TAIPEI, Taiwan - Air links between Taiwan and China will get a dramatic boost Monday, more than doubling in number, unaffected by a controversial visit to the island by the Dalai Lama, a senior aviation official here said.
The number of weekly flights will rise from 108 to 270 and, in a significant symbolic move, they will be categorised as scheduled departures, rather than chartered flights, signalling a more permanent arrangement.
The new upgraded air ties, which have been in the pipeline for months, are scheduled to begin just hours after Tibet's exiled spiritual leader, reviled in Beijing as a dangerous separatist, embarks on a controversial trip to Taiwan.
"As far as I know, the regular flights will not be influenced (by the Dalai Lama's visit)," Charles Lin, deputy chief of Taiwan's Civil Aeronautics Administration, told AFP. He declined to provide details.
The Dalai Lama was due to arrive here late Sunday for a five-day visit at the invitation of local government chiefs from the opposition Democratic Progressive Party, which favours independence from China.
According to schedules, beginning Monday five Taiwanese airlines are set to operate 135 flights a week between four local cities and 19 Chinese destinations.
At the same time, a total of nine Chinese carriers will operate 135 trips to the island.
China and Taiwan agreed in talks last year - part of a series of exchanges that has reversed six decades of hostility - to begin direct chartered flights.
The upgraded arrangement taking effect this week is the result of a follow-up agreement reached in April. Passenger volumes have varied, and at the moment flights between the two sides are 81 percent full on average, the Liberty Times newspaper reported Sunday.
Flights to Beijing and Shanghai are up to 90 percent full, while planes to second-tier cities such as Ningbo in east China sometimes take off with half the seats empty, according to the paper.
Beijing considers Taiwan a part of its territory awaiting reunification, by force if necessary, despite its having been governed separately since the two sides split in 1949 after a civil war.
But ties have improved dramatically since Beijing-friendly President Ma Ying-jeou took office last year on a platform of boosting economic ties with the mainland and allowing in more Chinese tourists. -AFP