When an in-flight virtual reality experience called First Airlines started offering faux flights in the Ikebukuro neighborhood of Tokyo in 2017, you could say it was ahead of its time. Three years later, in the grips of a global pandemic that has grounded the vast majority of flights, Tokyo’s business travelers are leaning on the VR experience for a taste of international travel without leaving their city.
“I often go overseas on business, but I haven’t been to Italy,” one local businessman, who tried the experience recently, told Reuters. “My impression was rather good because I got a sense of actually seeing things there.”
The appeal of an “in-flight” meal, a first-class “lounge” and a first-class seat plucked off an Airbus aircraft is that most frequent travelers are unlikely to see the real thing any time soon. The First Airlines experience channels all the minute details of flying, from departures screens in the lounge to flight attendants carrying out safety protocols. And the two-hour virtual reality experience, complete with a four-course meal and window TV screens replicating exterior views, is cheaper than an actual first-class plane ticket at about $62, or 6,580 yen.
First Airlines calls itself the world’s “first virtual aviation facility,” with equipment and small touches that make its indoor spaces feel like an actual airport and airplane, even when your supplied VR headset isn’t on.
The experience begins with an “official boarding pass” issued for the given flight’s destination and kicks off with boarding procedures, drink service and a four-course culinary experience created by top chefs with the passenger-chosen destination in mind.
Replacing the arrival in any real-life destination is a VR headset programmed with on-ground tours and experiences in places such as Paris, Hawaii, New Zealand, Rome, New York, California and Helsinki. The New York menu includes Manhattan clam chowder and cheesecake, while the Hawaii and Rome options feature poke and minestrone soup, respectively.
Bookings are up by 50 percent, the company recently told Reuters, and advance reservations are required. The mock flights “depart” five days a week, and according to the existing schedule, they are regularly selling out.
But First Airlines isn’t the only mock-travel player in the game: Taiwanese carrier EVA Air has upped the ante by offering an actual flight — to nowhere — that’s almost three hours long and Hello Kitty-themed.
EVA Air’s Hello Kitty Dream Jet has been popular for years for its charming theme and Hello Kitty-shaped in-flight food, and the airline extended the service into the United States on some routes in 2017. But since suspending the Hello Kitty Jet service this April because of the coronavirus pandemic, the airline now flies its Sanrio-themed aircraft locally as a special flight-to-nowhere service.
The Hello Kitty Jet flew on Taiwanese Father’s Day in early August for passengers who were willing to spend $180 on the experience. The flight departed Taiwan’s Taoyuan airport and circled the coastline as well as Japan’s Ryukyu Islands before returning to the same air hub. Passengers were “able to overlook the magnificent scenery of Taiwan’s east coastline” from a lower-than-normal altitude of 25,000 feet, EVA Air said in a news release. “The on-board meal [was] a selection of seafood chirashi-sushi rice designed by Michelin-starred chef Motoke Nakamura.”
EVA Air did not immediately respond for comment on if or when the flight might be offered again. But Taiwan, which hasn’t had a confirmed coronavirus death since the seven it saw in the spring, remains closed or is imposing strict quarantines on visitors from most countries.