Luxury All-Business Class Flights Bring High-End Tourism to Antarctica
Traveling by air to inner Antarctica has become civilized with a new seasonal Airbus A340 service from Cape Town
February 6, 2024
Traveling by air to inner Antarctica has become civilized with a new seasonal Airbus A340-300 service from Cape Town.
Antarctica has been the last unconquered frontier of civil aviation, and rightly so, many argue. The driest, highest, and windiest continent on earth is also the emptiest, coldest, most inhospitable, remote on the bottom of the globe, and, on top of all, our most fragile.
A British polar pioneer and world record-holder wants to demonstrate that small-scale, upmarket tourism can be established sustainably in Antarctica. “If tourism is done responsibly and in small numbers, it has an incredibly light amount of footprint, and it could have a huge impact for good,” says Patrick Woodhead, founder of tour company White Desert based in Cape Town, South Africa.
Using solar energy, sustainable fuels, and generating its own green hydrogen in Antarctica, the company thrives on bringing sustainability to new levels from next season, starting in November.
“I very strongly believe that the kind of clients we take into Antarctica, often CEOs of large companies, very influential people, can create awareness. These people will really care about something they have experienced, having a huge opinion about and passion for Antarctica when they return to the real world. That’s enormously important,” says 48-year-old Woodhead, holding polar world records such as the fastest crossing of Greenland on skies in just nine days in 2015 or becoming the quickest and youngest skier to reach the South Pole in 2002.
Luxe A340-300 Flights
Surprisingly, enabling his new polar ventures is a 26-year-old widebody aircraft, an Airbus A340-300, operated by European wet-lease specialist Hi Fly.
Since landing the four-engine airliner in Antarctica for the first time in November 2021, Hi Fly and White Desert have just finished the third season of weekly flights.
They cover the 2,620 miles from Cape Town to the eternal ice in over five hours during the Antarctic summer from November to February, when the sun never sets in the South polar region.
About 15 round trips have been operated each season, and the service is surprisingly reliable, given the uncertainties of polar flying conditions.
“We have pioneered this together with White Desert; we are learning and getting better with each flight,” says Hi Fly’s Captain Adam Latsos, who put down his A340 on the ice runway at Wolf’s Fang in Queen Maud Land 15 times already since the start of the flights.
The 3,000-meter (9,842 feet) runway on solid blue ice is the only private airfield in Antarctica. Preparing it for a single A340 landing takes up to a week of preparation by crews using Pistenbully groomers, usually seen on ski slopes.
High-End Arctic Lodging
White Desert flies about 220 tourists each season and provides transport and logistics to support Antarctic research stations of eight countries, carrying an additional 250 scientists and personnel from Cape Town.
Widebody airliners are still rare in Antarctica, usually used only on special missions ferrying people and goods to and from research stations.
Norse Atlantic Airlines recently pioneered the first Boeing 787 Dreamliner landing in Antarctica, supplying the Norwegian Troll station, but these flights are one-offs and not open to anyone willing to pay hefty fares.
Small-scale expedition-type tourism by air has been offered for some time, flying on noisy Russian Ilyushin IL-76 transport aircraft that are still operating from Cape Town as well. But White Desert elevates the experience to an entirely new level.
The Hi Fly A340 is still outfitted with the cabin of the former owner, Emirates, including lie-flat seats in First and Business Class. The huge aircraft never takes more than 70 passengers maximum, so it never gets crowded inside.
In Antarctica, the operator runs two ultra-luxury lodges, the first accommodation of this kind on the continent. Each caters to up to twelve guests only, including lunar-like designer modules to sleep in, fine dining, and wines.
That, of course, doesn’t come cheap: A whole week all-inclusive starts at $68,500 per person, but anyone can go down just for one night and come straight back for “just” $15,950.
Once-in-a-Lifetime Experience? Yes
Any foray into Antarctica is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. “It will change your life,” says Patrick Woodhead.
And it does. Even on a one-night stint with just a bit over three hours on the ground.
Doing abseiling in a blue ice wall, marveling at the white eternity and bizarrely shaped mountains, and even entering an underground ice cave inside a glacier crevasse creates unforgettable impressions.
But be warned: You’ll catch the polar virus in no time, resulting in a longing to spend an entire week in this outlandish icy wonderland rather than a few hours only.