94 cross-strait flights launched for festival
Lawrence Chung in Taipei
Taiwan and the mainland are set to launch 94 charter flights from today to ferry mainland-based Taiwanese businessmen back and forth for Lunar New Year celebrations.
It is the fifth time the two sides have provided such a service, which could pave the way for direct cross-strait flights - a big campaign issue in the run-up to the island's presidential election on March 22.
Taiwanese airlines - China, Mandarin, EVA Air, Uni Air, Far Eastern Air Transport and TransAsia - will operate a total of 48 flights for businessmen and their dependants based in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Xiamen .
Six mainland counterparts - China Southern, Shanghai, Air China, China Eastern, Xiamen and Hainan airlines - will provide 46 flights to Taoyuan and Kaohsiung airports in Taiwan until February 15.
Although most of the airlines have reported that at least 80 per cent of tickets have been sold, demand appears down compared with the fierce fight for seats in past years.
Airline officials in Taipei attributed the relatively weak demand to the snowstorms on the mainland, which had discouraged some people from returning to the island for the holiday.
Taiwanese airlines said they had mapped out contingency plans for the bad weather, including offering full refunds to passengers unable to board flights.
'In the event of a delay in a flight for more than eight hours due to the snowstorms, we would dispatch an extra crew member to allow other members to take turns to rest in line with international aviation safety practices,' EVA Air said.
She said EVA would offer full refunds if airports were closed because of the snowstorms, forcing the airline to cancel flights.
Businessmen based on the mainland said the March 22 presidential election in Taiwan was also a major reason for the decline in demand because some Taiwanese had chosen to postpone their return to the island to vote in the poll.
'The two periods are too close and some businessmen prefer to return in March because they can vote in the presidential election, and also observe the Tomb Sweeping Day (Ching Ming Festival),' said Chang Han-wen, president of the Association of Taiwan Investment Enterprises on the Mainland.
Mr Chang, who is involved in the footwear industry, said that although there would be no direct charter flights during the election period, more than 200,000 Taiwanese businessmen and their dependants were expected to return to the island for the vote.
'We have arranged to have airlines offer preferential ticket prices for Taiwanese businessmen returning to the island to vote in March via either Hong Kong or Macau,' he said, adding the discount ranged from 400 yuan to 1,000 yuan depending on the embarkation point.
Opposition Kuomintang presidential candidate Ma Ying-jeou has challenged ruling Democratic Progressive Party opponent Frank Hsieh Chang-ting to back an extension of charter flights for the election but Mr Hsieh has refused to support the move.