Direct cross strait flights expected to exceed 600 a week

Taipei, Feb. 12 (CNA) The number of weekly direct flights across the Taiwan Strait is likely to increase this year, from the current 558 to more than 600, amid expanding travel between Taiwan and China, market sources said Tuesday. Under a cross-strait air transportation agreement reached at the end of 2012, Taiwan and China can raise the number of weekly direct flights to 616 on expectations that more and more people will travel across the Taiwan Strait. This year, China will open eight more destinations to direct flights from Taiwan, bringing the total to 49. Meanwhile, Taiwan will add one more destination to its list of direct flights from China, making a total of 10. The eight new Chinese destinations are near remote inland cities such as Yinchuan in the Ningxia autonomous region, Huhehaote in Inner Mongolia, Urumqi in the Xinjiang autonomous region, Zhangjiajie in Hunan Province, and Xining in Qinghai Province, according to officials at Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration. The one new destination in Taiwan is Chiayi in the south of the country. Taiwan and China have agreed to each provide three weekly flights to the new destinations on each side, the officials said. As to when the increase in the number of weekly flights will be implemented, the officials said it will depend on the carriers that operate across the Taiwan Strait. Taiwan's two largest international carriers China Airlines and EVA Airways, and a mid-sized airline TransAsia Airways, said they are studying the feasibility of launching flights to the eight new destinations in China. Considering that the eight new destinations in China are usually bitterly cold in winter, it might be more viable to operate charter flight services to those areas only in warmer periods, the three airlines said. Currently, the flights between Taiwan and some first-tier Chinese cities such as Shanghai, Beijing, Nanjing, Shenzhen and Guangzhou remain the most profitable routes for carriers. Far Eastern Air Transport, another of Taiwan's mid-sized international carriers, is operating charter flights to Yinchuan and Huhehaote during the Lunar New Year holiday to give Chinese visitors a chance to experience the New Year atmosphere on the island. The target of 616 weekly flights in 2013 is more than five times the number recorded in the first year after Taiwan lifted a ban on direct cross-strait flights in December 2008, which is a reflection of the sharp growth of travel across the Taiwan Strait. In 2012, about 2.2 million Chinese travelers visited Taiwan, compared with 1.78 million in 2011, according to government statistics. (By Chao Hiao-hui and Frances Huang)