When Australia’s Qantas Airways announced “flights to nowhere” earlier in September, there was palpable excitement on social media. These flights would take passengers “sightseeing”, essentially to nowhere – meaning, flights would take off and land in the same airport. The announcement was made amid ban on international flights and severe border restrictions on inter-state air travel within Australia.
On 19 September, when the tickets for “flights to nowhere” opened, they were sold out within 10 minutes – making it the “fastest selling flight” in the history of the airlines.
But can India’s Air India take a leaf out of Qantas and promise “flights to nowhere” to its leisure travellers now facing months with no international flying?
Air India’s ‘Scenic Joy Flights’ Plan
Air India has indicated that they are exploring the possibility of starting such flights in India, with ‘scenic joy flights’ undertaking low-flying expeditions and giving passengers an aerial tour of famous spots in India. An official told The Quint that talks are underway and announcements will be made if and when they decide to go ahead with the plan.
Apart from Australia, countries including Singapore, Taiwan, Japan and Brunei are already operating different versions of these joy flights. But experts warn that such flights may not be fruitful for both passengers and airlines in India.
Speaking to The Quint, former Air India Executive Director Jitender Bhargava explained that in most places where the “joy flight” concept exists, there is a curb on both domestic and international travel. In India, he adds that there are no restrictions per se.
"“In countries like Australia, people have been locked for more than six months. They can’t take flights to anywhere – even within the country. So it makes sense to take a flight and go nowhere because people miss the idea of travelling. When you promise masks, social distancing and being back in your homes within three hours, it is appealing. But why would you see the Taj from 10,000 feet above the ground when you can visit Agra and return without any restrictions in 48 hours?”" - Jitender Bhargava
Another country where such flights are now popular is Singapore. In pre-pandemic days, Singaporeans would take flights only for international travel as domestic travel via air is not possible in the tiny island nation.
Echoing Bharghava, K Srinivasan, editor of aviation magazine ‘Cruising Heights’, said that in India, flights have traditionally been used only when essential.
“I don’t know if people will be keen on the idea, even if we were not in the middle of a pandemic. India has always been a price-sensitive market – with people not willing to pay beyond a certain range, even if extra services are offered. So if you ask me if people will pay, I am skeptical,” says Srinivasan.
‘Only Minuscule Indians Can Afford the Luxury’
A lot of resources come into play while organising such flights, explains a senior official in a private airlines, adding that a clear-cut plan must be in place before any decision is made.
“Yes, you have the flights. You have your pilots and cabin crew. But you need to arrive at a pricing that will be beneficial to both the airlines and the travellers. Even this would likely to be on a higher side. Without a win-win, it will only lead to more draining of financial resources of the airlines concerned,” he said.
Tickets for Qantas Airways for its flight to nowhere ranged in price from 787 to 3,787 Australian dollars – roughly translating from Rs 40,000 to Rs 1.95 lakh.
According to Bhargava, the idea would interest only a minuscule number of people in the country.
"“A large chunk of senior citizens have been asked to strictly stay indoors. Younger people have either lost jobs or are taking pay cuts. So people cannot afford this, even if they find the idea exciting. After all this, they should also be willing to go nowhere, with all the health risks that come with it.”" - Jitendra Bharghav
However, speaking to The New York Times, Bengaluru-based travel agent Lovleen Arun, who organises luxury trips, said that she’s been hearing from many of her clients that they are willing to undertake such trips.
“One of my clients said just a few days ago, ‘All I want is to be in a window seat and see clouds go by. I miss that sight. I just want white fluffy clouds!’ Some people just want to drag their bags through the airport and go check them in,” she told the newspaper.
Revival of Domestic Airlines Since May 2020
The aviation industry is one of the worst-hit due to the coronavirus pandemic. People have been repeatedly advised by both healthcare professionals and others to avoid unnecessary travel in order to curb the spread of the virus.
Carriers can actually run 1,500 flights or about 45 percent of pre-COVID tally. However, despite the extension on flight numbers from 33 percent to 45 percent, airlines are still operating only 750-800 flights per day – with an average of only 60 percent of the seats full. Therefore, the supply is already more than the demand.
Nishant Pitti, co-founder of EaseMyTrip, agrees that the recovery is still a long road ahead.
“There has been a 25-40 percent revival of the market. The day bookings opened in May, as a platform we saw the highest sale of tickets ever. But our August 2020 sale is only 45 percent of August 2019 sale. The recovery is slow but it is very much happening,” he said.
Pitti said that while the first few weeks showed that people preferred to go from non-metros to metros (for example, from Patna to Delhi), the metro to metro flights are now the most preferred with only Delhi-Mumbai flights showing full capacity on a consistent basis.
“While ‘flight to nowhere’ might seem a dodgy plan, such new ideas are very much required so that you create some energy and excitement, something the industry very much needs. The pandemic has made everyone gloomy and something like this can lift spirits and is a good experiment,” concludes Srinivasan.
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