Here's What It's Like to Spend New Year's Eve on a Plane
Revelers dance on their seats, ignoring the illuminated “Fasten Seat Belts” sign. Flight attendants shimmy down the aisles with trays bearing crystal goblets of champagne. Everyone on the plane bursts into “Auld Lang Syne” at the stroke of midnight.
That’s what we imagined New Year’s Eve flights might look like. But after conversations with frequent travelers, pilots and industry experts, what surprised us wasn’t how glam New Year’s Eve travel was, but how mundane.
None of the airlines we reached have anything special planned. “We often have special menus and holiday decor on flights for Christmas, but typically not New Year’s,” says James Boyd, head of PR for Singapore Airlines. “And we have no plans for festivities.” High-end private air companies like XOJet and Victor, which typically plan heavy programming around events and holidays, are sitting out New Year’s. “XOJet isn’t planning any special flight packages this year,” said a spokesperson for the company.
And UK-based PrivateFly, which gamely offered a 10-hour “Celebrate New Year’s Eve Twice” Sydney-Honolulu flight package for $22,300 per person, apparently found no takers. “We've had a few people interested in booking this — but nothing confirmed yet!” said US marketing manager Nicole Kinawi. She didn’t respond to inquiries at press time.
Travelers just don’t seem into it, either. “I won't be on a plane at New Year's this year, but I was on a Qantas flight two years ago from Tokyo to Sydney and also about 20 years ago from Brisbane to London on the now-defunct Britannia,” says Timothy Hanan, a frequent traveler who lives in Austria. “On neither occasion do I remember there being much in the way of festivities, apart from the Britannia flight being nearly empty, allowing me to get drunk and sleep across four seats.”
Dan Gamboa Bohorquez, a Bogota-based architect, chose December 31 to travel to Spain not to pop a cork, but “because it was cheapest. I’ll celebrate New Year’s once — the Colombian one — three hours after departure,” he says. “I don’t really care about it; it’s just a date.”
So what gives?
“Most people want to celebrate with friends and family on the ground for New Year’s, not on a plane,” shrugs Henry Harteveldt, the veteran travel analyst and president of San Francisco’s Atmosphere Research Group. In fact, New Year’s Eve ranks among the three slowest travel days of the year, according to figures from LAX, the world’s fourth-busiest airport.
Still, some intrepid travelers make it a point to fly as the year rolls over — and some professionals have to fly that night because when they’re scheduled. “I've spent a few New Year's moments in the air, and will again this year,” says Eric Auxier, a Phoenix-based commercial airline pilot and blogger. “This year, I'll be landing in Mexico City at 1:00am on January 1st, 2018. The funny thing is, with the skip ahead in time zones, our flight will skip the New Year’s moment entirely!” But, he adds, “that doesn't keep onboard revelers from counting down and celebrating, usually based on their departure time zone.”
Crossing the International Date Line is the biggest attraction for travelers who do board planes on New Year’s. The International Date Line functions as a “line of demarcation” separating two consecutive calendar dates, according to the National Ocean Service; when you cross the date line, you become a time traveler, of sorts. Cross to the west and it’s one day later; cross back and you’ve theoretically gone back in time. On the last day of the year, that could mean multiple New Year’s celebrations.
One of those celebrants might be Rachael Collins, a New York-based public-relations executive. “My flight departs Brisbane, Australia at 10:35pm on December 31st and lands for a layover in Taipei at 5:15am on January 1st, which is 4:15pm New York time on December 31,” she says. “It then departs from Taipei at 8:00am local time, which means I would then get a second New Year’s Eve onboard the flight at some point when I cross the International Date Line. Basically, I get two New Year’s celebrations.”
Collins is hoping for “a whole song and dance, with a champagne toast, knowing EVA Air and its penchant for going all-out — they have a whole Hello Kitty–themed aircraft," she says. “But I have a feeling it will hardly be recognized.” EVA Air didn’t respond to inquiries.
For Barcelona-based photographer Michael Ip, it's become a tradition to fly from JFK to BCN every Dec. 31; this will mark the third year in a row he's done it. “The first year I did it, Dec. 31, 2015, I flew Iberia in Business class from JFK-MAD-BCN. It was quite nice as they poured champagne for everyone at the strike of midnight. Last year I flew American in economy and just slept the whole time. No champagne. This year I'll be flying Lufthansa. I'm currently booked into economy but hoping to upgrade into premium.”
If you want a show, says pilot Auxier, travel on Christmas Eve. “If I'm flying on Christmas Eve, I always make sure to pick out a plane that passes us a mile or two away. I'll report over the PA to the passengers that Santa is passing by. In the dark of night, the plane's red and green and white position lights, as they streak by, look to kids just like Santa and his sleigh, with Rudolph leading the way. You can't imagine how many excited kids we get."
Feature photo by @Jmwiehl via Twenty20