Airlines, government butt heads over flights

By Shih Hsiu-chuan  /  STAFF REPORTER

Mon, Jan 23, 2006 - Page 3

Although direct cross-strait flights are hailed each year by China-based businesspeople hurrying home for the Lunar New Year holidays, local airlines believe the government has not gone far enough and should allow weekly direct flights.

The lack of consensus lies in different considerations -- the airlines want to see weekly charter flights to help boost their profits, but the government worries that such a move would increase the country's over-reliance on China.

"Ahead of starting cross-strait direct transportation, the opening of passenger charter flights has to at least include weekly charter flights," said Chen Mei-wen (陳每文), the general manager of Far Eastern Air Transport.

The shrinkage of the domestic tourism market, with the number of tourists traveling by air dropping by 45 percent over the past 10 years, indicated that, on the whole, Taiwan's economy has been weakening during that period, Chen said.

"Considering the close economic ties between the two sides of the [Taiwan] Strait, which results in about 3.7 million tourists traveling between Taiwan and China via Hong Kong or Macau a year, not to mention those going via third [country] destinations, the opening of weekly passenger charters would fuel the country's economic prosperity," he said.

While Beijing favors the opening of passenger charter flights, the government is more interested in cargo charters to help China-based Taiwanese companies.

Premier Frank Hsieh (謝長廷) said on Aug. 3 last year that negotiations on cargo and passenger charter flights could be conducted simultaneously, adding passenger charter flights to the government's list of priority issues for negotiations with Beijing. The previous June, Hsieh had said that list included the opening of Taiwan to Chinese tourists, cargo charter flights and fruit exports.

While adding passenger charter flights to its negotiation list was seen by the government as a goodwill gesture toward Beijing, it didn't help bring about such talks.

National Security Council Secretary-General Chiou I-jen (邱義仁) was recently quoted by the Liberty Times (the Taipei Times sister newspaper), as saying weekly passenger charters were problematic, given the low number of passengers on weekends.

"Local airlines were not interested in operating weekly passenger charter flights because they might not make profits from the service," Chiu said.

Chiu said the government wants to hold talks first on opening up Taiwan to Chinese tourists, since such a move would increase the passenger numbers for airlines, but the Chinese side has been hesitant to discuss the issue.

Philip Wei (魏幸雄), China Airlines chairman, disapproved of the strategy of putting Chinese tourism ahead of weekly passenger charter flights: "I don't think that a shortage of passengers is a problem for the airlines. The once-a-year passenger charter flights during the Lunar New Year holidays are not much more than ceremonial events."

"Only the operation of weekly passenger charter flights would do something good for the airlines. Aa weekly service is also to the liking of China," he said.