From trips to nowhere to ‘flying lessons’, how airlines are keeping afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic

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SINGAPORE: As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to take its toll on the aviation industry, many airlines are attempting to redirect operations and manpower to stay afloat.

Carriers such as Singapore Airlines, Qantas and EVA Air have started offering services such as tours, dining experiences, and flights that take off and land in the same place.

Here are some of the ways airlines are generating revenue amid the pandemic:

AIRPLANE FOOD, BUT GROUNDED

Missing the experience of dining on a plane?

SIA is offering a chance to relive the experience onboard its A380 superjumbo aircraft without having to leave the ground.

Prices start at S$50 for a three-course meal in economy class and S$90 for premium economy at SIA’s Restaurant [email protected]

SIA business class dining

Business class dining on a Singapore Airlines flight. (Photo: Singapore Airlines)

Those who feel like splurging can spring for the S$300 business class meal or S$600 in suites.

READ: Business class lunch in SIA’s A380 to cost S$300 as airline unveils pricing of new initiatives

Options for the economy and premium economy classes include Western, Peranakan and Japanese cuisine. For business class and suites diners, the four-course meal includes options such as lobster thermidor and beef fillet.

Bookings for the restaurant sold out in just half an hour after bookings opened on Oct 12, but the airline subsequently opened additional seatings to cater to high demand.

READ: SIA adds 2 more days, additional seatings for A380 restaurant experience

SIA is also offering a home dining service, with prices starting at S$288 for a business class meal for two.

The menus are designed by renowned chefs from France, Japan, Australia and India, and include options such as Hanakoireki, Kyo-kaiseki, poached lobster and roasted lamb loin. 

Diners can also opt to book a private chef to prepare the meal for them at home.

In Bangkok, the headquarters of national carrier Thai Airways was transformed into an airline-themed restaurant, where customers can enjoy in-flight meals without stepping into a plane.

Customers eat at Thai Airways pop-up airplane-themed restaurant at the airlines headquarters with o

Customers eat at the Thai Airways pop-up restaurant at the airline’s headquarters in Bangkok. (Photo: Reuters)

Diners are greeted by cabin crew in full uniform upon entering the restaurant, which has been decorated with airplane parts and seats.

Thai Airways has said there are plans to turn their other offices into similar dining experiences.

READ: Thai Airways opens diner in Bangkok office for customers craving in-flight meals

FLIGHTS TO NOWHERE

With borders closed due to the pandemic, many people have been unable to hop on a plane.

Airlines such as Qantas, Royal Brunei, All Nippon Airways and EVA Air have started offering “flights to nowhere”, which allow passengers to board and fly in a plane, but land in the same place it took off from. 

Royal Brunei has had at least five such flights since mid-August, in which passengers are served local cuisine while flying over the country.

READ: It’s a flight that goes nowhere, and it’s completely sold out

Taiwan’s EVA Air filled 309 seats on a Hello Kitty-themed A330 Dream jet for Father’s Day, while Japan’s All Nippon Airways had a 90 minute Hawaiian resort-themed flight with 300 people on board.

TigerAir Taiwan took passengers on a sightseeing flight to South Korea’s Jeju, circling low to give them a chance to view the island before heading back to Taiwan.

READ: Taiwan travellers take sightseeing ‘flight to nowhere’

Meanwhile, a flight to nowhere offered by Australian carrier Qantas sold out in 10 minutes. The seven-hour flight will depart and land in Sydney, flying over the Northern Territory, Queensland and New South Wales.

Despite their popularity, such flights have received criticism including from environmental groups, who accuse them of being harmful to the environment. 

FLYING LESSONS

Those who have harboured dreams of flying a plane now have a chance to do so – using airline flight simulators.

Thai Airways is selling time on its flight simulators, allowing guests to control an A380 simulator for half an hour, for 20,000 baht (US$640).

Thailand Thai Airways

Customers are seen in an A380 flight simulator for a flying experience at the Thai Airways head office in Bangkok. (Photo: AP/Sakchai Lalit)

The cockpit used in the simulator is an exact copy of the real thing, even down to the feel of the buttons, pilots said.

Participants can choose to take off and land at an airport of their choosing, including those in Paris and Tokyo.

A four-day “pilot experience” package, which includes the simulator, is also being offered.

READ: Thai Airways ensures grounded flying fans can still take off

SIA is also selling a similar experience, as part of tours of its training facilities scheduled in November. The experience will cost an additional S$500, on top of the tour admission ticket.

REDEPLOYING CREW TO HOSPITALS AND NURSING HOMES

Hundreds of SIA cabin crew have been deployed to hospitals as “care ambassadors”, keeping them employed while contributing to the fight against coronavirus. 

Care ambassadors will provide administrative support and attend to patients who require routine medical care in a non-clinical role, the airline said in April.

This includes attending to call bells, helping patients sit up in bed, accompanying them to washrooms, serving meals and assisting during therapy sessions.

READ: COVID-19: Singapore Airlines to provide 300 ‘care ambassadors’ to fill manpower gap at hospitals

The programme was opened to cabin crew who are Singaporeans or permanent residents, who were required to undergo mandatory training conducted by the hospital.

Crew members have also been deployed to nursing homes including the Ren Ci Hospital branches in Ang Mo Kio and Bukit Batok. 

In March, British airlines such as Virgin Atlantic and easyJet have also asked workers to consider signing up to help at special coronavirus hospitals.

Crew members with crucial skills such as first aid and CPR were asked to help doctors and nurses at the Nightingale field hospitals in London, Manchester and Birmingham, the New York Post reported. Their duties included changing beds and other non-clinical tasks under the supervision of clinicians.

Staff and volunteers at the field hospitals were also offered free accommodation.

PIVOTING TO CARGO

With passenger numbers down, some airlines have taken to accepting more cargo on flights.

Among them is low-cost carrier Scoot, which modified one of its A320 planes earlier this year by removing all passenger seats to carry cargo in the cabin. This has doubled its cargo capacity to nearly 20 tonnes, it said.

READ: Scoot modifies A320 aircraft, removing passenger seats to double cargo capacity

The airline, which started operating cargo charters in May, previously secured cargo on passenger seats.

CEO Campbell Wilson said this is Scoot’s way of getting an “alternate revenue stream”.

13 tonnes of cargo were transported from Fuzhou to Singapore

A total of 13 tonnes of cargo were transported in both the bellyhold and the cabin, mainly goods for daily use. (Photo: Scoot)

Hong Kong’s Cathay Pacific said in August that it has also increased cargo-only flights as freight yields went up.

Cargo revenue accounted for 46 per cent of Cathay’s total sales in the first half of the year, topping passenger revenue.

READ: Cathay Pacific forecasts weak passenger demand but stronger cargo after record loss

Chief customer and commercial officer Ronald Lam said the cargo business peaked in May but yields remained high and the outlook heading into the peak Christmas season was positive.

OTHER INITIATIVES

Not all initiatives to raise revenue is connected flying.

Singapore Airlines on Tuesday rolled out a new app, which brings payment, lifestyle and rewards services into one platform for customers.

Kris+ offers food, shopping and entertainment discounts, and provides the option for customers to earn miles from everyday spending and make payments for these using their miles.  

Starting next year, Singapore residents who have installed the app may enjoy special offers and rewards overseas, when the app incorporates overseas partners and merchants in select destinations.

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