Development on air routes could be sign of new direction for Taiwan

Analysis: Taipei is allowed to attend a meeting of the UN civil aviation body as a guest

There are more than 600 flights a week between China and Taiwan. It is disconcerting to think that decisions about how this is regulated are made without the participation of a major player such as Taiwan.

There are more than 600 flights a week between China and Taiwan. It is disconcerting to think that decisions about how this is regulated are made without the participation of a major player such as Taiwan.


Air routes are the highways of the skies – designated pathways between points X and Y.

Just like their terrestrial counterparts, there are different types of air routes, with aircraft below certain technical levels excluded from some routes; and some routes reserved for aircraft with the required equipment, usually some sort of super-duper navigational aid.

It is rather like banning articulated lorries from the outer lane of a three-lane highway, or saying vehicles below a stated horse power cannot travel on a motorway.

The skies between every airport on the planet are criss- crossed by air routes, each one defined as to the points between which it runs, and graded according to the sort of aircraft allowed to use it and the sort that are excluded.

It is all to do with safety and regulating flow and is presided over by the International Civil Aviation Organisation (ICAO), a UN body charged with making, and keeping, the skies safe for passengers.

One such air route links Singapore to Kuala Lumpur, Manila and then Taipei, capital of Taiwan. The route is part of the Taipei Flight Information Region, one of several major air-traffic control hubs in one of the busiest air-traffic regions of the world, covering 180 square nautical miles and handling 40 million passengers a year.

Any change so is a big deal for anyone involved in managing air traffic in and out of the airspace controlled from Taipei.

Route redesignated
In October 2011, the east Asia air-traffic management co- ordination group of ICAO decided to redesignate and upgrade the Singapore to Taipei route from B348 (as it was then known) to M646, effective May 3rd, 2012.

The upgrade would mean that only aircraft fitted with GPS (global positioning system) navigational equipment would be allowed to fly the route. The October to May time lapse was to allow airlines and air-traffic controllers to reprogramme all the necessary equipment for the change to take effect.

Taiwan is not a member of ICAO, however, because it has been excluded from all UN bodies since the early 1970s when the world changed tack and recognised mainland China as real China, as it were.

Overnight, Taiwan, hitherto designated China in all international forums since the end of the Chinese civil war in 1950, became a non-state, excluded from all international bodies – and the sort of engagement that leads to air-route changes.

So it was by chance, a bare four months before air-traffic controllers in Taiwan would have to implement a significant change, that they learnt of the change, which was by then familiar to everyone else.

The result was that ground staff in Taiwan were unable to accept flight plans filed accor- ding to a new system and for four months had to guide air- craft in and out of their region manually until their computer systems could catch up.

The case of route B348 was cited by Taiwanese government and civil aviation officials in a meeting with a group of foreign journalists who had been invited to hear Taipei’s case for being granted observer status at an ICAO general assembly meeting in Montreal later this month.

Taiwan’s international love- bombing appears to be bearing fruit; last Friday, it was announced that the country had been invited, using the name “Chinese Taipei”, to attend Montreal as guest of the president of the council.

For the past five years, relations between Taipei and Beijing have been thawing, thanks to pragmatic policies pursued by both. This Straits Spring has overwhelming public support, with upwards of 80 per cent of Taiwanese saying they want relations between the two Chinas to remain as they are – separate but intertwined and with neither side pushing their mutually exclusive agendas of reintegration (Beijing) or full independence (Taipei).

Since the rapprochement began, 18 agreements have been signed, easing trade and travel restrictions, and a channel of near-permanent communication has opened up.

There are now more than 600 flights a week between mainland China and Taiwan, with some 17.5 million people travelling between them.

It is disconcerting to think that decisions about how this is regulated is done without the participation of a major player such as Taiwan.

To date, the country had been reduced to learning of decisions second hand, often through the Americans, or having its air safety standards validated not by the ICAO but as a favour by inspections carried out by the US Federal Aviation Administration.

“The information we have now is second-hand information,” says Jenny Tsao of China Airlines, Taiwan’s flagship car- rier. “We are left out and that’s not really fair, or safe, for such an important transport hub.”

It is hard to disagree. But perhaps Taiwan’s presence in Montreal – surely with the blessing of Beijing – will presage a return to full ICAO membership and a re-engagement with other international bodies . . . so long as the big question, full independence for Taiwan or reintegration with Beijing, remains unasked.