Dubai: Put on your seat belt – and fly off to nowhere. Yes, you read that right.
A handful of global airlines are now taking passengers on a ‘flight to nowhere’, which is essentially a trip where the aircraft circles around for a few hours before landing at the very same airport it departed from.
Air India may become the latest to introduce the services, while Singapore Airlines was the first to state that it was considering launch of such flights earlier this month. On the face of it, it’s a way for passengers to enjoy flying as they had been accustomed to in pre-COVID-19 times.
For airlines, it’s a potential source of revenue during a time when most of their fleets remain grounded due to pandemic-related travel restrictions.
A rationale behind it
With thousands of aircraft, carriers can put in some decent flight time for the jets. Here, it’s not about heading off to some distant land, but reuniting passengers with the sheer experience of being up in the air.
Prior to COVID-19, airlines were focused on boosting profitability through cost cuts and route rationalisation. Now that the pandemic has brought flight ticket sales to a halt, airlines have come up with creative schemes to drive top-line numbers. After all, the industry is still on track to lose more than $84 billion in revenues this year, according to the International Air Transport Association (IATA).
Get them back into flight routines
These flights to nowhere land also serve another purpose - after being forced into leaves, flight crews might have got just that bit rusty with their skills. The ‘nowhere’ trips can help reacquaint them with the machines, and go back into active and alert mode. It also allows pilots, who are on unpaid leave, to earn the flight times required to maintain their licenses.
But, of course, there are drawbacks. Flights circling in a specific area will naturally cause higher concentration of pollution. This may mean that airlines offering such flights may be challenged by environmental groups. The sector has already come under fire for being a high carbon emitter. The last thing flight operators want is bad press during the industry’s worst crisis in history.
What do industry watchers think?
Andrew Charlton, an aviation analyst, said: “The real question is what does it show? It shows that there is demand to travel, but there aren’t destinations. The airlines think that we need to be shown that travelling is safe – no we don’t. What we need are safe destinations. We are not afraid to fly; we are afraid to arrive.”
Some value... and that’s about it
John Strickland, Director of JLS Consulting, makes this point: “I don’t see this becoming a substantial activity or as a big source of revenue, more as a novelty exercise. Pleasure flights have operated in the past to view astronomical phenomena such as the Northern Lights or to see the beauty of Antarctica.”
It remains to be seen if airlines will embrace or reject the idea. But, one thing is for sure – airlines’ search for alternative sources of income will not end here.
From dedicating more flights to cargo to providing COVID-19 insurance, operators have been doing whatever it takes to survive in the current market. Recently, Singapore Airlines said it would introduce a restaurant service for those who want to dine onboard a grounded Airbus A380 jet.
Not just on flights
Singapore is taking the ‘nowhere’ model onto the seas as well, by allowing ‘cruises to nowhere’ as a first step towards resuming leisure travel. The country’s tourism board has appointed Norway’s DNV GL to create a health and safety framework for cruise lines that want to restart sailings from Singapore.
Whatever the immediate future might be, airlines need to find solutions… quickly. The International Air Transport Association’s (IATA) latest report suggests that airlines’ suffering will not reduce at the end of the year as was previously forecast.
Air travel will likely see a 68 percent decline in December compared to the 63 per cent fall predicted earlier by the industry body. If ‘flights to nowhere’ can help ease some of that decline, then bring them on…