Before the pandemic made a mess of our habits, the Hong Kong Express Airways Limited fleet flew over ten Asian countries, from China to Japan to Thailand. Now, its planes take off from its main hub, the Hong Kong International Airport, to fly around the city in circles. The campaign is called #UOFlycation, and the planes fly to nowhere.
On 1 October 1946, one of the first films about nuclear espionage was released in the United States. Just a year had passed since the atomic bomb had been dropped, the war was over but no one felt at peace. On the poster, a mushroom-shaped explosion formed the background to the film’s title: Flight to Nowhere.
The flight that flies to nowhere has reappeared in the following century. And it did so during a period psychologically accompanied by a sense of proximity to the apocalypse. This time, it is a tangible flight, though — beyond the screen and out of metaphor. The year is 2020.
Before the pandemic made a mess of our habits, the Hong Kong Express Airways Limited fleet of Airbus A320s flew over ten Asian countries, from China to Japan to Thailand. It is a low cost airline founded in 2004, the younger sister of the Hong Kong national airline (i.e., Cathay Pacific).
Since mid-October, its planes have been taking off from the main hub, the Hong Kong International Airport, to fly around the city in circles. The campaign is called #UOFlycation, its subtitle reads “Rediscover the joy of travelling” and 110 passengers were on board for the maiden flight. They paid 388 local dollars (about 43 Euro) to watch and film Hong Kong from above. And to then return to the ground in the very same place they had boarded.
The company stated that this should be understood as a warm-up for the passengers, with a view to a return to normality — of travelling, and beyond.
HK Express is just one of the companies in the world that have taken action to arrange this type of flight. By the end of summer, for example, All Nippon Airways had already entertained three hundred passengers with a “Hawaiian resort” themed flight over the Japanese archipelago.
It seems very unlikely for other carriers not to pile up with the list. As early as September, travel agencies were already finding interest for this kind of experience in both India and the United States. Protests from local environmental movements, however, have managed to prevent Singapore Airlines from joining.
Royal Brunei is one of the pioneers of this phenomenon: since August, it has been offering its journeys without destination (furthermore, it did not even ask passengers to wear masks). However, the Taiwanese Eva Air had ranked first for a few days, setting up a non-stop “Hello Kitty” themed flight on 8 August (the local Father’s Day), which moved over the Taiwanese coast and pushed on to the Japanese Ryukyu Islands before coming back.
An institution like Australia’s Qantas prefers to call them “scenic flights” and articulates them in a more complex way. A seven-hour non-stop flight in the Australian skies, from Sydney to Uluru and back, costs 787 Australian dollars (about 475 Euro) minimum. One has time to photograph Ayers Rock without even getting one’s shoes dirty. It looks like the near future of air travel: from a distance and for a few pockets. Being able to testify that one’s been there — but without moving from the seat cushions with the name of the flight embroidered on them for the occasion.
Those on board spoke of a “joyful and exciting” atmosphere. Obviously, at a time when everything is experience (think of the Airbnb obsession with this concept), Qantas’ communication insists that this is an alternative “flight experience”. For the company’s first scenic flight, all 134 seats were sold in ten minutes.
Sebastien Filep, a Professor at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University, sees an explanation for the increased desire to escape due to pandemic constraints.
As the New York Times pointed out, global civil aviation produced 918 million tonnes of carbon dioxide in 2018. The contagiousness of the COVID-19 virus does not even beed to be mentioned.
Therefore, in the age of ecological awareness and in the months in which the world has had to adapt to the so-called social distancing, it is really difficult to find a justification in T. S. Eliot’s famous phrase, “The journey, not the destination matters”. Nor does it seem to be consistent with the verse in which the Colle der Fomento*** said: “To travel standing still is the best”.
Because every flight to nowhere manages to pollute and assemble people at the same time. And without even responding to the function of an aeroplane, i.e., to shorten the space to move people or goods.
If extracting value from immobility is a new frontier, it smells like a pond someone is ransacking with a makeshift stick.