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Flights to Nowhere: Is this the solution to pandemic travel?

By Nicole Hurip 19 August 2020

Sightseeing flights that take off and land from the same place have emerged as a clever way to skirt the bans on international travel, an experience that the travel-starved have pounced on as a stop-gap for the gaping hole in their wanderlust souls. As domestic travel slowly begins to open up for some countries, the “flight cruise” presents an intriguing way for people to admire foreign landscapes and a lifeline for airlines grappling with the unrelenting drag of COVID-19. But will it catch on among the masses to alleviate the travel withdrawal that many are experiencing first-hand during the pandemic?

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Pre-pandemic, it seemed that the multi-trillion-dollar travel and tourism industry was set to reach newer and higher heights with each passing year. Despite environmental concerns, more and more people were flying every single day, thanks to the introduction of low-cost flights that made travel more accessible and commonplace.

But then, everything changed when COVID-19 hit. Never before has the travel sector and all of its affiliate businesses been faced with such a brutal hit. Global travel restrictions have grounded planes, decimated the food and beverage industry, and left millions jobless. Businesses are scrambling to devise ways to cope with the situation—restaurants have resorted to becoming kitchens for delivery services, yoga studios are hosting online classes, and tourism boards have taken to creating virtual reality experiences for people to travel in place, from the comfortable cesspool of their own home.

People have taken to social media to express the almost feverish yearning to see foreign cultures again; it seems that travel has become such an integral part of everyday life that having it ripped away so suddenly and so completely has taken a heavy toll. There are only so many travel videos and pictures you can look at, none of which are adequate substitutes for the real thing. What we need is a way to travel without travelling—cue sightseeing flights.

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Sightseeing flights are not a new concept—Antarctica Flights has been operating day trips to the icy continent in partnership with Qantas for over 25 years. You can charter flights and helicopter rides over scenic locations like the Swiss Alps, the Alaska Glacier, and the Grand Canyon.

In fact, Qantas has announced that they are reviving the 12-hour flight route from November to February 2021, operating seven flights—two each from Sydney and Melbourne, and one each out of Adelaide, Brisbane, and Perth. The flights will be undertaken by the Qantas 787 Dreamliner, a newer aircraft model with considerably larger windows for the purpose of, well, sightseeing out of the aircraft and feasting starved eyes on Antarctic glaciers.

Similarly, EVA Air, a Taiwanese airline, offered a Father’s Day flight experience on 8 August on their Hello Kitty jet, which is adorned inside and out with the character. The journey, lasting two hours and forty-five minutes, traced a path from Taipei along the Taiwanese coast to the Ryukyu Islands in Japan, and back to Taipei.

To complete the “flight to nowhere” experience, a gourmet meal designed by three-starred Michelin chef Motoke Nakamura was also included, as well as Hello Kitty souvenirs to take home. A second journey was also undertaken a week later. Noting its success, China Airlines and Taipei-based airline StarLux also offered similar journeys.

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Is this the future of travel, as well as the solution to pandemic cabin fever? These “domestic” sightseeing flights might hold the key to survival for airline companies in the wake of international travel restrictions that are likely to last until the end of the year. Who knows; its popularity might even carry over into post-pandemic times—truly world travel without a passport.

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Nicole Hurip

Travel editorial director

Never content with sitting still, Nicole has turned her passion into a career. Hong Kong is her home, but she’ll always have a soft spot for L.A. and London, where she spent her college years. She loves exploring hidden places, hunting for cool vintage pieces, and talking to interesting people. Her vices include consuming excessive amounts of wine and cheese, a debilitating weakness for sparkly things, and spending too much time on Instagram.