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Taiwan stymies new China flights amid route row, official says

By Jeanny Kao and Brenda Goh
FILE PHOTO - A China Eastern Airlines passenger jet passes in front of the moon over Shanghai May 13, 2011. REUTERS/Aly Song/File Photo

By Jeanny Kao and Brenda Goh

TAIPEI/SHANGHAI (Reuters) - Taiwan's aviation regulator has stalled applications for new flights from China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines amid a row between Beijing and the self-ruled island over air routes, a regulatory official said on Friday.

Taiwan had not yet approved the applications to add flights during the approaching Lunar New Year holiday because in recent weeks the airlines had used four disputed air routes close to the island, said the official, who asked not to be identified.

This month China opened several disputed air routes, including a northbound M503 route in the Taiwan Strait, without informing Taiwan, contravening what the democratic government in Taipei said was a 2015 deal to first discuss such flight paths.

Taiwan has expressed concern the new routes are too close to existing routes that link it to airports on two groups of Taiwan-controlled islands lying close to China, and are a threat to flight safety.

China has denied safety could be affected, saying it had no need of Taiwan's approval for new routes.

China Eastern Airlines had applied to add 106 flights while Xiamen Airlines, majority-owned by China Southern Airlines, had applied for 70, the official said.

The applications were "still under review", he added.

More than 10,000 customers have made bookings for the yet-to-be approved flights, Xiamen Airlines said in an emailed statement that strongly urged Taiwan authorities to comply with popular demand.

"While the economic losses caused by these actions to the airlines are small, it will cause much inconvenience to people who want to travel," it said.

China Eastern Airlines declined to comment.

The Civil Aviation Administration of China condemned the move, saying again there were no safety issues with the M503 route and warning Taiwan that it would "bear the consequences" of its decision.

But Taiwan's Mainland Affairs Council said in a statement there were real safety risks for flights to Taiwan's offshore islands, calling for China to accept technical talks on the issue.

Ho Shu-ping, the deputy director general of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration said Taiwan had asked airlines not to use the route for the time being, but some airlines were still doing so, according to Taiwan media.

"On aviation safety there can be no compromise," she said.

The Chinese aviation regulator has previously said the new routes are meant to disperse airspace congestion.

China considers Taiwan a wayward province, and snapped official communications after the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party took office in 2016.

It suspects Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen wants to push for formal independence, though she has said she wants to maintain the status quo and is committed to ensuring peace.

(Reporting by Jeanny Kao in TAIPEI and Brenda Goh in SHANGHAI; Additional Reporting by Jess Macy Yu in TAIPEI Ben Blanchard in BEIJING; Editing by Simon Cameron-Moore, Clarence Fernandez and Richard Balmforth)