Diversifying airline revenues with ‘flights to nowhere’

Ilaria Grasso Macola 18 December 2020 (Last Updated December 18th, 2020 11:43)

In a world where international tourism is still largely discouraged because of Covid-19, domestic ‘flights to nowhere’ could help some airlines stay afloat. In this piece, Ilaria Grasso Macola takes a look at reactions to this strategy worldwide.

Diversifying airline revenues with ‘flights to nowhere’
Flights to nowhere have been severely criticised by environmentalists. Credit: ‘byeangel’.

Australian airline Qantas has launched a ‘flights to somewhere’ programme, with the first Qantas 737 expected to take off on 5 December.

The programme – which was launched following an all-day scenic flight around Australia’s most iconic destinations – has since evolved, offering passengers the possibility to stay overnight.

The first flight, with destination to the natural landmark of Ayers Rock/Uluru, will host 110 passengers, offering them a complete travel experience, from a champagne-based breakfast to a three-course meal on arrival and an overnight stay at one of the area’s premier hotels.

“We’re partnering with tourism operators on the ground to offer special flights to special destinations,” said Qantas Group chief executive Alan Joyce. “Even though seats are limited, we think the awareness generated by these flights is a great way to get more people thinking about where they might holiday as we head towards summer.”

Qantas is not the first company to propose this programme. With many countries’ borders closed due to the Covid-19 pandemic, airlines – including Singapore Airlines – have jumped on the bandwagon and started looking at new ways to make revenue, including offering ‘flights to nowhere’ programmes.

 

Offering passengers an escape

Set up to help the industry get back on its feet post Covid-19, flights to nowhere – also called round-trip flights – are set to placate travellers’ thirst for flying and offer some sense of normality during these uncertain times.

As explained by Hong Kong University professor of tourism studies Benjamin Iaquinto, travelling has become such a normal part of our lives that people actively miss it, even in the most mundane aspects such as going to the airport and embarking on a plane.

“The pandemic and the lockdown measures introduced by many countries have intensified the urge to escape”

“[Flying] has become like a fact of nature, like something we’ve always done,” Iaquinto told Fortune last month. “When you’re at the airport, even though it’s really boring, there’s something exciting about it. There’s some sense of anticipation about being in those places that are quite ordinary.”

Travelling by plane, even to nowhere, offers passengers an escape from the current situation. Hong Kong Polytechnic University professor Sebastian Filep told Fortune that the pandemic and the lockdown measures introduced by many countries have intensified the urge to escape anywhere. “Who you go with matters more than where you go,” he added.

One such flight by Taiwanese carrier EVA Air offered its customers a three-hour flight to nowhere aboard its Hello Kitty A330 aircraft. Departing in August from Taiwan’s Taipei-Taoyuan, the plane passed through the north-eastern corner of Taiwan and flew over the western end of Japan’s Ryuku Islands, landing back in Taiwan.

The flight, which included a selection of food from Michelin star chef Motoke Nakamura, was made to “satisfy travellers’ wishes”.

Promoting domestic tourism

The overnight ‘flight to somewhere’ programme was not Qantas’s initial idea. On 10 October, the Australian company launched its Great Southern Land scenic flight, taking 150 passengers over the country’s most iconic landmarks.

“One good thing to come out of the Covid-19 travel restrictions is the opportunity to appreciate what we actually have right here”

 

Taking place on a Qantas 878 Dreamliner, the flight impressed passengers with low-level flybys of key locations, from the coast of New South Wales and Queensland to the sandstone formation of Uluru in the Northern Territory of Australia.

The programme aimed to offer customers a showcase of the country’s landscape, in a time where people can’t fly because of coronavirus travel restrictions.

“We will angle the aircraft so that passengers on both sides get a great view, in particular of Uluru after we were granted special permission for the flyover,” said the flight’s captain Alex Passerini.

The package also featured ground-to-air satellite phone calls, which allowed passenger to attend touristic tours made from local experts.

The initiative was very well received, with tickets being sold out in less than ten minutes.

“I’m absolutely pumped to be stepping on board a plane again and one good thing to come out of the Covid-19 travel restrictions is the opportunity to appreciate what we actually have right here in our own country,” commented frequent flyer David Thompson. “I will be seeing them from the sky today but can’t wait to go back and land next time.”

 

Backlash from environmentalists

With a statement sent to Business Insider, Singapore Airlines cancelled its ‘flight to nowhere’ programme at the beginning of October, after receiving backlash from environmental organisations.

The statement – which was sent two weeks after the news website broke the story – explained how after review, the idea of flights to nowhere was not pursued.

“We currently have no plans to revive the idea,” read the statement.

The company had initially thought of offering round-trip sightseeing flights, starting from the end of October. The initiative, a partnership with the Singapore Tourism Board, included staycations in Singapore hotels as well as the possibility for passengers to acquire shopping vouchers and rent limousines.

“This initiative is symptomatic of a culture that makes consumers responsible for deep-rooted, structural problems”

The airline decided to stop the programme when it started to receive negative feedback from environmental organisations, such as Singapore-based group SG Climate Rally.

“We do not agree with the proposed “flights to nowhere” initiative for two reasons,” the group said in a press statement. “First, it encourages carbon-intensive travel for no good reason and second, it is merely a stop-gap measure that distracts from the policy and value shifts necessary to mitigate the climate crisis.

“This initiative is symptomatic of a culture that makes consumers responsible for deep-rooted, structural problems. In reality, the onus should be on SIA executives and policymakers to pivot towards more sustainable and equitable alternatives for its customers and staff.”

Singapore Airlines is not the only airline to receive backlash for its ‘flights to nowhere’ programme. Qantas’s programme was highly criticised by environmental NGO Friends of the Earth.

“We understand that people want to, or need to, travel for work, holidays, family and relationships,” comments Friends of the Earth spokesperson Leigh Ewbank. “But with everything we know about climate change and the impact of the aviation sector on emissions, we all need to be responsible in our personal choices and taking a ‘flight to nowhere’ seems like a selfish move. We don’t think they should be taking place.”