Trip Report: A Flight to Nowhere – HK Express’ Flycation

Since the pandemic began in 2020, Hong Kong’s inbound and outbound traveler numbers as well as its entire tourism sector have suffered massive declines.  With pandemic controls and inbound quarantine measures remaining in place well into 2022 without an end in sight, the city is one of a handful of places that remains largely isolated when it comes to travel.  In the past two years, only a tiny fraction of the usual number of Hong Kongers have dared leave the city, the fleets of local airlines have been stored or retired, and layoffs and shutdowns have plagued the tourism and aviation industries.  Unable to satisfy their normal propensity to travel, residents have been left feeling travel-starved.

In these two travelless years, a number of creative ideas have been born out of residents’ longing to travel and put offered by local businesses.  These included napping bus tours, cruises to nowhere, numerous local tours, and – the option most attractive to me as an aviation enthusiast – flights to nowhere.  While none of these come close to replacing the joys of travel, they at least became a talking point among residents who debated their wastefulness or attractiveness, provided some entertainment to those who partook, and brought a small amount of much needed business to the companies involved.

In mid-2020, I began seeing airlines in other closed-off regions like Japan, Singapore, Brunei, and Taiwan offering flights to nowhere providing a chance for those who missed flying to enjoy the airport and aircraft experience again.  I had a strong feeling this would come to Hong Kong eventually, but the government’s very cautious approach including gathering size limits and greater than zero COVID case numbers at the time surely prevented this from happening.

Failed Attempts

As case numbers dropped to low levels around the beginning of October 2020, I began religiously checking the social media accounts of local airlines to see if they made any announcements or hints about flights to nowhere.  Alas, I found out too late.  When a friend messaged me that HK Express was to operate three “Flycations” later that month, I soon realized all the tickets had sold out within a couple of hours.  Not to be outdone, Hong Kong Airlines announced a single similar “sunset flight” to take place even earlier than the HK Express trips.  It was sold out in mere minutes and I was again unable to snag a seat.

After these flights successfully operated and made some headlines in the local news, travel agencies began to organize Flycations of their own.  In fact, HK Express began marketing charter Flycations as a service to businesses looking to host corporate events or employee incentive trips in the air as well as travel agents putting together staycation packages including hotel stays, cable car tickets, meals, a Flycation flight, and other such arrangements.  At the time, aside from Flycations, HK Express was only operating a few flights per week to Taichung and Bangkok.

I found a Christmas Flycation package on offer from travel agency WWPKG and booked tickets right away, though they did require me to come in to their office in Tsim Sha Tsui to make payment.  It was to be my first time ever taking a flight on Christmas.  However, it was not to be as case numbers rose in early December 2020 causing increased social distancing measures to be mandated and the trip to be cancelled.  Aggravatingly, the travel agency was only willing to provide a credit for one year or a 50% refund of the package.

A chance to fly

As case numbers dropped to near zero in Spring 2021, I again began to hope for some chance to get off the ground.  Sure enough, as anti-COVID measures were relaxed, a different travel agency, EGL Tours, began offering a series of Flycations to be operated by HK Express in April.  I booked the first flight of the series and was able to complete the booking and payment online with just a few emails.  This agency essentially sold one block of three seats to each customer and you could choose whether to have a group of three or a group of two with an empty middle.  The only difference in total price was that if you opted to be a group of two, you would pay less in airport taxes.  I paid 1,788 Hong Kong Dollars for three seats and two passengers.

To be extra sure that this flight would have adequate passengers to go ahead, I posted about it in a Hong Kong aviation Facebook group hoping that some other enthusiasts might join.  A group member who I had communicated with before reached out to me and offered to join me in my row of seats.  This was easily communicated to the travel agency who updated the reservation with his details.

Flycation check-in counters with monitors showing destination: Hong Kong

Back to the airport

The day of the flight was cloudy, so it was unlikely we’d have any good views of Hong Kong on takeoff, but on the bright side the flight would be a chance to see some sunshine once we climbed on top of the clouds.  In the afternoon, I took the bus for the short ride from my home to the airport and met my travel companion near the check-in desks in the otherwise quiet terminal.  There were staff from the travel agency handing out goodie bags and nametags while directing passengers where to go.

Nametag to be worn identifying Flycation passengers

We were helped right away by an airline agent who printed our boarding passes for the flight from Hong Kong to Hong Kong Too.  We were not given any choice about where our seats would be and were assigned row 24 on the left side.  No checked baggage was allowed on this flight, though I did see one passenger asking if he could check something in.

The HK Express boarding pass lists the destination as Hong Kong Too

I was surprised to see that HK Express, at the time, was using SATS HK, a joint venture between Singapore Airlines and Hong Kong Airlines, as its ground handling agent rather than HAS, the ground handling subsidiary of HK Express’ parent company, Cathay Pacific.  After check-in was completed, groups of passengers were lined up by ground handling staff prior to the security checkpoint to be given a briefing.  As they assumed I wouldn’t understand Cantonese, another staff member repeated what was being said in English to me.  As we were not “normal” passengers, and we wouldn’t be subjected to quarantine upon landing, we’d need to be segregated from other departing and transiting passengers and, as such, after security and immigration formalities we’d be escorted directly to a gate at the end of the concourse that was cordoned off from other passengers.  We needed to remain with the group.

Gate 8 destination board

Festivities begin

The security check was normal and despite being on what is really a rare “domestic” Hong Kong flight, we still needed to hand over our documents to immigration to be registered as exiting Hong Kong.  After being escorted to Gate 8, we joined in the festive atmosphere that would persist for the rest of the trip.  In the gate area, HK Express and other airport vendors were selling airline memorabilia and gifts while passengers including some aviation enthusiasts took photos of our waiting aircraft.

HK Express Airbus A320neo
Vendors in the gate area

We would be flying on one of HK Express’ new Airbus A320neos.  I had flown with HK Express once before from Ningbo to Hong Kong on one of their A321s just before the pandemic hit and had flown on the A320neo with Qingdao Airlines and Volaris in the past.  Despite not being a new airline or aircraft type for me, I was in very good spirits to be about to board my first flight in 296 days, my longest stretch without flying since I was a child.  It would also be an interesting route addition to my passenger logbook – HKG-HKG.  Naturally, there were plenty of photo and social media opportunities with such a flight.  I took the opportunity to send my colleagues, some joking “I’m out of here!” messages.

Photo op set up by the travel agency

Boarding commenced in an orderly fashion, and we only needed to present our boarding card at the gate.  For some reason, my boarding pass caused a failure beep when scanned and I needed to be boarded in the system manually.  This was resolved quickly, but meant I only got to keep the stub of my boarding pass unlike other passengers who retained the whole card.

Gate podium and biometric boarding turnstile
View of B-LCQ from the jetbridge

Onboard experience

The crew appeared very happy to be working on this special flight and provided warm welcomes to everyone at the boarding door.  As I boarded, one flight attendant asked if I could speak Chinese and I replied that I could only speak Mandarin.  She mentioned that we might be playing some games during the flight in Cantonese, and I said that would be no problem since my friend could help me understand.  As far as I could tell, I was the only non-Asian passenger on the flight aside from one HK Express staff member.

Seating on HK Express

We found our seats and decided that I would take the window seat for takeoff as assigned on my boarding pass, then switch seats halfway so my companion could have the window for landing.

Legroom was acceptable on this A320neo

HK Express Airbus A320neo safety card

The flight was filled with families and elderly people along with a few who appeared to be aviation enthusiasts.  The row in front of us was occupied by three elderly gentlemen.  I could picture them usually spending their Sundays at yum cha together, but I suppose one of them found out about this flight somehow and they decided to do this instead.

Cabin being readied for departure
Ready for pushback

After pushback and engine start, we began our taxi to Runway 7R.  During this time, the gentleman in the seat ahead of mine became interested in chatting with me, asking where I am from and pointing out many landmarks on the airfield.  He appeared to be quite knowledgeable about the airport and its weather station.

Hong Kong Observatory facility at HKIA
Ready for my first flight in a long time

Upon reaching the runway, we immediately began our takeoff roll and were treated to a view of the many stored aircraft on the west remote stands as well as Terminal 1 and the construction sites of Terminal 2 and the third runway.  After catching a glimpse of the Gold Coast, we were in the clouds.  Despite having abstained from air travel for the better part of a year, it all felt so familiar almost like I hadn’t stopped travelling.

Aircraft parked at the HAECO engineering base
Stored aircraft at the midfield concourse, now used as a centre for on-arrival COVID testing
Overview of HKIA Terminal 1
Construction for Terminal 2 Landside and the third runway
Last view of land while climbing over Gold Coast

Flycation activities

Once we got on top of the clouds, the cabin crew and travel agency representatives started the festivities.  There was one very enthusiastic flight attendant who took on the role of emcee for the activities.

A very clear and blue day once out of the clouds
Passengers take in the view over the South China Sea

The only game we played onboard was passing a beach ball person to person from the back of the plane to the front while music played.  When the music stopped, whoever held the ball would get a prize from the travel agency.  As this flight was Japan themed and sponsored in part by a Japanese tourism board, most of the prizes were Japanese products or vouchers for Japanese restaurants.

The flight operated entirely within the Hong Kong Flight Information Region (FIR).  We flew southeast from HKG and made a 180-degree turn after about half an hour of flying.  I was hoping to catch a glimpse of the Dongsha Islands which we flew not too far from, but clouds and their small size prevented that.  As the game continued, I swapped seats with my friend in the aisle.

As we got closer to Hong Kong, the crew began selling products from the duty-free cart.  These were very popular among passengers and the crew barely finished serving half of the cabin before the announcement was made to prepare the cabin for landing.  The crew encouraged interested passengers to contact them on the ground to complete their purchases.

Cabin view during Flycation

While the weather hadn’t improved since an hour earlier, the coastline of Zhuhai and Macau, along with the Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau Bridge, were visible during our approach to Runway 7R.  Upon touchdown, there was a round of applause from the passengers – something I hadn’t encountered on other flights in East Asia.  Considering the festive feeling of this flight, I joined in too despite not being a plane clapper.

During the taxi to Gate 7, the crew thanked everyone for taking part in this special flight and wished to see everyone on a normal flight soon once travel became possible again.  Disembarking was quick as there were few items to retrieve from the overhead lockers and we could then proceed to the immigration hall to have our documents inspected again and reenter Hong Kong.

Disembarkation view after the flight to nowhere

Back where we started

We walked through the empty baggage hall and exited Customs through the green channel, being sure to prominently display our Flycation name tags to ensure we wouldn’t be wrongly sent to quarantine with the normal passengers.  In the arrival hall, the temporary escape to a sense of travel normality came to an end.  I bid farewell to my friend and caught the bus back home where I explored the contents of my Japan themed goodie bag and flight souvenirs.  The freeze dried soup and seaweed snacks were not bad and I really enjoyed the meal I got at Doraya in Causeway Bay with the 100 Hong Kong Dollar coupon I received.

Goodie bag contents


While some critics labelled these flights and cruises to nowhere as lame and sad as other parts of the world opened up to travel, considering the circumstances in Hong Kong are out of my control I am happy to have had the chance to take part in this unique experience.  HK Express continued to operate a handful of Flycations each month, mainly chartered by corporate customers, until the end of 2021 when Hong Kong’s “fifth-wave” of COVID again put an end to many fun activities.