What it’s like on a flight to nowhere in Taiwan

Oct 14, 2020

Covid-19 may have shut down most air travel, but airlines are staying afloat by offering ‘flights to nowhere.’

The captain of EVA Airways Flight BR5888 interrupts the seat-back movie to inform the cabin of 309 passengers of the day’s route.

First, the plane will fly east from Taipei’s Taoyuan International Airport—to give them an “extremely clear” view of the airport on the tiny Japanese island of Yonaguni—before swinging back toward Taiwan’s southernmost peninsula.

After two and a half hours, the plane will land where it took off.

Taiwanese carriers are flying people in jagged circles to make a bit of money, retain passenger loyalty, and keep their fleets in shape—and the flights are selling out.

Since the coronavirus pandemic suspended most air travel, these “flights to nowhere” have become increasingly popular.

The passengers who take them miss overseas trips, which have been made almost impossible by various countries’ quarantine restrictions.

In Taiwan, especially, the yearning for international travel is high. Regular domestic flights last just 30 minutes and lack rituals such as passport checks and duty-free shopping.

(Read more: What is ‘revenge spending,’ the post-coronavirus shopping spree phenomenon?)

Taiwanese carriers EVA, Starlux Airlines, and China Airlines are flying people in jagged circles to make a bit of money, retain passenger loyalty, and keep their fleets in shape—and the flights are selling out.

After an initial flight to nowhere on Aug. 8 for Taiwanese Father’s Day, EVA offered a suite for the four-day Mid-Autumn Festival weekend at the beginning of October and more for the National Day weekend (Oct. 9-11). It’s also planning a sunrise flight to nowhere on Jan. 1.

The route on EVA Airways Flight BR5888, a “flight to nowhere.”
The route on EVA Airways Flight BR5888, a “flight to nowhere.” / Photo: Ralph Jennings

The passengers of EVA Airways Flight BR5888 are about 80% adults. They seem as excited about going nowhere as they would somewhere.

One pair acknowledges they’ve been missing duty-free access and the chance to be left alone for a few hours while flying.

Jesse Chen, from Taipei, wants to give his 2-year-old his first plane ride.

“He’s looking forward to the experience,” Chen says. “He likes planes. We can’t leave the country because of this pandemic, and we have to be careful with a child, so this is a good chance for us.”

During the flight, the pilot points out landmarks—the Central Mountain Range, the 85 Sky Tower in Kaohsiung, and the sprawling Taichung skyline.

(Read more: The ultimate bucket list: Hiking Taiwan’s 100 mountains)

Airlines in Australia, Brunei, and Japan have followed Taiwan’s lead and started flying passengers in circles and then back to their airport of origin. South Korean carrier Asiana Airlines and Hong Kong Express are planning the same.

The environmental costs of such excursions hasn’t seemed to raise many eyebrows.

From an environmental point of view, flights to nowhere make no sense, but such trips do more than just bring in a bit of revenue.

“Perhaps one of the reasons for not having such flights in other regions, such as Europe, is down to possible environmental concerns and the negative image that would be associated with airlines,” says Dennis Lau, a Hong Kong-based analyst with civil aviation market intelligence firm Ascend by Cirium.

The International Air Transport Association says aircraft emit up to 3% of all climate-destabilizing carbon emissions worldwide. It wants airlines to cut carbon emissions in half by 2050.

From an environmental point of view, flights to nowhere make no sense, but such trips do more than just bring in a bit of revenue.

Airlines use them to reduce the maintenance necessary for aircraft that have been grounded for too long, Lau says.

Safety checks can be done in flight, while crew members clock up takeoffs and landings, which are required to maintain their licenses.

Adapted from an article first published in the South China Morning Post.

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