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Airlines Offering 'Flights To Nowhere' Amid COVID-19 Travel Restrictions

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

How are people who love travel coping during a pandemic that has left a lot of us stuck at home, a lot of borders closed. Right? Well, they are coping not well. Some airlines in Asia are trying to offer a solution - flights to nowhere. Seriously, these flights start and end at the exact same airport. A skeptical Michael Sullivan investigated.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHIME)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Non-English language spoken).

MICHAEL SULLIVAN, BYLINE: It's late afternoon, and I'm standing in Bangkok's Don Mueang Airport waiting to board my flight home to Chiang Rai. It's about an hour north. The airport is about half full. The Thai government still isn't allowing foreign flights in due to COVID, but people here can get where they need to go in Thailand as long as they wear masks. And if the weather's good, the flight home's a nice one. It's got a good view of the mountains on our descent. And the best part - I'm going home. But this idea of getting on a plane to nowhere just because you're bored, I'm not getting it.

WILLY KONG: When you say you don't get it, I would say try. Try it.

SULLIVAN: Willy Kong is a 27-year-old vlogger in the tiny Southeast Asian nation of Brunei and a self-described travel junkie. He got his fix on an 85-minute-long Royal Brunei trip to nowhere last month.

KONG: The best moment was when the plane pushed back from the airport and actually departed and take off. Yeah, that's where like, OK, we're really going for a holiday or really going to somewhere else. And yep, that's the most exciting part.

SULLIVAN: His fiancee, Lily, was less excited because it was her birthday, and she accused Kong of getting her a present that was really for him.

KONG: We had to arrive at the airport at around 9 a.m. So we could only sleep, like, around 3 a.m. So she was like, oh, no - no, I'm going to get so tired. I'm going to sleep in the plane. Like, why am I actually going on a plane that goes nowhere and eating plane food when I can get a better food for my birthday? (Laughter).

SULLIVAN: But once she boarded and started taking pictures and sending them to friends, she was all in, he says. Airlines in Taiwan and Japan have offered similar flights. Australia's Qantas offered a seven-hour-long flight over the weekend, offering views of some of the country's biggest tourist attractions, including the Great Barrier Reef and Sydney Harbor. Qantas says it sold out in 10 minutes.

WILLEM NIEMEIJER: I think there's a lot of pent-up demand, but I think there's a very limited scope of people that want to do this.

SULLIVAN: Willem Niemeijer is the founder and CEO of Yaana Ventures, an eco-friendly travel company specializing in Southeast Asia.

NIEMEIJER: From an airline perspective - I'm not an airline man, but what I understand is the pilots, in order to keep their licenses, they need to make certain hours. So maybe they make some hay while they have to make their hours anyway.

SULLIVAN: Critics, though, have cried foul over the environmental impact of flights to nowhere, which led Singapore Airlines to scrap its plans for one, though it is offering customers an airline dinner service aboard a grounded Airbus at Singapore's Changi Airport. And that Qantas flight? Willy Kong seriously wants in.

KONG: I do (laughter).

SULLIVAN: You'd go in a minute?

KONG: Yep.

SULLIVAN: And yes, he did buy his fiancee a proper birthday meal after they landed.

For NPR News, I'm Michael Sullivan in Chiang Rai.

(SOUNDBITE OF EL TEN ELEVEN'S "PETER AND JACK") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.