All over the world, there has been a rise in the number of flights on offer that go precisely nowhere. While some of these services never even leave the ground, others really do take off and are proving a hit with passengers.
The rise of flights to nowhere
Amid the chaos caused by the COVID pandemic, airlines have turned to increasingly inventive ways of keeping cash flowing into the business. For some, a rapid pivot to cargo has helped sustain the bank balance, while others have focused on repatriation flights and other passenger services.
But one thing almost unique to this pandemic is the number of airlines operating flights to nowhere. Although it’s not a massively widespread phenomenon, more airlines are being added to the list by the day, giving aviation enthusiasts with itchy feet a chance to fly without the risk of travel.
It’s an unusual move but one that ticks lots of boxes, both for the airline and its passengers.
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Flights to nowhere that don’t leave the ground
One of the first places to operate flight to nowhere was Taipei’s Songshan Airport in Taiwan. Usually handling daily flights to Tokyo, Seoul and numerous places in China, the airport suffered from a 64% drop in passenger numbers as a result of COVID. That was a shame, as the airport had just completed extensive renovations of its facilities and installed a brand new lounge.
With so little traffic, Taipei Songshan Airport is hosting a "pretend to leave the country" tour (偽出國)—getting on board and back in the same aiport. I'd say this is a quite a creative stimulus, especially for families with small kids. pic.twitter.com/FwDHQd3HIq
— John Chung-En Liu 劉仲恩 (@JohnChungEnLiu) June 11, 2020
To show these off to potential future passengers, Songshan worked with EVA Air and China Airlines to conduct a virtual flight. Passengers were allocated tickets on a raffle basis, and could then enjoy the full airline experience, including check-in, lounge access and boarding. The planes themselves never actually left the airport, but nevertheless, the experience was incredibly popular, with more than 7,000 people applying to take part.
There’s also a flight in Japan that takes ‘virtual flying’ to the next level. First Airlines offers travel-hungry individuals the chance to ‘fly’ to a number of exciting destinations, including New York, Rome and Paris. Through the wonders of Virtual Reality, people can really experience the cities, as well as a realistic take-off and landing experience. For $60 per person, with a full, destination themed meal service included, it’s a bargain way to get some sort of travel satisfaction.
The airlines that are really taking to the skies
Of course, you don’t have to keep your feet on the ground with all these flights to nowhere. Some airlines have taken the next step of offering passengers a real flight experience, without ever leaving their hometown.
ANA’s A380s are some of the most iconic aircraft in the world, and the airline is keen to keep them ready to go once trips to Hawaii are possible once more. As such, ANA needs to fly them every now and then, to keep them operational and current. But rather than taking them for a spin completely empty, ANA has offered up seats onboard, complete with the real Hawaiian inflight experience.
Back in August, ANA operated a one and a half-hour sightseeing flight aboard its blue Flying Honu. It conducted a circuit of the Tokyo area, while passengers enjoyed exclusive drinks and souvenirs. So successful was this endeavor, the airline is already gearing up for a second similar operation.
Taiwan’s Starlux Airlines struggled to launch due to COVID restrictions but wanted its passengers to get the Starlux experience anyway. The airline undertook a ‘pretending to go abroad’ sightseeing flight, heading out over the Pratas Islands in the South China Sea. It, too, is planning another flight of this nature.
As well as EVA Air’s on the ground experience in conjunction with Songshan Airport, it also offered a special Father’s Day experience that did leave the airport. The flight took off from Taipei Taoyuan Airport and flew for two hours and 45 minutes before landing right back where it started.
Royal Brunei Airlines has been operating ‘Dine And Fly’ sightseeing trips too. It flew its first on Sunday August 16th, a trip lasting 85 minutes and with 99 passengers on board. Passengers got to view the glorious island of Borneo from the sky, while enjoy brunch on board. More flights are planned throughout September.
Most recently, Singapore Airlines has revealed plans to fly from Changi to Changi in around three hours, to give its wanderlust ridden fans a chance to soar again. Plans are still being firmed up, but it’s expected that these flights will take place before the end of October.
And it’s not just Asian airlines either. Australian flag carrier Qantas has moved to reinstate something it used to do many years ago – sightseeing flights to Antarctica. Rather than using a 747 for the 12-hour jaunt, now the airline will use its Boeing 787 Dreamliner to make the trip. With Australian borders closed until at least next year, it’s the furthest the flying kangaroo can hope to travel for quite some time.
Why are airlines doing this?
It’s interesting to see airlines making the most of these unusual times in this way. While ancillary revenue has always been a hot topic in the world of aviation, this really is something quite different.
In essence, airlines already need to fly the planes in order to keep them current. As such, if they are able to secure the permissions from the airport and other relevant authorities, why not stick some people onboard too? It brings in some money, makes them popular with fliers, and provides an opportunity for work to otherwise struggling cabin crew.
Interestingly, Singapore Air Charter surveyed several hundred people and found that most were willing to pay for a flight to nowhere. 75% said they could pay, with around half saying they would pay over $200 for an economy seat and up to $430 for a business class seat.
It just goes to show that, for many of us, the flight is just as enticing as the time we spend in a new place on arrival. It will be interesting to see if any of these sorts of trips remain once demand picks back up.