Mainland, Taiwan clinch deal on direct flights
The Chinese mainland and Taiwan reached a landmark deal on Saturday to allow non-stop charter flights over the Chinese New Year holidays, a move which could ease tensions and improve cross-Straits ties.
The one-off deal will allow the first direct flights between the Taiwan Straits since 1949, and could mark a step toward ending a decades-old ban on direct air links.
However, while the flights will be non-stop, they will still have to go through Hong Kong or Macao airspace.
"The flights have to go through Hong Kong but they don't have to land," said Mike Lo, chairman of the Taipei Airlines Association.
Lo said the flights would be for Taiwan businessmen and their families in the mainland.
Taiwan has banned direct air and shipping links with the mainland since the Nationalists lost the Chinese civil war in 1949 and fled to the island.
Travellers between Taiwan and the mainland must now fly via a third destination, usually Hong Kong or Macao on China's southern coast, adding four hours to what should be an hour-long flight.
Despite often highly charged political tensions, trade and investment across the narrow Taiwan Strait has boomed since the late 1980s, with about 1 million Taiwanese now living and working in the mainland.
Taiwan businesspeople, who have poured up to US$100 billion into the Chinese mainland, have long clamored for direct flights. Millions of Chinese rush home for family reunions at the start of the Lunar New Year, which falls on Feb. 9 this year.
"This is a specific arrangement for New Year charter flights, but it is also a symbol of showing good will from both sides," said Andrew Yang, secretary-general of the Chinese Council of Advanced Policy Studies, a prominent private thinktank in Taipei.
"It is a win-win situation for both sides as the central government very much wants to win the hearts and minds of the Taiwanese and appear to the general public that it is doing whatever it can to resolve differences or disputes peacefully," Yang said.
Taiwan, under pressure from the United States to seek reconciliation with Beijing, has been eager for a resumption of quasi-official dialogue, which has been frozen since 1999.
During the 2003 Lunar New Year holidays, charter flights between Shanghai and Taipei were commissioned to Taiwan airlines only and they had to fly empty to Shanghai to pick up passengers.
At the time, Taipei did not allow planes to fly directly between Taiwan and the mainland, requiring them to make stops at an intermediate destination.
The new agreement will allow flights from Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou on the mainland and Taipei and Kaohsiung in Taiwan, with each side allowed to select six airlines for the routes.