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Special first class section made for president

Special first class section made for president

President Ma Ying-jeou`s third overseas diplomatic mission began Monday evening with the squeezing of the 200-plus delegation into an EVA Air Boeing 747-400 ``Combi,`` or combination passenger and air cargo, jet aircraft for an 11-hour transpacific flight from Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport.

The use of the veteran EVA Air ``Combi`` marks the third change of flight styles in Ma`s three overseas diplomatic missions.

In his first overseas trip last August to attend the back to back inaugurals of Paraguayan President Fernando Lugo and Dominican Republic President Leonel Fernandez, Ma choose to fly regular commercial China Airlines flights between Taoyuan and Los Angeles, charter a Miami Air International Boeing 737-800 for flights between Los Angeles, Asuncion, Santo Domingo and San Francisco, and fly again on a CAL commercial Boeing 747-400 to return to Taiwan.

With the exception of Ma and various officials who had first class seating, the rest of the delegation had business class seats while the accompanying press corps had economy seats in the cramped CAL and Miami Air International aircraft.

More spacious accommodations were available on the president`s late May and early June mission to Belize, Guatemala and El Salvador for the June 1 inaugural of Salvadoran President Mauricio Funes as Ma return to the ``standard operating procedure`` in offshore missions in the second term of the former Chen administration and chartered a Boeing 747-400 from CAL for the entire journey.

Given the nearly 400 seats for a delegation of just over 200, the CAL flight provided considerable room for rest and work during the nine-day trip and made up for any extra direct costs with convenience and safety, especially given concerns over H1N1 swine influenza.

The choice of EVA Air to ferry the president and his entourage, which included nearly 60 government officials, nine ruling Chinese Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) legislators, official staff, the members of the Ju Percussion Group, a few international relations professor and students and 37 news workers, marked a new ``in-between`` choice.

Evergreen Group Executive Officer for Public Relations Nieh Kuo-wei told The Taiwan News that the Boeing 747-400 Combi, which was fully refurbished for the mission, was chosen by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs over a conventional Boeing 747-400 with 370 seats mainly because of its large cargo space and because the seating arrangements could be quickly change to a first class section.

Ordinarily, Nieh related that during the past two years, the EVA Air Combi, which is used now mostly on flights between Taiwan and Europe, had 24 business class seats in the upper deck and 86 Evergreen Deluxe seats and 162 economy class seats on the lower deck but had no first class.

However, Nieh related that the foreign ministry believed that ``the president must have first class seats.``

``This aircraft`s design makes it easier to change,`` said the Evergreen Group spokesman, who related that the upper deck`s 24 business class seats were changed to eight first class and 12 business class seats for President Ma and first lady Chou Mei-ching, six senior government officials, three business executives, including Evergreen Group Chairman Lin Bou-Shiu, and the nine KMT legislators, including KMT Secretary - General Wu Den-yi.

Moreover, Nieh stated that the Boeing 747-400 Combi model was specifically designed for the Taiwan market in the heyday of the island economy`s export-oriented industrialization.

``At that time, the passenger market was relatively small because Taiwan`s population is only 23 million, but the demand for air cargo space was very strong,`` Nieh related.

The spacious cargo hold was big enough to contain the baggage of President Ma and first lady Chou Mei-ching and the delegation along with the instruments of the Ju Percussion Group.

Nieh recalled that the Combi model was previously used to fly former president Lee Teng-hui and ex-president Chen Shui-bian on diplomatic missions and stated that the huge cargo hold was used to carry a spare engine.

``Our motto was to `be prepared,``` Nieh recalled.

``We have no worries on this flight as there are abundant repair facilities, but that was not the case for flights to places like Gambia or Burkino Faso in the past,`` Nieh said.

Presidential staff told The Taiwan News that the ``Combi`` had less seating and was less fuel efficient than the CAL aircraft.

``We naturally wanted an aircraft that was more spacious and more economizing on fuel, but we do not know why the MOFA chose this model,`` the staffer added.

As a result, most of delegation were seated in Evergreen Deluxe or Coach seats with no spare seats between.

The accompanying journalists had seats that lacked individual entertainment monitors, but were separated with one empty seat between each reporter to allow space for work.

While the service and warmth of the EVA Air stewardesses were impeccable and the quality of the cuisine outstanding, most delegates and reporters surveyed admitted that the 11 hour flight to San Francisco had indeed been a ``tight fit.``

Nieh himself acknowledged that ``there have been numerous complaints about the tight seating.``