China Eastern, Xiamen Airlines cancel flights amid routes row between China and Taiwan

China Eastern Airlines said it had no choice but to cancel the flights after what it said was a refusal by Taiwanese authorities to approve the flights. PHOTO: REUTERS

SHANGHAI (REUTERS, AFP, NYTIMES) - China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines said on Tuesday (Jan 30) that they had cancelled 176 round-trip flights to Taiwan added to their schedules to meet demand over the Chinese New Year, amid a row between Beijing and Taiwan over flight routes.

The airlines said in separate statements they had no choice but to cancel the flights after what they said was a refusal by Taiwanese authorities to approve the flights.

This month, China opened several new air routes, including a northbound route up the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan says it was done without its agreement, contravening what the democratic government in Taipei has said was a 2015 deal to first discuss such flight paths.

In response, self-governed Taiwan has withheld approval of routine applications from China Eastern and Xiamen Airlines, majority-owned by China Southern Airlines, to add Chinese New Year flights because the airlines had used the disputed air routes.

China's move has been viewed in Taiwan as a show of disrespect, one that could heighten the risk of a dangerous incident and potentially provoke a crisis in the increasingly tense cross-strait relationship.

The new passenger routes come close to airspace used by Taiwanese airliners and military planes at a time when Chinese military drills encroaching on Taiwan's airspace have become increasingly common.

In a statement released on Tuesday morning, Taiwan's presidential office said that protecting the safety of all its people flying across the strait was "a responsibility that cannot be abandoned".

The statement called on Beijing to return to the consensus reached in talks over the airspace in 2015, urging a resolution of the dispute for "regional stability, cross-strait relations and flight safety".

China has said that there is no safety threat. It said the new flight routes were introduced to help ease congestion in its airspace over the strait.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China said the routes would only be used for civilian flights and China would maintain technical communications with Taiwan.

Taiwan's military has said it would intercept, warn and repel if necessary any planes that cross into Taiwanese airspace and threaten the island's security.

China considers Taiwan a wayward province, and relations have cooled since Ms Tsai Ing-wen of the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party took office as Taiwan's president in 2016.

Adding more flights during Chinese New Year has been a common practice for years to facilitate Taiwanese returning home for the holidays. This year, mainland airlines have applied to add 614 flights from mainland cities to Taiwan from Feb 2 to March 2, according to China Daily. Chinese New Year falls on Feb 16 this year.

"We express our strong dissatisfaction and condemnation of the Taiwan authorities, who disregard public opinion and cling obstinately to their course," China Eastern said.

The airline said it would cancel 106 round-trip flights for close to 40,000 passengers. It apologised to customers and said it was providing free refunds and rebooking for anyone booked on the now-cancelled flights.

Xiamen Airlines, which said it would cancel 70 extra flights that had been planned, urged "relevant Taiwan authorities to proceed from the standpoint of the well-being of people on both sides of the Strait, comply with popular wishes, meet the urgent needs of the people, and not artificially obstruct the return home of Taiwan compatriots".

At a press conference on Tuesday, Taiwan's transportation minister Hochen Tan said that the government did not force the airlines to cancel their flights.

"We never said that we wouldn't approve of the added flights by China Eastern or Xiamen Airlines. All along we said we hope that the situation can meet the needs of travellers and that we can all discuss an appropriate arrangement for the added flights," Mr Hochen said.

"At this time, they said themselves they don't want to apply. It's not at all that we said we didn't agree for them to apply," Mr Hochen added.

Taiwanese companies began investing and doing business in China in the 1980s, although direct commercial flights between China and Taiwan did not take place until 2008; citizens on either side had to detour through third destinations such as Hong Kong, Macau or Okinawa in southern Japan.

Chinese New Year is the most important holiday of the year on both sides of the strait, and expatriate workers traditionally return home to spend the time with their families.

Despite waxing and waning diplomatic tensions, China and Taiwan are closely linked economically. Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese live and work in China. Many of them work at Taiwanese companies with large-scale operations in China, such as Foxconn, an electronics maker, which employs more than a million Chinese.

Cancellations of the 176 flights serving Chinese New Year traffic will probably force Taiwanese determined to get home to scramble to book scarce flights on short notice.

Mr Chen Kuang-chung, a Taiwanese entrepreneur in the Chinese city of Xiamen, is one of them.

"Unable to buy an air ticket, I would have to travel by ship from Xiamen to Kinmen before taking a local airline to return to Taipei," Mr Chen said, according to Xinhua news agency.

Kinmen is an outlying island near China, but is controlled by Taiwan.

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