Wow: Over 15,000 Passengers Fly On South Korean Flights To Nowhere

Flights to nowhere have taken South Korea by storm, with thousands of passengers taking scores of flights since travel restrictions and border closures thwarted more conventional travel plans. With flights to nowhere to continue in South Korea throughout 2021, the already impressive statistics will keep rising.

Korean Air is one of seven South Korean airlines offering flights to nowhere. Photo: Vincenzo Pace/Simple Flying

Over 150 flights to nowhere have flown in South Korea

According to data recently released by the Korea Customs Service, 15,983 passengers have taken a ride on 152 flights to nowhere. Seven South Korean airlines have offered the flights. Whether passengers were keen for the ride or just wanted to spend some money, Simple Flying isn’t sure. But between them, those 15,983 passengers spent US$20 million on duty-free shopping. Nearly half, or 7,266 passengers, spent more than $600 on duty-free booze. 

Of the seven airlines operating flights to nowhere, Asiana Airlines low-cost subsidiary Air Busan operated the most, with 35 flights. Jeju Air has run 34 flights to nowhere, followed by Jin Air with 33 flights. Trailing but still active in the flights to nowhere space are T’way Air, Air Seoul, Asiana, and Korean Air.

Low-cost carrier Jeju Air has offer flights to nowhere. Photo: Getty Images

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Retail therapy drives the demand for flights to nowhere

These South Korean flights to nowhere are particularly interesting because of their strong focus on duty-free shopping. The South Korean Government allows the flights to happen to help prop up both local airlines and the local duty-free industry. That’s fair enough – airport retailers are frequently among the forgotten amid the travel downturn.

But what was a tightly controlled sideline for airlines and the other players in the industry has exploded in South Korea. The South Korean Government has allowed more airlines and more airports to get involved over the last year. Over that time, the rationale for the flights has also shifted.

While flights to nowhere or scenic flights in many other countries are about recapturing the flying experience, that doesn’t seem to be the case in South Korea. A recent Bloomberg report provides an interesting insight into these flights. Bloomberg detailed a two-hour flight to nowhere on Air Busan.

Global duty-free retailer Lotte organized the flight for 130 of its best customers. Those customers paid nothing for the flight. But they were expected to spend up big on Lotte duty-free. This flight was one of six flights to nowhere organized by Lotte in May alone.

The flights briefly enter Japanese airspace, thus legitimizing duty-free purchases. South Korea’s second-biggest duty-free operator, Hotel Shilla, offered two similar flights in May to its customers. Each of those flights could accommodate 114 passengers.

Flights to nowhere are proving popular with keen duty-free shoppers. Photo: Getty Images

Flights to nowhere passengers spend up big on duty-free

The Korean Customs Service says that in addition to alcohol, these passengers were spending up big on cosmetics, perfumes, and pricey bags.

“I saw a lot of people with bags full of duty-free items,” one Air Busan duty-free shopper told Bloomberg. This particular shopper left her flight on the low-cost airline armed with a new Chanel handbag – not the type of arm candy you see on your typical low-cost airline passenger. These flights don’t cover the losses incurred by duty-free operators since the travel downturn began, but they do help.

“The contribution from the flights to nowhere is small, but it’s better than having nothing,” an analyst told Bloomberg.

The full-service airlines aren’t above getting their hands dirty mixing flying with retail. Flag carrier Korean Air is among the seven airlines offering flights to nowhere. But unlike the low-cost carriers, Korean Air provides a more refined duty-free flight. Passengers pay from US$142 to $490 (depending on where you prefer to sit) and pick up their pre-ordered duty-free on the way through the airport before boarding one of the short flights out of Seoul’s Incheon International Airport. Still, it’s all about retail therapy. Says one Korean Air passenger;

“A flight to nowhere is a refreshing concept, but honestly, I don’t think I would have booked if there were no duty-free shopping benefits.”