Indonesian Rubi Haliman, used to take to the skies four to six times a month for his work in the fisheries industry. But because of the coronavirus pandemic, the 51-year-old has been grounded since March. He misses flying so much that he has developed a new habit: ordering in-flight meals.
“I missed flying and seeing food carts moving in the aisle of the plane. [The food is] enough to overcome the feeling of missing in-flight meals,” said the frequent flier, who has already planned his next order from Aerofood ACS, the catering company for Indonesia’s flag carrier Garuda Indonesia. Having tried the spinach and pastrami quiche and a rice set (where the rice is cooked with kaffir lime leaves), Haliman now has his eyes on the nasi pandan (rice cooked with the juice from pandan leaves) set menu.
Unusual though it may be, Haliman is not alone. In fact, he only found out about this alternative culinary option when he saw a friend’s post about ordering airline food on Instagram. In the months since Covid-19 spread rapidly around the world, upending global travel in its wake, once avid travellers have been stuck at home pining for the days when they could jet off to beach destinations or for city trips.
Some countries with a larger hinterland have turned to domestic tourism, but the travel industry is largely muted and prospects of opening international borders now hinge on a reliable vaccine – which experts say is months or even a year away.
Leaving the likes of Haliman trying to scratch their travel itch with purchases from airlines that, in more normal times, they might never have given a second look. Korean Air, for example, has seen a surge in purchases of its Lego-like interlocking plastic brick toys of the airline’s B777 cabin and airport check-in zone, which it said have “attracted a lot of attention from the people who miss air travel”.
Some are even paying hundreds of dollars to take a flight that goes nowhere. On Saturday, Brunei Airlines launched its dine and fly sightseeing tour, an 85-minute trip over Brunei’s coast and the island of Borneo, complete with brunch and live commentary from the pilot. A week earlier, EVA Air’s Hello Kitty plane took off from Taiwan’s largest airport to fly over the northeast cape and circle Japan’s Ryukyu Islands before heading home.
While it is unclear how much Brunei Airlines’ flight to nowhere costs, EVA Air’s three-hour one set travellers back NT$5,288 (US$180) for economy class and NT$6,288 for business class. Both airlines’ inaugural flights to nowhere were full.
Other airlines have reacted by offering fresh merchandise to rid themselves of existing stock. Australia’s Qantas Airways started selling items that they typically give away for free on flights – a “care package” of 12 Tim Tams, 10 tea bags, business class pyjamas, an amenity kit, and 200g of almonds normally found in first class were put on sale for A$25 (US$18).
The airline had an oversupply of these items anyway, given that, as it said, “all Qantas international flights and the majority of domestic flights [are] currently suspended”. Qantas told Bloomberg that the packages sold out within hours of their August 14 launch.
In Hong Kong, Cathay Pacific now offers takeaway lunches to people working near the airport in need of meals to go through its subsidiary Cathay Pacific Catering Services. For HK$40 (US$5) per meal box, those working in the area can have either beef noodles, pasta, Indian curry fish and rice, or chicken and chestnut with steamed rice, complete with choice of a drink.
Wong King Yin, a lecturer at Nanyang Technological University who specialises in tourism, said it was unlikely that the sale of these retail items could shore up airlines’ earnings, which have plummeted sharply during the pandemic.
Cathay Pacific, for example, operated just 4 per cent of their normal passenger flight capacity in June – representing a 99.1 per cent decrease compared to the same period last year – and expects to incur a “substantial loss for the first half of 2020”. Singapore Airlines, which isn’t selling any in-flight offerings, reported a S$1.12 billion (US$818.2 million) net loss in the first quarter, and Qantas’ full-year net profits dropped 91 per cent drop to AU$124 million (US$88.8 million) as of June.
What selling merchandise and other items does, Wong said, is keep airlines’ brands active in consumers’ and travellers’ minds.
“The airlines have a group of very loyal customers who may want to collect something from the brand they feel they belong to. Like companies building relationships with customers by sending birthday cards or Christmas cards, or selling souvenirs, it can help keep the bond with customers,” she said. “Maybe customers buy because it is a novel experience and they haven’t travelled for long so that they miss those parts.”
Haliman, for example, misses flying to the extent that he thinks the aeroplane food tastes better now. “Perhaps because in the air, the sensitivity of the five senses, especially the sense of taste, decreases,” he said.