Warming cross-strait ties = crowded skies

Warming cross-strait ties = crowded skies
Passengers' belongings are placed in front of the wreckage of the TransAsia Plane.

Amid the discussions about what lay behind Wednesday's TransAsia Airways Flight 235 crash, one more unusual element has emerged: warming cross-strait ties in recent years.

More crowded skies over Taiwan - in particular due to the explosion of direct flights between the island and mainland China - have placed Taiwan's airlines and its regulatory regime under strain, warn some aviation analysts.

Mr Shukor Yusof of aviation research firm Endau Analytics in Singapore highlights the "increasingly congested skies" over Taiwan, saying: "If you look at TransAsia's traffic, it's grown quite rapidly given the number of cities in mainland China that it is now flying to.

"This second fatal accident (involving the airline) gives rise to grave concerns on whether Taiwan is paying enough attention to supervising the network, and frequency of flights, that has begun to open up in recent years."

Taiwan is considered to have a relatively strong aviation regulatory system in the region. But its record has been blotted by recent fatal accidents, including one just seven months ago when another TransAsia plane crashed while trying to land at Penghu Island in bad weather, killing 48 people.

In 2002, China Airlines saw one of its planes disintegrate on a flight from Taipei to Hong Kong, resulting in 225 deaths.

Wednesday's tragedy, which has 35 confirmed dead so far - among them 18 mainland tourists - involved a domestic flight from Taipei to Kinmen.

For now, the cause of the crash appears to be engine failure, based on preliminary findings from the black boxes.

But beyond the possible immediate factors, there is a broader looming problem for the Taiwanese aviation industry.

Says Mr Shukor: "There is increased concern that growing air traffic in terms of growth of fleets and passenger numbers could have led to a shortage of training and the possibility of regulatory standards not keeping up."

Says analyst Hwang Tay-lin of Chang Jung Christian University: "The growing number of flights increases the number of risks. But if we take care of the other factors, it should be manageable."

Statistics from the Civil Aeronautics Administration website show that the total number of flights to and from Taiwan stood at 454,943 last year - a 12 per cent rise from just two years ago.

Of these, cross-strait flights account for a growing proportion - from 7 per cent to 15 per cent.

Last year, 11.3 million passengers flew between the two sides of the Taiwan Strait - a far cry from the 109 who excitedly boarded the historic flight from Shenzhen to Taipei just over six years ago on Dec 15, 2008, in the first direct connection in 59 years since a civil war split China.

Direct flights are one of three high-profile links - the other two are mail and shipping - established as cross-strait relations warmed under the government of President Ma Ying-jeou, and have since galvanised a boom in tourist and trade connections.

In particular, Chinese tourism has proven a boon to the Taiwan economy, with about 3.2 million Chinese tourists visiting last year - up from 300,000 in 2007.

Any U-turn on this trend is highly unlikely, says Dr Hwang.

But, he stresses, what the aviation industry needs to do now, in view of the growing demand and recent accidents, is to relook issues ranging from maintenance standards to pilot training.

Meanwhile, China's participation in investigations - the first such cooperation between both sides - has raised the hackles of some Taiwan legislators and netizens over fears that Beijing is interfering in the island's affairs.

An Executive Yuan spokesman said it would ask the office overseeing cross-strait ties, the Mainland Affairs Council, to ensure that the Chinese officials will not overstep their jurisdiction, reported the Taipei Times.

This article was first published on February 07, 2015.
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