 14:30 made it back to TSA. FAT is Far Eastern Transport Arlines, which was barely struggling out of bankruptcy, and had a hard time taking off again.
That week-end, the first flight to MFK has been UIA337 on Sunday at 13:10. That meant 29 hours late, assuming that there had been a seat on that flight for me. On Monday, there has been one flight out of three and zero on Tuesday: the airport was closed again. Air traffic control is really a part time job in MFK.
After this long introduction, one month of interruption, and another attempt at reaching Beigan. The flights serving Matsu during that week had been as random as ever, but I'll spare you my screenshots. On the other hand, guess what was forecasted for that week-end? The fifth typhoon of the year. On June 23rd, the projected location for the day after next was precisely on the Taipei – Beigan route.
The flight on Saturday 25 June was not cancelled, but there was such a pouring rain that I considered that it was not worth spending a day on a scooter and on foot. At 8:30 am, we had already reached 200mm of rain on the heights above Taipei, and even 300 mm on the summits.
I could not change my reservation before the flight, because the only staff at the counter of the airport where I went just to have a look was a cardboard cutout, which made communication difficult.
Anyway, my reservation made a Taiwanese happy, because there were forty one names on the waiting list at the same counter.
Then came the summer holiday, that of the high school and university students who book all available seats and jam all the waiting lists, after working like crazy during the entire school year (they all take night classes to be better than the very best – there is a rush hour in the subway at 10pm when they leave their cram schools). You realize that when a teenage in Taipei has the remotest chance of fulfilling his whole extended family's dream of making Shida, the top Taiwanese university, he is not going to take the risk of visiting his grandma in Matsu for a week-end during the school year, so he is making up in July and August, like all others.
The main campus of Shida, in the heart of Taipei
In July, I returned to Songshan Airport: there were several employees at Uni-Air's counter, some of them alive, who taught me that booking changes are handled by the check-in counter. It was hard to guess…
No problem there, but the young trainee was immediately pushed aside by her supervisor, who typed an incredible amount of information, requested the credit card which I had used to buy the ticket, and spent a full quarter of an hour to return it with a smile. The first Saturday in September was already booked full, OK then for the second one. Yes, in Taiwan, no shows incur no penalty, and you can event book a flight on the phone for free! It is actually fair game: the PAX never know in advance if they are going to take off, but Uni-Air never know in advance if the PAX will show up. Taiwan is really unlike anywhere else.
That is where I discovered that checking the luggage is at a separate counter at TSA (and actually in all domestic Taiwanese airports), which saved the expense of long conveyors belts. The ten kilo free allowance is less than usual, but the extra kilo is charged 17 New Taiwan Dollars, which amounts to 50 Old American Cents: it is nearly for free.
Anyway, on Saturday 10 September, I leave home with the first subway at 6:03. It is quite crowded in the airport, because in Taiwan like anywhere else, we are two days from the full moon of the autumn equinox, which happened to be Monday 12th that year. The difference with the rest of the world is that in China and Taiwan, that full moon is a traditional holiday (Mid-Autumn Festival), and this is therefore the first day of a three day week-end, with a great weather to boot.
In other words, not only my flight, but all flights out of Taipei Songshan were booked solid that morning,
and it looked like an anthill.
Some Flight Report readers may not realize that an anthill is actually carefully organized, even if the ants speak Chinese only, and may have trouble finding their way in TSA, but it is actually quite simple. There are four airlines on the domestic market.
The layout of TSA's Terminal 2 landside area is very simple: there are four domestic airlines and therefore four sales counters,
four check-in counters (from left to right: Far Eastern Air Transport, Mandarin, Transasia and Uni Air),
And four checked luggage counters.
Better say that a would-be fifth entrant does not have much a chance to find space in the Taiwanese domestic market.
Quasi-zero waiting time at check-in which by itself is quite lengthy , due to the mysteriously lengthy typing of lots of information.
But I get without any hassle a window seat
Let's do some plane-spotting now, to which TSA's domestic terminal is well suited, to the contrary of the international terminal at that time: the boarding room was then separated from the tarmac by the corridor used by disembarking passengers, creating a double row of windows. It is much better now that it has been renovated.
Anyway, the Xinsheng Park, in the axis and quite close to the runway, is next to ideal for plane spotting . I cheat a little bit and use pictures taken the previous week-end.
Transasia Airways' ATR-72 always evoke to me fat ducks, with their landing gear which barely extends outside the fuselage.
Flight GE3222 from KNH
On the other hand, I think of herons when looking at Uni-Air's Dash-8 d'Uni-Air, with their long legs which fold in the fairing of the engines.
Flight B7306 from LZN
Now let's have some plan spotting in Songshan itself:
A C-130 takes off behind a Mandarin Airlines E-190.
A duck and a heron are ready to go.
Uni Air also has MD90s like this one.
How about the kids' corner? There no such thing at TSA's domestic terminal, but for the youngest generation, there is a nursing room (there are nursing rooms in the majors subway stations too).
It is located on the left, on the men's room side. There is something that I did not understand in that logic.
There were no hungry infants, so I could take these pictures, but then came the time to board the PAXbus.
We pass by some international traffic (B767 JAL and A330 China Airlines)
And we reach our heron
I was among the last to board in order to take these pictures, and the FA (no quite as attractive as the on my previous flight to MKG, but pretty though) has already started her standard announcements, in Mandarin only for the entire flight.
Seat 4A is right in the plane of the propeller. I have very noisy memories of flights on Saab340's at a similar seat, but the technology made significant progress since then.
Pushback, start of the engines, and the ground staff salute the departing plane (quite friendly, don't you think so?)
A few private jets towards the end of the runway
And takeoff, with a superb view on the Keelung River which flows alongside TSA, northern neighborhoods and Yangmingshan National Park.
The white dots that you see slightly behind the propeller's plane are tombs in a huge cemetery, as always on the slope of a hill (the Taiwanese build their cemeteries on the hills whose terrain is too loose for buildings and too steep for agriculture, which is smarter than using accessible flat arable land, especially when you do not have much of it).
The drink is not going Uni-Air's selling argument: cold tea, water or Minute Maid orange juice. No coffee and nothing to eat.
You can never be too careful, and this cup warns against the fact that its content is hot, an adjective which really does not apply there. A small towel is also supplied.
The flight is of course mostly above water, 11 000 feet high according to the pilot (in Mandarin).
The heron deploys its legs behind a badly scratched window.
Already there ?
Nearly so, but be patient: this is Nangan, the main island in the archipelago. I am lucky to be on the correct side!
We are so low that I did not get the entire runway of LZN in a single picture.
One minute later, this is the extremity of Beigan.
Immediate landing, you will understand in the FR of the return flight why we can mostly see water
We have landed, and there come the stairs
Note the unusual layout of the front row of seats, facing backward on the right – the jumpseat on the left is that of the flight attendant.
The rest of the cabin has a standard 2+2 seating, with a 29 pitch according to the in-flight magazine.
A last look at the aircraft, before reaching the public area after a very short walk.
There is a small tourist office manned by a soldier in uniform: that is part of the local culture, but he is quite relaxed.
There is no vehicle rental counter at the airport, so I walk to the city center with my luggage, which is nothing more than a small day pack. This is one of the few airports where boarding a taxi would have been downright ridiculous, for the heart of Tangci, the largest town in Beigan, is 300 meters from the terminal. Make it 250 meters if you cut across the parking lot. And there, there is a scooter rental – it is written on the sign. There are even several of them – all at a flat 500 TWD per day fare.
It is also quite relaxed there too. First of all, note that they may not have a kids' corner at MFK, but the vehicle rental has one. Then, the owner proposed to keep my backpack (containing my laptop) for the day. I had prepared for that by having a small daypack: OK, where do I leave it? Just leave it there, in the shop entrance, and it had not moved an inch when I came back in the evening. If Taiwan is like nowhere else, Beigan is like nowhere else in Taiwan!
Taipei City - TSA
Beigan Island - MFK
I may never win the contest for the shortest flight contest, or the smallest aircraft (some Taiwanese FR to be translated are decent in this regard, though), and the contest for the most expensive flight is out of financial reach, so I chose to work on the contest for the most delayed flight, and also the most verbose FR. Flight KN2927 CTU-NAY (http://flight-report.com/fr/report-4586.html) was a good try, but this record should hold for some time.
On such a route, Uni-Air belongs to no standard category, which makes it the best of its kind. Uni-Air certainly does not decide to cancel its flights, and anyway, I prefer a cancelled flight to a flight that crashed on time. About 100 EUR for the round trip: this is not a low cost fare, but it is nevertheless cheaper than RUN-MRU, for a similar distance, a much more difficult environment, and unrivalled flexibility for the passengers.
No airport in the world can beat the accessibility of MFK : less than two minutes walk to the city center ! (and you can take a taxi, if you insist to). TSA, located in the heart of Taipei, with a subway station of a 100% wheelchair friendly network and cheap taxis in uncongested avenues, is a runner-up. Despite its size, MFK has a decent tourist information counter (so does TSA, with the added bonus of self serve computers for internet access).
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