Fri, May 16, 2008 - Page 1 News List

Direct flights to evacuate tourists

CHINA QUAKE The government yesterday reached a deal with Beijing to bring back the more than 2,800 Taiwanese tourists still stranded in the disaster zone

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Handout images provided by Taiwan's National Space Organization and taken by the FORMOSAT-2 satellite on May 14, 2006, and on Wednesday show the damage caused by the 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Beichuan County, one of the worst-hit areas in Sichuan Province. Taiwan provided China with the satellite images free of charge to help with rescue and relief work.

PHOTO: AFP

The government yesterday reached an agreement with China to bring Taiwanese tourists home from earthquake-stricken Sichuan Province via direct charter flights.

“After bilateral coordination, China agreed to allow our planes to fly directly to Chongqing to bring our tourists back home,” Premier Chang Chun-hsiung (張俊雄) said yesterday afternoon.

The Travel Agent Association (TAA) said there were still 1,755 Taiwanese tourists in Sichuan Province and 1,143 in the Jiuzhaigou Valley at noon yesterday.

Owing to a lack of flights out of Sichuan’s Shuangliu International Airport in the wake of the devastating quake, only 173 Taiwanese were expected to be able to obtain seats on a plane to Hong Kong yesterday afternoon, the association said.

Twenty-six others are expected to get a flight home today, association officials said.

Mainland Affairs Council Chairman Chen Ming-tong (陳明通) told Chang that a deal on cross-strait charter flights for humanitarian purposes had been concluded at 3:30pm yesterday.

The arrangement was reached with the mediation of the TAA, the institution that had been commissioned by the government to negotiate with Beijing on routine charter flights in 2005.

The government initially wanted the flights to land at Shuangliu International Airport in Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan Province, near where the earthquake occurred, but decided to use Chongqing Jiangbei International Airport instead, as the Shuangliu airport was experiencing heavy traffic as relief efforts continued, Chen said.

Because of political differences, there are no direct air links between Taiwan and China, and people traveling across the Taiwan Strait are required to fly through a third area, usually Hong Kong or Macau.

Taiwan has been negotiating with China on routine cross-strait charter flights since 2005 to replace the ban on direct air flights that was implemented after the Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) fled to Taiwan in 1949.

The first direct charter flight was implemented during the Lunar New Year holidays in 2005 to facilitate the transportation of Taiwanese businesspeople and their families.

Both sides of the Strait agreed in June 2006 to expand the scope of charter flights, including specialized cargo charter flights, the institutionalization of holiday passenger charter flights, charter flights for emergency medical treatment and special humanitarian charter flights for emergency relief and persons with disabilities or illness.

TAA chairman Yao Ta-kuang (姚大光) told a press conference later yesterday that TransAsia Airways (復興航空) would undertake the first flight to Chongqing this afternoon, which is to be followed by flights by China Airlines (華航) and EVA Air (長榮航空) this evening.

Taiwanese in Sichuan intending to make use of the flights should register with the TAA’s emergency command center in Chengdu, and the number to call is 0939-210-020, Yao said.

Meanwhile, two charter cargo planes provided by China Airlines, which flew directly to Chengdu, and Air Macau, which flew via Macau, landed in Sichuan later yesterday, carrying hundreds of tonnes of relief items donated by various charity groups in Taiwan.

Taipei Mayor Hau Lung-bin (郝龍斌) said that China had informed the Taiwanese branch of the Red Cross yesterday of its requirements for relief assistance.

The Taipei City Fire Department would team up with the Red Cross to send 20 relief workers to assist with rescue operations in the disaster zone this afternoon, Hau said.

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