Whether it’s signing up for “flights to nowhere”, buying in-flight meals to eat at home or even just pretending to be on a plane for social media, travel junkies are going to extreme lengths to get their fix.

Turns out one of the big things that people miss while not being able to travel during the pandemic is actually flying on planes.

When tickets costing between $787 and $3,787 went on sale this week for a Qantas sightseeing joy flight, on a 787 Dreamliner taking off and landing back at Sydney airport, they sold out in minutes.

Passengers on the “Great Southern Land” flight will get to board a Boeing 787 normally used for international long-haul routes and fly at low altitudes over Uluru, the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney Harbour.

Flying without ‘all the bad bits’

Curtin University aviation expert Michael Baird, himself an aviation enthusiast, said he was a big fan of the idea.

“I’d like to do one of these flights just because I enjoy the experience of being in a plane and the 787 is a great aircraft,” he said.

Dr Baird said Qantas had “essentially taken out all the bad bits of flying” like checking in and going through customs.

It meant people who liked the experience of flying could “just enjoy getting up in the air”.

“It’s been six months minimum since most people have been able to get on a passenger jet,” he said.

“That experience, the thrill of flying in a big passenger plane, is something that people just miss.”

‘Flights to nowhere’

Qantas’s sightseeing flight is part of a growing trend among airlines in the Asia Pacific region of “flights to nowhere” that take off and land at the same airport.

The Association of Asia Pacific Airlines said there had been a 97.5 per cent fall in international travel in the region, which has led a number of airlines to look for ways to get people up in the air without taking them anywhere.

Taiwan’s EVA Airways last month used one of its iconic “Hello Kitty” planes for a special two-hour-and-45-minute Father’s Day flight (code BR5288 which sounds like “I love you dad” in Mandarin) that took off and landed at Taipei’s Taoyuan Airport.

Meanwhile, Japan’s ANA used an Airbus SE A380 that usually flies to Honolulu for a 90-minute flight with a Hawaiian experience on board.

The flights in Asia have proven just as popular as the one being offered by Qantas.

Tickets costing around $228 for a Tigerair Taiwan flight from Taipei that will circle over South Korea’s Jeju Island reportedly sold out in four minutes.

The price included a one-year voucher for round-trip tickets from Taiwan to Korea, which can be used after COVID-19 travel bans are lifted.

Chen Shu Tze, an engineer from Taipei who bought tickets on the flight, said the voucher made it a good deal and she missed being able to travel — especially to South Korea.

“The pandemic has a devasting impact on the tourism and airline industry, so I want to help boost the economy, and I miss flying,” she told Reuters.

Carbon emissions criticisms

Not everyone is a fan of these “flights to nowhere” though.

Reports in Singapore’s Straits Times on Sunday that Singapore Airlines was considering putting on scenic flights from next month prompted fierce criticism.

“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,” said environment group SG Climate Rally.

Singapore Airlines said it was considering several initiatives but no final decision had been made on whether to offer sightseeing flights.

Qantas said it would pay to offset the carbon emissions on its scenic flight from Sydney, though some noted that would not actually reduce emissions.

A taste of flying while still on the ground

Meanwhile, some other services for frequent flyers craving a hit don’t even involve planes leaving the ground.

In July, Taiwan’s Songshan Airport had finished a big upgrade after the pandemic hit and wanted to show off the results.

Sixty “passengers” got boarding passes, and were taken through security and immigration before boarding an Airbus A330 of Taiwan’s largest carrier, China Airlines, where flight attendants chatted to them.

Then they they got off the plane and were given a meal in the airport’s food court.

On the topic of airline food, Thai Airways this month opened a pop-up restaurant at their headquarters in Bangkok, offering in-flight meals served to would-be travellers in airline seats.

Back here in Australia, airline caterers Gate Gourmet earlier this year started selling frozen meals and snack packs direct to the public from Brisbane Airport and Mascot in Sydney.

On the menu are dishes like “Grilled chicken chipolatas with creamy mash peas and onion gravy” and “Hokkien vegetable noodles with soy chilli and garlic” that just need to be heated in a microwave before serving.

In Japan, First Airlines — which offers travel experiences using virtual reality technology — is not a new service but it’s experiencing a surge in demand.

Grounded travellers sit in first or business class seats in a mock airline cabin where they are served in-flight meals and drinks, with flat panel screens displaying aircraft exterior views including passing clouds. They even get a pre-flight safety demonstration with a life vest and oxygen mask.

Once they “arrive”, virtual reality goggles provide immersive tours at destinations including Paris, New York, Rome and Hawaii.

Faking it for the ‘gram

People have been expressing their frustration in not being able to take holidays in other ways too.

Earlier this year, TikTok users started posting videos of themselves pretending to be on planes or going through the familiar airport rituals, often using the #travelathome hastag.

Meanwhile, many of those yearning for simpler times when borders were less of a barrier took to recreating some of their favourite travel snaps for Instagram and Facebook for the #quarantinetravelerchallenge.

But while all this is an amusing distraction, it’s just not the same.

Hopefully, it won’t be too long before we can start crossing borders again without coronavirus restrictions.


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