TAIPEI (Reuters) - There are still seats left for Taiwanese people to return home from China over the upcoming Lunar New Year, Taiwan said on Tuesday, brushing off concern a dispute over air routes could leave thousands stranded.
The dispute has become increasingly bitter, with both sides trading accusations after two Chinese airlines canceled extra flights to self-ruled Taiwan over the Lunar New Year, the most important holiday in the Chinese calendar, potentially leaving thousands of Taiwanese without tickets to go home.
In January, China, which considers Taiwan a breakaway province, opened several new air routes, including a northbound route up the sensitive Taiwan Strait that divides China from the island.
Taiwan says it was done without its agreement, contravening what the democratic government in Taipei has said was a 2015 deal to first discuss such flight paths.
The Lunar New Year begins on Feb. 16.
Seeking to alleviate worries about stranded holidaymakers, Taiwan’s China policy-making Mainland Affairs Council said there were already 418 extra flights added for the holidays in addition to 586 regularly scheduled flights, serving 50 Chinese destinations.
“At present there are still seats on other airlines’ regular and additional services,” the council said.
Taiwan says the new routes could affect flight safety as they pass close to two groups of Taiwan-controlled islands close to China which have regular flights to and from Taiwan.
The council said it sympathized with people being inconvenienced on their return home.
“But safety comes before all else, and the government doesn’t have the space to compromise,” it said.
China denies any safety threat, and says the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) has told them the M503 route - the main point of contention - has been assessed and approved by them.
In a statement sent to Reuters, ICAO said the route had been approved in 2015 by an amendment to an air navigation plan for the Asia-Pacific region.
“These amendments are undertaken through a formal process that includes a consultation with the user and provider states concerned, as well as relevant international organizations,” it said.
Reporting by Jess Macy Yu in TAIPEI; Additional reporting by Ben Blanchard in BEIJING