Direct Taiwan-China flights, operated by pseudo-third country airlines, could start this year.

The first hint of a thaw came after remarks by Shen Yuankang, Civil Aviation Administration of China (CAAC) deputy director, at a Shanghai aviation seminar. Shen suggested that direct flights could start with Air Macau and Dragonair, which operate same-aircraft flights between Taiwan and China after a stop and flight number change in Macau and Hong Kong respectively. As an experiment using only Guangzhou, Xiamen and Shanghai, Shen proposed that the two carriers complete the loop by returning directly from these Chinese cities to Taiwan.

Surprisingly, this overture received a more favourable response than previous ones. Officials at Taiwan's transport ministry said that they would not rule out the possibility of expanding the current one-stop format for "direct" flights.

A second surprise came after the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Seattle. Betty Cheng, chief of international affairs at Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration, acknowledged: "After Taiwan and China join the WTO, traffic rights will have to be normalised because-air links will be necessary."

Cheng also acknowledged that both countries will probably join the WTO this year. Her administration has planned direct flights for "quite a long time".

Amid these remarks, and only four days before Macau's handover to China, Taiwan's EVA Air took the surprising step of buying a 5% stake in Air Macau. It denied this was driven by any plan to gain access to China, but it knew the CAAC was nominating Dragonair and Air Macau to start direct flights.

Taiwan's presidential elections in March could signal the way ahead. During the last elections four years ago, Beijing tried to influence the results by test firing missiles.

Source: Airline Business