As the pandemic forced international borders to close and lead global travel to go into an indefinite halt, many reports highlighted the negative impact it had on the travel industry, especially in the airline sector. Airlines around the world had to find new ways to somehow welcome passengers (and their money) back on their planes. How? Destination-less flights, of course.
In 2020, a number of airlines started offering flights to nowhere—literally, air travel with no destination other than the very same airport from where the plane departed. This attempt at diversifying their revenue streams may sound pointless to some, but as it turned out, it proved to be a success.
In September 2020, a ‘sightseeing’ flight to nowhere advertised by Australian airline Qantas sold out in less than 10 minutes. According to CEO Alan Joyce, that probably made it the “fastest selling flight in Qantas history.” Now, it has just been beaten.
This week, a Qantas flight to nowhere that promised passengers the chance to view a rare super Moon from 40,000 feet sold out in the record time of two-and-a-half minutes. The one-off ‘Supermoon Scenic Flight’ will depart Sydney on Wednesday 26 May for what the airline is billing as a “two-and-a-half-hour sojourn through the southern sky.”
“After taking in the Sydney Harbour nightlights on departure, the aircraft will climb above any cloud cover and head east out over the Pacific Ocean,” the Qantas website reads. “Onboard our B787 Dreamliner aircraft, featuring the biggest windows on any passenger aircraft, enjoy mother nature’s night lights at 40,000 feet, followed by a viewing of the rising of the supermoon which also happens to be a total lunar eclipse, a highly unusual double act.”
Tickets for the destination-less flight, which started at AUS $499 for an economy ticket (around £275), or $1,499 for a business class ticket (around £840), went on sale at the strike of noon on Wednesday. Less than half an hour later, Qantas revealed on Twitter that “Due to overwhelming support for this special flight, we have sold out in record time!”
The airline also created an additional waitlist which has since then been closed. Qantas’ previous flight to nowhere promised low-level flybys of unique destinations across Australia including the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru, Kata Tjuta and Sydney Harbour. “But while Australia’s national airline is breaking records with the initiative, it’s worth noting that the ‘flights to nowhere’ gimmick hasn’t taken off for everyone,” writes VICE.
In September 2020, Singapore Airlines had to cancel its roundabout flight following condemnation from environmental experts and activists. In a statement, environmental activism group SG Climate Rally accused the service of “encouraging carbon-intensive travel for no good reason.”
As a response to the controversies surrounding the ethical problem posed by such service, Qantas claimed in the lead-up to its first flight to nowhere that it would offset 100 per cent of the carbon emissions. Of course, not everyone was satisfied with this solution.
“This flight may go nowhere but planet-wrecking emissions have to go somewhere. That somewhere is straight into the atmosphere where they contribute to climate breakdown,” a spokesperson for Australian environmental organisation Friends of the Earth told CNN Travel last year. “With the climate crisis as severe as it is, we need to keep flight numbers below what they were before the coronavirus pandemic, not add more on what is essentially the definition of a pointless trip.”
As if that wasn’t enough, it’s been recently reported that some of the airline companies offering flights to nowhere, such as Air Busan, were only doing so to allow passengers to benefit from duty free shopping. “The Air Busan flight, organised by Lotte Duty Free for its VIP customers, was Hyun Jung-a’s first since the pandemic began and it didn’t cost her a cent. Because the route briefly departed Korean airspace and went over a Japanese island, the 130 passengers on board qualified to shop at duty-free stores in Seoul typically reserved for people who have travelled internationally,” wrote Executive Traveller.
Seven South Korean carriers have operated these flights, carrying about 8,000 passengers in total.
“I feel so guilty.”
I’m on a video call with a friend, let’s call him Sid, who works as cabin crew for a major airline. He’s generation Z and has a plant-based diet. He tells me he tried to eat scallops the other night when he landed late in France. He couldn’t do it, felt too bad. Instead, he picked at the carrot puree underneath and forgot about the seafood. Sid feels bad about consuming animal products, and about contributing to food waste, but he feels worse about his carbon-intensive job. It’s an inescapable web of shame.
“I do feel guilty that flying is just doing so much damage. I always think, when we’re coming into land and we have to wait for half an hour while we loop around a holding pattern…how much fuel is this burning?”
Sid wanted to vote for the Green Party in the upcoming European Parliament elections, until he heard the party recommend that people limit themselves to one flight a year. “I just can’t get behind that”, he sighs.
Taking climate action means readdressing the foundations of our identities. It starts with flying. When I was growing up I was told that travelling would make me a well-rounded, employable person. I was promised that the only way to truly understand a culture or to learn a language was by jumping on a plane to whichever destination I felt inclined towards. If there were one thing I knew I wanted when I grew up, it was to feel the glamour of being a frequent flyer. It was the narrative of the educated and of the well-to-do. Arriving by plane makes any entrance grander. Planes make people feel important.
Now the narrative has, rightly so, shifted dramatically. Our educated friends in Sweden have begun a phenomenon called ‘flygskam’ or ‘flying shame’. Social stigma in Sweden surrounding flying has led to a sharp drop in the number of aeroplane passengers in recent months, prompting airlines to up their efforts to reduce emissions, or at least pretend to, as all the best green-washing corporations do.
I’m not here to talk economics, although the sheer financial fuckery of a world where rich people have decided flying isn’t cool anymore hits me when Sid suggests I Google ‘flightradar24’. It’s a web tracking tool which shows all the flights in the world in real-time. Thousands of pixelated yellow planes shuffle and stutter over a green and blue map of the world. It’s astounding to think of all those goods and people above us, whose livelihoods depend on fuel-guzzling jumbo jets.
Climate change is hard for Sid and I to talk about. I’m a climate researcher with the luxury of taking the moral high-ground because my job allows me to do so. Frequent flying has been a part of my social makeup, but I’m leaving it behind. I’ve stopped taking weekend trips and city breaks that rely on short-haul flights. Where I can, I take the train, even though it is often more expensive to do so. I console Sid by telling him I had a beef roast the other Sunday.
I ask him, aside from guilt and shame, how the recent school strikes and Extinction Rebellion protests made him feel. He tells me that during the protests there had been a rumour one morning that activists were going to chain themselves to the runway. As Sid belted himself in, ready for take-off, he prayed silently for the activists to go ahead and lie down on the tarmac to halt the take-off. I see that the idea of just one day without flights emissions from Heathrow fills him with a feeling of relief and hope. Sid’s colleagues apparently grumbled at the protests, found them pesky, but I wonder how many of them also turned secret wishes for the environment over in their minds as they ascended towards the sky.
This week, climate activist and journalist Naomi Klein tweeted powerfully in response to Democrat Joe Biden’s plans to craft a middle-ground climate policy: “No Joe, there is no ‘middle ground’ on climate breakdown—there is bold, transformative action or there is sinking ground, burning ground and churning ground.”
There is no middle ground. We have to change today, but that means continuing to open up dialogue, especially with people whose jobs prevent them from taking the type of climate action they’d like to. If we can’t have middle of the ground solutions then perhaps we can have middle of the ground listening. Sid’s grateful for the climate strikes, if activists hadn’t taken bold action, he points out, we wouldn’t be having this difficult discussion.
Shame locks lips and stifles empathy. Shaming is often a pastime of the most privileged. For many, it’s not that they won’t change, it’s that they can’t, yet. Sid loves the earth, but he loves his livelihood too. It’s not about greed for Sid, it’s about putting plant-based food on the plate.