Taiwan airlines target mainland's
airspace By Jens Kastner
TAIPEI - Taiwanese airlines are arguably
among the main beneficiaries of closer
Beijing-Taipei ties. They were the few bright
spots in Taiwan's economic landscape during 2011
as ever more cities on the mainland were connected
to Taiwan, and restrictions on Chinese tourists
visiting the island gradually scrapped.
The sector has still two favors to ask:
Beijing should finally open its airspace for the
Taiwanese to shorten their flights to Europe and
ease visa restrictions for mainland citizens so
that they can transit on the island.
Kuo-wei, the president of Taiwan's second-largest
air carrier, EVA Airways Corp, recently challenged
Beijing with a call for access to mainland
airspace by the end of this year for
Taiwanese airplanes heading
to Europe; this would save them both fuel and
time. Despite the spectacularly warming
cross-strait ties of late, Chang's EVA and
Taiwan's flag carrier, China Airlines (CAL), must
go trans-Siberia for their direct flights to
Paris, Vienna, Frankfurt or London.
"Taking EVA's Taipei-Paris route as an
example, flying through China's airspace could
take 30 minutes off the flight time and save the
company NT$100 million [US$3.39 million] a year,"
EVA's bosses are also pressing
Beijing to allow mainland citizens to Taiwan more
freely so that the island can become an
Asia-Pacific transfer hub.
many Chinese tourists flying to the United States
choose to transfer through Seoul's Incheon
International Airport," said EVA chairman James
Jeng. "Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport should
also play this role to drive up the airport's
The island's carriers,
such as CAL, EVA, UNI Air, TransAsia Airways, Far
Eastern Air Transport and Mandarin Airlines, are
already benefiting from improved cross-strait
ties. Non-stop cross-strait services began shortly
after Ma Ying-jeou of the Beijing-friendly
Kuomintang (KMT) became president in 2008. By the
end of 2011, 41 mainland cities and nine in Taiwan
were connected by 558 passenger and 56 cargo
cross-strait direct flights every week.
"The improvement of cross-strait relations
reduces uncertainties for Taiwanese companies
[engaged in China]. Hsu Yao-Nan, an associate
professor and Chair at Ming Chuan University's
Department of Economics, said.
"This increases commercial exchanges which in turn
means more profit [for airlines]."
demand for the extra flights and more to come, CAL
and EVA plan to buy more than 50 new aircraft
combined in the coming years. Smaller carriers
also intend to expand, given the prospect that
Taipei is set to raise the daily entry ceiling on
independent mainland visitors to 1,000 from the
"Taiwanese had to go via Hong
Kong to reach the mainland before agreements on
direct cross-strait flights were implemented; but
now they can fly directly from Songshan [Taipei's
international downtown airport] and Taoyuan," Chen
Jenq-Lian, instructor at the same department, said in an interview. "As
this, plus the opening to mainland tourists,
increases the passenger flows greatly, of course
Taiwanese and mainland airlines are
Taiwan can meanwhile do
more to benefit from its improved cross-strait
links, according to Lan Ching-Yu, an associate
professor also at Ming Chuan. "If Taiwanese
airports' facilities underwent improvement
simultaneously with an opening of China's
airspace, Taiwan can certainly make good use of
its geographic advantage to become a transfer
center," she said.
airspace involves political and military issues
much more than economic ones. Until 2008, the
outbreak of violent cross-strait hostilities could
have occurred on any given day, and how such
tensions can affect passenger flights was grimly
demonstrated by the Soviet Union in 1983, when
Korean Air Flight 007 strayed into Soviet air
space and was shot down over the Sea of Japan.
So far, even the most basic mutual
military confidence-building measures between
China and Taiwan, such as a military hotline,
early warning measures, pre-notification of
military exercises or the signing of a code of
conduct for fighter jets, remain conspicuous by
their absence, and while Beijing hasn't yet
responded to Chang's suggestions, the Taiwanese
air force has. It insisted that the median line -
an imaginary line separating the airspace of
Taiwan and that of the mainland - is "of paramount
importance to the defense of the country", and
that it has no orders to ignore it.
Taiwan likely to become a transit hub in the near
future. The facilities of Taiwan Taoyuan
International Airport are light years away from
being as good as those at Seoul's Incheon airport,
and even if all of Taiwanese international
airports were taken together, their combined
capacity reportedly couldn't take even 10% of the
mainland passenger volume now handled at the
Koreans' main international hub.
Furthermore, anecdotally illustrating how
poor an airport Taoyuan is, late last year two
Taiwanese ministers heading to an Asia-Pacific
Economic Cooperation meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii,
became stuck after a luggage truck went astray and
hit the belly of their plane, while another plane
carrying former vice president Lien Chan to the
same meeting was delayed because of large potholes
in the runway.
Visa regulations may be
more difficult to fix than runway potholes. For
the time being, mainlanders are not allowed to
board their connecting flights to the US in Taiwan
without having obtained a "Taiwan Travel Permit
for Mainland Residents" from a public security
bureau back home as well as an "Exit & Entry
Permit for the Taiwan Area of the Republic of
China" from the Taiwanese authorities. The former
comes along with political screening in the
mainland and, of course, visa fees are to be paid
to both sides.
"A lot of these issues will
be the topics on future cross-strait talks, if not
currently under negotiation. This is going to be a
game of give and take, so it's quite sensitive,"
Joel Shon, a senior researcher on the cross-strait
aviation market, told Asia Times Online.
"We don't see any chance for
cross-continent traffic growth in the near future.
That's why the PRC [People's Republic of China]
government needs to balance the interests among
all players. So it's not surprising if it takes
time for the PRC to calculate the wins and
Shon said that at one stage,
Taiwanese airlines had in fact been allowed to fly
via mainland China to Europe.
from Taiwan to Europe were mostly by way of
Southeast Asia before the Gulf War in 2003. During
the war, China granted 'First freedom' rights to
Taiwanese aircraft passing by or flying over
China, but not a direct cut across China's
According to the Convention on
International Civil Aviation, "first freedom"
rights mean aircraft may fly across the territory
of either state without landing.
covering flights across the heavily militarized
Taiwan Strait have also evolved since Ma Ying-jeou
took office in Taipei.
"Flights across the
Taiwan Strait have been allowed on a special
designed route starting from 2009. It is not a
direct cut through either, but [it is] already
good enough. However, cross-strait traffic is
growing too fast, and the sky in China is too
congested. That's why some carriers suggest a new
route be opened to accommodate more flights to let
them do more business."
As to whether
Beijing and Taipei will eventually grant that
wish, Shon was more optimistic.
route will eventually touch the very sensitive
physical central line between China and Taiwan,
politics will be involved. But you can expect that
EVA will promote the new route to make more money.
EVA will use its influence on both sides to make
its wish come true."
Hu Sheng-Cheng, an
economist at Academia Sinica, Taiwan's most
renowned research institution, however doubts that
it will all work out well for the Taiwanese at the
end of the day.
He pointed out that there
are not too many passengers for direct flights
from Taiwan to Europe, and that an opening of the
Chinese airspace involves negotiations not only on
the "first freedom" but also on the "fifth
freedom" - the right for an airline to fly between
two foreign countries while the flight originates
or ends in one's own country.
If China and
Taiwan mutually granted this right, airlines from
both would be allowed to pick up passengers in
each other's airports on the way to an aircraft's
That would then raise
the question of whether "the mainland's airlines
will get more passengers bound for the US from us,
or us getting more mainland passengers heading to
Europe," Hu said. "That will depend on our
government's negotiation skills."
Jens Kastner is a Taipei-based
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