A “flight to nowhere” for lifestyle bloggers and influencers arranged free of charge by the low-cost sister airline of Cathay Pacific has drawn criticism amid looming job cuts at Hong Kong’s flag carrier and growing environmental unease over the global trend for the aerial jaunts.
HK Express said Thursday’s preview flight would allow key drivers of public opinion to experience the joy of flying again – following months of pandemic-related restrictions largely grounding services – before the opportunity was extended to the general public.
The budget airline revealed last week it was offering three 90-minute “nowhere” commercial flights in early November. All 360 tickets put on sale last Friday were sold out in 90 minutes.
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HK Express is the latest in a string of airlines operating services departing from and arriving at the same city, offering in-flight sightseeing opportunities.
The new bid to generate extra revenue comes as global airlines continue to suffer from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic, which has drastically cut the number of travellers going abroad.
The HK Express move has been panned by some working for its parent company, Cathay Pacific, which is in the limelight ahead of an expected announcement of massive job cuts.
A Cathay insider familiar with management’s thinking said: “What value and what gain can you make from operating these nowhere flights, especially when you’re not in a stable financial situation? What are you trying to generate when business isn’t coming back?”
Another said: “It’s bad timing. Especially when their sister airlines are making people redundant.”
HK Express told the Post that Thursday’s flight was a preview for the commercial ones, which would allow people “to rediscover the joy of flying”.
The company said the preview event “allows us to specifically engage industry partners and influencers in order to provide them with first-hand experience of the robust preventive measures … on all our flights, to help provide reassurance to the general public that their health and safety remains our top priority.”
Members of the public pay as little as HK$388 (US$44) for the flight, during which social-distancing rules are observed, while the influencers taking part are not charged. But the ticket revenue would need to cover the costs of running all four flights.
John Strickland, of JLS Consulting, said such flights were a publicity exercise and represented a “very marginal use of the phenomenal spare capacity”, given airlines globally had grounded so many planes.
For HK Express to cover its costs, it would “really depend on the price and on whether they succeed in selling all offered seats,” Strickland said.
HK Express declined to comment on the cost of operating the four flights without in-flight meals, or the revenue it would generate.
“Due to commercial confidentiality, we are unable to disclose any revenue and cost figures of this campaign,” it said.
The airline reiterated its green credentials, adding it would fully offset its carbon emissions.
An equivalent 90-minute flight, from Hong Kong to Kaohsiung, emits 0.06 tonnes of carbon dioxide, according to Cathay, but it is unclear if that calculation is based on a narrowbody or larger twin-aisle jet, or whether the plane is full or not.
HK Express did not comment on the carbon footprint of the three public “nowhere” flights, with middle seats left empty, while it is unclear how many influencers will board the preview flight.
Edwin Lau Che-feng, founder and executive director of The Green Earth, said: “Why can’t they design some initiatives that will do no harm to the environment and at the same time gain buy-in by customers and the public?”
He added: “The operating cost of doing this [preview flight] is an extra cost for the company amid the financial difficulties, and I can’t understand any financial controller in a big company would agree this is doing any good.”
Australia’s Qantas has also launched a “nowhere” flight. Its scenic seven-hour Boeing 787 Dreamliner flight, which sold out in 10 minutes, took off last Saturday with 150 on board, flying over landmarks including the Great Barrier Reef, Sydney Harbour and Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock.
Opting for a more environmentally friendly approach, Singapore Airlines (SIA) on Monday sold out in 30 minutes more than 900 spots to enjoy lunch aboard a grounded Airbus A380.
Diners stumped up as much as S$642 (HK$3,661) for a suite or S$53.50 for an economy meal experience. The interest was so strong that SIA added two more weekend dates across the four days earmarked for the event.
HK Express has suffered greatly at the hands of Covid-19.
Its 24-strong Airbus fleet was completely grounded from late March to early August as Hong Kong barred non-residents from entering in most cases and imposed mandatory quarantine on arrivals, triggering a collapse in travel demand.
It also took a knock from the anti-government protests in Hong Kong over the second half of last year.
The Cathay Pacific Group is expected to unveil its restructuring plan shortly, though the low-cost brand is shielded from cuts, for now, after taking HK$28 million (US$3.61 million) in government wage subsidies on the basis it did not lay off staff. It has since applied for a second round of support.
HK Express has lost HK$1.03 billion since Cathay Pacific bought the budget carrier in July last year.
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