Finnair describes itself as a boutique airline that focuses on routes to Asia. Compared to its main European rivals, serendipitous geography allows the carrier’s Helsinki hub to offer considerably shorter flight times to destinations in northern Asia, a fact that Finnair exploits to the fullest.
Greg Kaldahl, senior VP resource management, notes that the airline has significantly expanded its Asian operations over the last decade or so: “In 2001 we served five long-haul destinations with around 20 frequencies per week. In 2012, with the addition of Chongqing this past May, we’ve taken those destinations up to 13 and we’re approaching 100 frequencies per week.”
“But it doesn’t stop there,” says Kaldahl. “We want to be the carrier of choice for customers flying from the Nordic region. We want to be the most desirable option for flying between Europe and Asia. And we want to double our Asian traffic. We set that goal in 2010 and we want to achieve it by 2020, but we have a small home market of around 5.5 million people and although they’re very loyal, we need to expand our home market to include the Nordic region. This would give us a base of around 35 million people.”
These are noble goals for a small airline; achieving success will depend on more than geographical advantage. That’s why Finnair has founded its business on providing an exceptional customer experience, both on the ground in its award-winning lounges and in the air. All the while, the carrier has maintained a strong environmental stewardship.
In 2010 Finnair launched a major refurbishment programme for its long-haul cabins, as well as a company-wide rebranding exercise, with the first of its new cabins debuting on a brand new Airbus A330 over the 2009/10 New Year period. Four A330s – representing the airline’s fifth to eight deliveries of the type – were flying with the revised cabin by early June 2012.
The refurbishment involved more than simply adding new seats, relaxing mood lighting and a modern paint job to Finnair’s A330s. Everything from uniforms and accessories to curtains were changed in the rebranding effort. And the new livery was applied fleet-wide.
All changes were made with an eye to ensuring passenger satisfaction whilst obtaining long-term savings and efficiency, which is in keeping with the Finnish logic that well-designed objects should be functional and aesthetically pleasing.
ALL ABOUT THE SEAT
Finnair adopted an unusual configuration for its business-class cabin, fitting full-flat Contour Vantage seats so that one third of passengers are seated by themselves, with no seat alongside them. The new seats replace Recaro-made lie-flat seats, which feature a noticeable angle when reclined and continue to draw criticism from passengers experiencing the old cabin.
Passengers accustomed to the old configuration will notice that the business-class bar cabinet has been removed, but may appreciate the fact that, because of the new layout, 90 per cent of their seats now have direct aisle access.
“The seat is obviously the critical element. In business class we have horizontal flatbed Contour Vantage seats. But you have to think of the passenger experience in the cabin holistically; it’s not just about any one feature. We have, for example, a floor heating system in place to prevent ‘patches’ of coldness developing anywhere in the aircraft. Everything adds up to one experience for the customer,” says a Finnair spokesperson.
In addition to bringing significant weight savings to Finnair, the new configuration allowed the carrier to add two business-class seats to the cabin for a total of 45 seats. Economy-class seats were reduced from 229 to 218. The seats, Recaro’s BL3520 model, boast a 32in seat pitch.
KEEPING IT CLEAN
Finnair opted for a clean, classically Finnish look for its interior palette, choosing the colours of grey, white and silver. Cabin materials have been revamped; curtains and seat coverings boast lightweight fireproof polyester. Built-in stain resistance makes for easy cleaning.
For inflight entertainment, Finnair selected Panasonic Avionics’ eX2 system for every seat on the aircraft. Passengers enjoy a swathe of features from the eX2’s impressive offering, including audio and video on demand, PC and Nintendo games, ‘moving map’ and shopping, among other entertainment options. Power outlets allow passengers to charge their personal electronic devices.
Passengers have reacted positively to Finnair’s new interiors and IFE, says the carrier, noting: “We are the only airline in the Nordic countries with a 4-star Skytrax rating and we’ve been named Best Airline, Northern Europe every year since 2010, the year we began phasing in the new cabins and brand renewal. The benefits for our passengers are greater comfort, and peace of mind during the journey.”
Crews have also been very positive, says Finnair, and, “of course, enjoy working in up to date, modern conditions. The cabin configuration includes a crew bunk for the pilots and six for the cabin crew. There is also a crew terminal in the IFE system, which enables easier IFE maintenance, crew-to-crew messaging and passenger data management.”
Finnair sees sustainability as an important component of its operational policy; it keeps a constant eye on sustainability through its fleet and facilities acquisition and management processes. The company is passionate about reducing emissions, and the installation of new, lighter-weight cabins is among the tools helping it follow an aggressive policy.
According to Kati Ihamäki, VP sustainable management, by 2009 emissions per seat had been reduced by 21 per cent compared to 1999 and the airline is on target for a 41 per cent per seat reduction by 2017. This is great for the environment, but also good for the bottom line, since it equates to a 24 per cent reduction in fuel consumption per seat in just shy of two decades. And while every little helps; she admits that the most powerful factor in driving down emissions is flying modern aircraft – the average age of Finnair’s fleet is just seven years.
The airline’s brand renewal also generated a huge amount of unwanted material. Ihamäki says that 20,000 pieces of old uniforms were recycled – or ‘upcycled’, as Finnair prefers – by the carrier, rather than being dumped in a landfill. Working with several local design partners, Finnair was able to take used seatbelts, curtains and other sundry items and incorporate them into stylish new designs. The EDEL bag, which is made from old seatbelts and curtain material, is a prime example.
Uusix offers a child’s bathrobe fashioned from an ex-Finnair blanket. The organisation works closely with Helsinki’s social services department, employing people who are struggling to find work and helping them learn new skills. Design input comes from students at Aalto University and Uusix’s products are sold at stores in Helsinki’s Design District.
Globe Hope is also involved in the upcycling process. Its CEO, Seija Lukkala, says: “As the uniform fabrics are of very good quality, they’re perfect for at least another round of use. We’ve turned them into dresses, tote bags and purses, to mention a few items. The products have turned out great and they all have a special story.”
While long-haul operations remain the cornerstone of Finnair’s business, the carrier relies on its Airbus A320 family of aircraft to serve its European traffic and feed passengers into the all-important Helsinki-Vantaa airport. The airline has extended its refurbishment and rebranding effort to its A319s, A320s and A321s, with the first full refit – internally and externally – emerging on an A319 in January 2012.
The work is carried out by Finnair Technical Services at Helsinki and involves replacing the cabin seating, carpeting, window blinds and cabin sidewalls, as well as repainting the aircraft. Seats on the Airbus narrowbodies are the Recaro BL3510 model, and are set at 31in pitch. The business class service in the front of the aircraft offers the same seats at the same pitch, but Finnair – like many European operators – leaves the centre seat empty to offer a higher standard of service, which also includes other benefits, like a priority security lane at the airport.
Everything has been done to complement the new crew uniforms, while also making more efficient use of cabin space and lowering aircraft weight. In fact, the new seating saves as much as 1,000kg (2,200lb) per aircraft, for obvious savings in fuel cost and reduced emissions.
The first revamped single-aisle aircraft entered service on the Helsinki-Milan route on 10 February and Finnair aims to have the fleet completed by spring 2013.
Looking in on Finnair’s cabin revamps, rebranding exercise and extensive recycling of materials, it is clear that the carrier is progressing through an intelligent process aimed at repositioning itself from leader in a small but very loyal home market, to airline of choice in a wider region.
Less obvious, until one experiences Finnair, is that the airline is also making huge efforts to maintain and improve upon its reputation for outstanding customer service.
True, it still has long-haul aircraft flying with an old cabin, which many regular travellers consider a weakness compared to its rivals, but Finnair nevertheless manages to deliver something special. The brand renewal “included a reassessment of the passenger experience as a whole, with special training for our staff and partners to improve service at every stage of the customer journey”, notes the Finnair spokesperson.
All passengers benefit from Finnair’s Power Purser concept. Here, very experienced senior cabin crew are empowered to act on their own initiative, reacting to emerging situations by problem solving or identifying opportunities for exceptional service – what Finnair calls Magic Moments.
For Power Purser Paula Personen, one Magic Moment involved reuniting a lost teddy bear with a grateful child. Finding teddy under an aircraft seat, she took him into the terminal where she knew his owner was waiting for an onward connection. With teddy held high above her head, he was soon spotted and tearfully reclaimed.
At Finnair, success is not all about the latest cabin technology or smartest branding. It is also about its special people, its customers, the passenger experience and, from time to time, a lost teddy bear. The airline’s August traffic performance figures indicate that it must be doing something right. Revenue passenger kilometres (RPKs) have risen by 9.9 per cent as the carrier’s capacity grew 4.6 per cent year-on-year. Passenger load factor has also improved, by 3.9 per cent to 80.8 per cent.
The airline is upbeat about its ability to double traffic, although Finnair manager for VIP and lounge services Markuu Remes says, “We need to think carefully about how to plan for this expansion. Ultimately we will have the full-flat beds on all eight A330s. Unfortunately we can’t install the beds on all our long-haul aircraft in the current economic climate, but we’re really looking forward to delivery of the first A350, which incorporates the latest cabin design and is expected in 2015.”