SYDNEY - Australia's national carrier, Qantas, has been running passenger flights for 98 years, yet its fastest-selling flight turned out to be a journey that goes nowhere.
The airline, which has been heavily hit by the Covid-19 pandemic, will conduct a seven-hour scenic voyage next Saturday (Oct 10) that will take off from Sydney, fly over sights such as the Great Barrier Reef and Uluru, and then return to Sydney.
The 134 tickets aboard the B-787 Dreamliner cost A$787 to A$3,787 ($770 to $3,700). The flight sold out in just 10 minutes, making it "probably the fastest-selling flight in Qantas history", according to a spokesman.
But the so-called Great Southern Land flight has caused a backlash over concerns that it will unnecessarily emit carbon pollution.
The group Flight Free Australia, which campaigns for non-polluting transport options, called for a ban on such "nowhere" flights.
"Qantas' 'flights to nowhere' should be renamed 'flights to a hotter planet'," a spokesman, Mr Mark Carter, told The Straits Times.
"The passengers on Qantas' initial flight to nowhere will increase their emissions for a whole year by 10 per cent in just seven hours - helping kill the Great Barrier Reef they view from their windows."
An online petition has been launched to urge Qantas and Prime Minister Scott Morrison to prevent future "pointless and polluting nowhere flights". As of Saturday (Oct 3), the petition had about 800 signatures.
Others, however, suggested that the flight, which will be carbon-neutral through support for emission offsets, could help to spur tourism and boost the struggling airline sector. Qantas has already cut 6,000 jobs and is expected to further lay off about 2,500 staff as it struggles to deal with the curbs on foreign and interstate travel.
A travel writer, Mr Ben Groundwater, said he believed the scenic flights have "plenty of positive effects" that may outweigh the negatives. He pointed to the need to save Qantas jobs and suggested that flights over threatened regions such as the Great Barrier Reef might encourage people to care more about protecting them.
"The opportunity to see these wonders from the air is a unique one, and the perfect way to showcase their beauty and their fragility," he wrote on Australia's Traveller website.
"A carbon-neutral flight over a natural wonder of the world - a flight, it should be said, full of people who won't trample on the earth, won't leave footprints, won't bother the wildlife or desecrate sacred land - is not the worst idea anyone ever had."
Qantas initially indicated it may consider further scenic flights. But a spokesman told ST that there are currently no further planned scenic flights.
While airlines must face the grim reality that air travel may not return to pre-pandemic levels for years, Australia's travel sector is slowly starting to resume as Covid-19 numbers recede.
On Saturday (Oct 3), the country recorded 10 new cases of Covid-19, eight of which involved community transmissions, all of them in Victoria, where case numbers have plunged.
In total, Australia has recorded 27,121 Covid-19 cases.
Singapore announced this week that it will allow travellers from Australia, except Victoria, to enter from next Thursday. Australia's federal government also announced on Friday that the state of New South Wales and the Northern Territory will allow New Zealanders to visit without needing to quarantine from Oct 16.
New Zealand will continue to bar travellers from Australia and will require returnees to quarantine, but there are hopes that the New Zealand government may consider lifting these restrictions after the country's election on Oct 17.
In other hopeful signs, Canberra is also in discussion with Pacific countries about setting up travel bubbles that would allow travellers between the destinations to avoid quarantine.
Australians have been finding other ways to satisfy their craving to again experience airline travel.
For those who miss airline meals, an inflight caterer, Gate Gourmet, has been selling sets of frozen meal packs, which can be collected from airports in Brisbane and Sydney.