Jan. 30 (UPI) — Two Chinese airlines were forced to cancel hundreds of flights Tuesday, as tensions over air navigation between China and Taiwan rise.

Taiwan’s aviation authority didn’t approve 176 cross-Straits flights operated by China Eastern Airlines and Xiamen Airlines — less than a month ahead of the Spring Festival, the most important family gathering event in China.

Since direct flights were opened between the territories in 2008, nearly 4 million passengers have traveled the route.

Taiwan, though, has objected to a new route known as M503, which it says passes dangerously close to existing airports on the Tiaoyutai Islands.

The airlines said they would give refunds to nearly 25,000 passengers who’d already booked flights. China Eastern called on Taiwan to “normalize the development of the cross-Straits civil aviation sector as soon as possible.”

China’s mainland airline association slammed Taiwan on Tuesday, saying the blocking of flights “harms people’s emotions and disturbs flights.”

The airline association said Taiwan is using the M503 route “as an excuse.”

Mainland Affairs Council Minister Chang Hsiao-yueh said China’s decision to put the four routes — M503, W121, W122, W123 — into effect hurt Taiwan’s aviation safety and national security and added to challenges between the two countries.

China Eastern Airlines said passengers affected by the cancellations include businesspersons, tourists and students.

“Unable to buy an air ticket, I would have to travel by ship from Xiamen to Kinmen before taking a local airline to return to Taipei,” Taiwanese entrepreneur Chen Kuangchung said. “The Taiwan aviation authority makes our trip home complicated.”

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