With border restrictions in numerous countries, most of us in Singapore have now been stuck at home for many months. Apart from the occasional trip to Jewel, the prospect of packing our bags and heading to Changi Airport for an overseas vacation still seems a long way off, while government advice to defer all travel abroad remains in force.
Some airlines have been getting inventive lately with new ideas to keep customers engaged while also generating revenue and keeping their planes and flight crews in the air.
The concept? ‘Flights to nowhere’.
What’s a ‘flight to nowhere’?
Essentially just an experience, allowing passengers to go through the normal process of checking in for a flight, clearing the usual immigration and security process, boarding an aircraft and then taking a short flight of one to three hours.
The difference? You’ll land back exactly where you started.
What’s the point?
While for most of the world a busy network of domestic flights means getting on a plane remains relatively easy even during the COVID-19 pandemic, many countries have little or no domestic air travel.
Without a single domestic flight, Singapore fits the bill perfectly for these mini-adventures, allowing people to enjoy an experience they miss, have a change of scenery, or just break up the monotony of daily life with the psychological excitement of air travel.
It goes without saying that without technically leaving the country, no quarantine or SHN would be required after landing.
Who has done it?
The ‘flight to nowhere’ isn’t a new idea, with at least four airlines in the region already running such services in recent weeks.
It all started with a China Airlines ‘flight’ that never even left the ground at Taipei’s Songshan Airport on 2nd July 2020. More than 7,000 people applied to take part, with 60 lucky winners welcomed on board an Airbus A330 by flight attendants, having gone through the usual departure formalities.
Buoyed by the demand, Taiwan’s other carriers EVA Air and Starlux Airlines went one step further and actually took off on a sightseeing trip of the region, before landing back exactly where they first started.
These flights generally followed Taiwan’s extensive eastern coastline, with the EVA Air jet even drawing out a thumbs-up symbol in the sky before heading back to Taipei.
On EVA Air’s three-hour flight, priced at around S$250 for Economy Class and S$300 for Business Class, it was all about cuisine. Passengers enjoyed meals designed by three-Michelin-starred chef Motokazu Nakamura while enjoying the views of Taiwan.
A second flight on the ‘Hello Kitty’ A330 has already been completed, however the airline isn’t stopping there. EVA is now planning four ‘moon-watching flights’ from Kaohsiung to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival in October, using its nearly-new Boeing 787-10 aircraft.
Tickets will start at around S$275 in Economy Class and S$370 in Business Class.
On the first Starlux flight, piloted by the airline’s CEO Chang Kuo-wei, passengers were given a flight certificate as a memento.
Starlux then flew a second similar flight and at the time of writing, its third ‘flight to nowhere’ is currently airborne.
Even closer to Singapore, Royal Brunei has also started operating a series of ‘Dine & Fly’ flights, offering an 85-minute scenic tour of Borneo with an onboard brunch.
Two flights have already been completed with three more planned.
Qantas is restarting its sightseeing flights to Antarctica later this year, using Boeing 787-9s.
Even though passengers don’t need a passport and never leave Australia, these sightseeing flights are more akin to long-haul journeys, taking around 13 hours to complete (about 6 hours of which has views of the Antarctic itself).
One of the resounding factors common to all these flights has been their popularity. Starlux Airlines sold all 188 seats on its first experience flight within 30 seconds, and is now planning several more.
In Brunei the appetite to take to the skies again may not be as buoyant as in Taiwan, but nonetheless all 99 tickets on Royal Brunei’s inaugural “Dine and Fly” sightseeing tour of Borneo were sold out in 48 hours.
The airline then accumulated a 300-strong waiting list for the next flights, with four more on the cards.
How does it help the airline?
These kind of flights take a lot of planning and are probably more about publicity than profit.
Though there are many variables and no two airlines are exactly the same, the operating cost of an Airbus A350 or Boeing 787 is approximately US$12,000 per hour (over S$16,000 per hour). That means for a 3-hour ‘flight to nowhere’ with 250 passengers, you’re talking about a ticket cost of S$200 per person just to break even.
If SIA was to run a flight or series of flights like this, it would really be picking up headlines and maintaining brand awareness, rather than for any significant financial gain.
Another benefit these flights can bring is some crew recency. Pilots have to log three takeoffs and landings in every 90-day period and one takeoff and landing in every 35-day period, though for many at the moment this is being ticked off in a flight simulator.
KrisFlyer Experiences was first announced in early 2020 as a way for members who also hold a Mastercard to redeem their KrisFlyer miles for access to specially curated activities and events.
Frankly, it couldn’t have launched at a worse time, with the first few events including a wine tasting walkabout and an outdoor movie screening cancelled, as social distancing and lockdown became the norm due to the fast-evolving COVID-19 outbreak.
By necessity, KrisFlyer Experiences have moved into the online sphere recently, with stay home events like photography workshops and whisky tasting (they send you the samples beforehand!).
Flights to nowhere would be a perfect fit for KrisFlyer Experiences right now, as an exclusive ‘money can’t buy’ occasion.
Some airlines in Taiwan have also offered the option of being whisked to a 5-star hotel after your flight, to complete the experience of a ‘getaway’.
With a range of properties in Singapore now accepting leisure guests, there would be no shortage of options for SIA to explore if they wanted to provide something similar.
Packaging a ‘flight to nowhere’ experience together with things like door-to-door limo transfers and a luxury staycation could be a way to persuade many KrisFlyer members to part with a significant chunk of miles, especially with few other ways to use them at the moment.
The airline could also extend its recent ‘earn status on the ground’ programme for KrisFlyer and PPS Club members, by awarding Elite Miles or PPS Value when taking one of these flights.
Singapore Airlines is unlikely to reactivate any stored aircraft for a potential ‘flight to nowhere’ due to the costs involved, so it would probably use one of its Airbus A350 or Boeing 787-10s (bad news for A380 lovers).
That would allow the airline to sell a decent number of tickets in the Business Class cabin for a nice premium.
Is it more of a Scoot thing?
From the outset, SIA’s low-cost subsidiary Scoot has always adopted a ‘cheeky’ marketing slant as part of its fun image. With that division flying only a fraction of its usual services, perhaps a ‘flight to nowhere’ on Scoot fits the corporate branding better?
This would also allow smaller 180-seat Airbus A320s to be used, in case SIA is concerned that demand for a flight like this would not justify use of a wide-bodied aircraft.
What are the potential stumbling blocks?
We seem talk a lot these days about the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS). The national aviation regulator is responsible for ensuring all flight activity is safe, so lately the agency has been heavily involved in ensuring the most appropriate rules are in place for aspects including on board service and transit passenger segregation at Changi Airport.
CAAS would almost certainly not be happy for passengers on a ‘flight to nowhere’ (i.e. technically remaining in Singapore) mixing with departing passengers and especially arriving passengers (who then have to serve SHN) in the transit area of either T1 or T3. Changi’s common ‘airside’ area for all passengers is a big drawback here.
Activating Terminal 4 for a one-off flight sounds unnecessarily costly, but using the CIP terminal could be a perfect solution.
Aside from keeping everyone completely segregated from regular passengers, this would also add to the experience of a special occasion. It would then likely involve boarding the aircraft parked directly outside via steps – perfect for the #AvGeeks and Instragrammers.
CAAS might also not be willing to relax its restrictions on in-flight service. Currently Singapore carriers are not permitted to provide a meal service on intra-SE Asia flights, to minimise unnecessary interaction between crew members and passengers (i.e. you don’t really need a meal on the way to Jakarta!).
Singapore Airlines might consider that the whole experience of a ‘flight to nowhere’ would be tarnished if no in-flight service was possible, especially for those in Business Class who would likely be looking forward to the usual ‘Champagne experience’.
CAAS might also insist on social distancing, given that most passengers on a flight like this are unlikely to know one another, and are effectively staying in Singapore throughout with no SHN requirement after landing. That might significantly reduce the number of seats able to be sold, affecting the viability of such a service.
One option here might be to use the Airbus A350 ULR. With 67 Business Class seats and 94 in Premium Economy, it might be possible to achieve social distancing with a full load up front and perhaps 4 pax per row in the premium section (around 50 pax).
All seven A350 ULRs are technically stored at Changi Airport, however they have been performing maintenance check flights every few months (the last batch of which was performed on all seven in late July). That means they may be easily reactivated.
Based on those we’ve spoken to recently, there would definitely be enough demand for Singapore Airlines to fill at least one ‘flight to nowhere’, perhaps even a series of flights.
The most likely question for SIA is whether the flights would be financially viable, or if not whether the PR from such an event and the interaction with the airline’s most loyal frequent flyers and devoted enthusiasts is worth the difference.
There’s then the issue of feasibility from a regulatory perspective, with these flights likely to require some special approval or other restrictions in order to become a reality.
What do you think?
(Cover Photo: Santi Rodriguez / Shutterstock)