“Why would anyone want to do that?” That was my first thought when I heard that flights to nowhere were popping up in different locations around the world.
A flight to nowhere is exactly what it sounds like—you get on a plane in one location, fly around for a while, and end up at the exact same airport where you started. It’s like a cruise to nowhere, without all of the activities, extravagant meals, casinos, pools, waterslides . . . you know, fun.
These flights have become particularly popular in East Asia, where most borders remain largely closed except for some travel corridors with neighboring countries, and they have also begun in Australia. There’s been a Hello Kitty–themed flight with EVA Air in Taiwan (which included food from a Michelin-starred chef), a 90-minute, Hawaiian-themed flight in Japan with ANA (in a plane that’s painted to look like a turtle), and Singapore Airlines will begin to offer three-hour flights from Changi Airport next month.
After hearing that a seven-hour sightseeing flight with Qantas that takes off and lands at Sydney Domestic Airport sold out in just 10 minutes, with tickets ranging from $566 to $2,374 (to literally get nowhere), I can no longer keep quiet. Seriously, how is this a thing?
I understand what it’s like to miss travel during the pandemic. I’ve traveled internationally my whole life, I work at a travel magazine—heck, I invented the #TravelAtHomeChallenge. But I’m just going to say what we’re all thinking: A seven-hour flight is not the part I miss most about traveling. I know, I know, “it’s not the destination, it’s the journey” or whatever, but not once since lockdown began have I been sitting on my couch or reclining in my bed and thought, Wow, if only I was sitting completely upright in an uncomfortable chair with a stranger’s elbow digging into my side and a random person reclined into my lap, or Dang, I wish my feet were swollen. But hey, it’s not all about me.
Not long ago, in a coronavirus-free world, the trend was not flights to nowhere. The trend was flight-shaming. There was a push, particularly in Scandinavia, to rely more on trains and other sustainable forms of travel when possible—there was even a cool word for it, “flygskam.” Stateside, we saw a quarter of U.S. travelers reduce their air travel due to concern for the environment. If you could still get where you were going without flying, that was the way the world was headed.
Now, all of a sudden we’re taking flights when we aren’t even going anywhere because people aren’t able to travel as much in order to curb the spread of COVID-19. Although many airlines have been working to reduce their environmental footprint with carbon offset programs, a Boeing 787 Dreamliner, which is used for the aforementioned Qantas flight, burns thousands of kilograms of fuel per hour (depending on factors like weight and altitude of the flight)—and it’s on the lower side for an aircraft of that size. There are lots of sightseeing options that would take less of a toll on our planet, like a scenic train trip, or another COVID trend, virtual tours.
Also, are these flights actually a good alternative right now, when they’re loading upwards of 200 to 300 people onto a plane all together? When traveling, you aren’t susceptible to COVID only once you reach a destination. You’d still be going through the airport and getting on a plane with many other people. There are tons of precautions being taken on airplanes, sure, but it’s not like these flights are almost empty. Often they’re more than half full, which not only brings up a question about the ability to social distance but also means they can’t possibly only be selling window seats. Why would you pay all of this money for a sightseeing flight if you’re going to get an aisle? It’s probably not a good time to lean over the person next to you.
The airline industry is suffering right now. As Scott’s Cheap Flights founder and “chief flight expert” Scott Keyes puts it, “The fact that airlines are operating glorified sightseeing flights underscores just how dire the current financial picture is for travel businesses right now. Flights to nowhere would not be profitable if travel were anywhere near normal.” I’m not saying you shouldn’t fly. If you’re ready and able and understanding of the current risks, and as long as you’re traveling safely and responsibly, it’s up to you. But at least make sure that when you do fly, you’re actually getting somewhere.