COVID-19 SPECIAL

On board a 'moon-gazing' flight to nowhere in Taiwan during Mid-Autumn Festival

More than 300 passengers were on board EVA Air's Mid-Autumn Festival "flight to nowhere" around Taiwan to get a good glimpse of the full moon.
The full moon can be seen from the cockpit on EVA Air's first "flight to nowhere" over the Mid-Autumn Festival long weekend.
The full moon can be seen from the cockpit on EVA Air's first "flight to nowhere" over the Mid-Autumn Festival long weekend.PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI/EVA AIR
The full moon hangs over Taipei City, taken through a plane window on the moon-gazing flight EVA Air launched over the past weekend.
The full moon hangs over Taipei City, taken through a plane window on the moon-gazing flight EVA Air launched over the past weekend.PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI/EVA AIR
Eleven ladies sharing the same name as the Chinese moon goddess Chang'e pose together for a photo before boarding their moon-gazing flight.
Eleven ladies sharing the same name as the Chinese moon goddess Chang'e pose together for a photo before boarding their moon-gazing flight.PHOTO: EVA AIR

TAOYUAN - I had never seen the airport this empty.

Taoyuan International Airport is Taiwan's main gateway to international travel, with over 48 million travellers passing through its doors in 2019. But over the Mid-Autumn Festival long weekend - usually prime time for people to make a short trip to nearby Japan, South Korea or South-east Asian countries - the airport was eerily quiet.

It was also the first time I was going on a flight with just a small bag that contained my passport, notebook and pen. I was taking a three-hour flight around the island of Taiwan on Thursday (Oct 1) night, taking off and landing at the same airport.

Such flights to nowhere is the newest fad Taiwan's air carriers are promoting.

To keep out Covid-19 cases, the government had closed the borders early in March, banning foreign travellers from entering or even transiting in Taiwan. While there was no strict law to restrict Taiwanese from travelling overseas, most people would opt not to travel because of the mandatory quarantine upon return.

The flight I was taking was the first of four "moon-gazing" flights during the Oct 1-3 perriod that EVA Air designed especially for the Mid-Autumn Festival when the moon was full and bright.

An economy-class ticket cost NT$5,888 (S$278), with a window seat going for NT$1,000 more. Tickets for business class were NT$7,888 each.

Passengers had to show their passports, go through Customs and got to enjoy duty-free shopping.

The aircraft used by EVA Air was not one of the small 78-seater turboprops that Taiwan's airlines usually deploy for domestic flights, but a Boeing 787 Dreamliner built for ultra-long-haul journeys.


The meals served on the "flights to nowhere" are displayed outside the boarding gate on Oct 1. PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI/EVA AIR

Except there was no real destination to get to, which is really the best part about travelling.

Because of this, I found the whole trip rather pointless - Taiwan is an archipelago, and with domestic flights still going strong, there are many smaller islands to travel to if one is bored of getting stuck at home.

 
 
 

Book a flight to nearby Penghu islands and you will be there in an hour, with the same moon outside your plane window and a snorkelling spot right outside your bed-and-breakfast inn.

But I was clearly alone in this thought.

"It's a full flight tonight. Actually, all three nights," Mr Larry Lai, EVA Air's public relations assistant manager, told me.

The Boeing 787 Dreamliner was packed to capacity, with over 300 people who practically jumped at the opportunity once EVA announced the programme late last month.

After getting my boarding pass, I walked through the security check and cleared customs within a minute. Strolling through the airport leisurely and enjoying the absence of hurrying travellers was something of a treat.

There was excitement at the boarding gate, where people were tripping over each other to take photos with the plane in the background, while holding little signs that the airline had provided for the occasion.

There were families of three generations, couples young and old, and groups of friends who were all armed with fancy photography gear.

EVA Air brought in a string quartet from the company's symphony orchestra to play moon-themed classics such as Fly Me to the Moon and The Moon Represents My Heart, but the pre-boarding highlight was the gathering of female passengers who shared the same name as the moon goddess Chang'e of Chinese folklore.


EVA Air invited a string quartet from its own symphony orchestra to play for the passengers before they boarded at Taoyuan International Airport. PHOTO: EVA AIR

There were 11 people with that name, and each was presented with a model of the Boeing 787 airplane.

One of them was Ms Wu Chang'e, who was travelling with her daughter Chen Shu-chuan. Ms Chen, 51, said: "I immediately got tickets after seeing this promotion! We've been dying to travel abroad. The last time we went anywhere was when I took my family to Hokkaido last October."

There was temperature-taking at the airport before the flight.

After boarding, we were each given a gift bag that had a toiletries kit, hand sanitiser, a deck of playing cards and a certificate holder that we could tape our boarding pass to, which the middle-aged couple next to me enthusiastically did once they sat down.

They told me their daughter worked as a ground crew member at EVA Air. Though Taiwan's airlines saw no pandemic-induced lay-offs this year, Ms Cheng Yun-ru, 55, thought the trip would be a good way to support her daughter's company.

"Planes are like cars, they need to be maintained even if they're not being flown. Why not get a fun trip out of it?" she said.

The plane took off at 6.30pm, and for a minute, it did feel like I was actually going somewhere.

Although mask-wearing was mandatory, no social distancing was required on the plane. The vague sense of normalcy was comforting, and perhaps much needed for these people who were lucky enough to snag a ticket.

 
 

There were 18 cabin crew members, four more than a usual flight on a Boeing 787.

"This is much better than the first time, we're less tense tonight," said cabin crew Mira Chuang, who was referring to the Father's Day flight around Taiwan that EVA rolled out in August.

The pilot and co-pilot took turns announcing over the intercom the sites that the plane would be passing over, including the Lanyang Plains on Taiwan's north-eastern coast, Penghu islands and Taiwan's southernmost point.

The moon was not always visible, but each time the plane flew in an angle that made it appear, the pilot would announce it. The passengers would rush to the windows, with little regard for those in the window seats, including me.


The full moon hangs over Taipei City, taken through a plane window on the moon-gazing flight EVA Air launched over the past weekend. PHOTO: KATHERINE WEI/EVA AIR

Ms Cheng's husband, who sat in the aisle seat with his wife in between us, stretched out and leaned over me multiple times as he tried to take the best shot of the moon, but without success because of the harsh reflection on the window.

The couple sitting in front of us devised a clever plan: the wife held a blanket over her husband, forming a "tent" over him and the window. He snapped away madly.

The pilot took special care to tilt the plane in various angles so that everyone got a good view of the moon and cityscapes.

Dinner was a choice between Japanese or Chinese food. The Japanese meal set was designed by Michelin-star restaurant owner Hajime Nakamura, and the Chinese option was from local restaurant chain Din Tai Fung. Both came with a mooncake.

By the fifth time Ms Cheng's husband knocked into me with his outstretched arm, the plane was ready to land at 9.30pm.

After the plane touched down, Ms Chu Tsai-hong, who was seated in front of me, exclaimed: "We were promised about 1,500 kilometres, but we got 1,646 instead!"