Politics Behind Athens’ Denial of License to China Airlines

Photo Credit: Roberto Verzo @ Flickr CC BY 2.0
Why you need to know

The eleventh-hour cancellation of 18 scheduled flights between Taoyuan and Athens occurs amid closer economic ties between China and the cash-strapped country.

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The Taiwan-based China Airlines (CAL) in late May was forced to cancel 18 direct flights to Athens scheduled from June 3 to Oct. 7 after Greek authorities refused to grant it a license. New information suggests that politics may have been behind Athens’ decision.

On Jan. 26 the carrier announced its operational schedule for a planned seasonal charter service of one direct flight per week between Taoyuan and Athens. The first flight was scheduled for June 3. Since March, CAL had been cooperating with six travel agencies in Taiwan (Lion Travel, Cola Tour, Artisan Tour, South East Travel Service, Phoenix Tours and MITravel) to promote its flights to Athens during that period.

That same month, CAL announced it now had a new general sales agent (GSA) in Cyprus and Greece to facilitate the carrier’s expansion plans in Europe.

CAL President Chang Yu-hern (張有恆) confirmed his company had received verbal assurances by the Greek Civil Aviation Authority that the carrier would receive a temporary license for the direct flights.

However, according to airline industry sources, the Greek Civil Aviation Authority did not provide the license in time. With less than a week before the planned first direct and still without the necessary landing rights, CAL announced on May 30 it was immediately ending sales of the charter flights. The carrier announced it would forward passengers who had already booked flights to Athens to other carriers.

“We have no idea why [our request] was rejected,” Chang said.

What happened is politics. According to Greek media, the Foreign Ministry in Athens reportedly refused to grant CAL the proper landing rights due to the “political relationship” between Beijing and Taipei. At this point it is not known whether the refusal was the result of risk avoidance in Athens, where officials may have concluded that direct flights by a Taiwanese carrier could “anger” Beijing, or direct pressure by Chinese authorities in Athens following the election of Tsai Ing-wen (蔡英文) of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) in Taiwan on Jan. 16.

Greece’s National Herald newspaper reported that Athens’ decision to deny CAL’s request was due to pressure from China. “China is closing on taking over most of the port of Piraeus and looking to buy up other Greek assets,” it wrote, adding that “Greece bowed to China as Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras is planning to visit Beijing next month [July] in search of more investments for his cash-strapped country.”

In April, Greece sold Piraeus port to state-controlled China Ocean Shipping Company (COSCO), the sole bidder, for 368.5 million euros (US$418.8 million).

Taiwan’s representative in Athens has expressed disappointment at the development, which has forced thousands of Taiwanese tourists to cancel or reschedule their trip to Greece.

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