Features

Passage to Asia

30 Oct 2014 by Tom Otley

A good location and top-quality facilities make Helsinki airport a winning option for Asia-bound flyers, says Tom Otley


If you had to design a perfect hub airport, Helsinki would come close. First, it is small – much smaller than most hubs, and smaller than many airports that have no aspirations to be a hub.

Located under one roof (the airport map shows two terminals, but it’s still effectively one building), Helsinki served 15 million passengers last year and is aiming for 20 million by 2020. With three operational runways, it has plenty of capacity to spare, and firm plans for expanding its operations (see panel overleaf).

Second, it’s reliable. Despite sharing a latitude with Anchorage in Alaska, it has closed only once in the past ten years or so – for less than an hour in 2003, owing to a snowstorm.

It also boasts of having 98.5 per cent on-time departures, although these figures are from the airport, which records only delays that it is responsible for. Flight data specialist OAG rates punctuality at the airport as “average”.

Third, it is focused on being a hub. Yes, it offers plenty of direct flights, both for those flying to and from Helsinki within the region and Europe as a whole, but its main strategic objective is connecting traffic. As chief executive Kari Savolainen says: “Finland does not have a big enough domestic population for point-to-point traffic to be the real focus for us.”

Instead, it encourages airlines to use it as a hub by keeping its costs down, partly because it owns the airport land, and partly through efficiency. “We are very integrated and have a multi-skilled model so the same guys can do different types of work during the day, from security check-in in the morning to something else in human resources later,” Savolainen says.

Fourth is its location. Savolainen points out that the focus on connecting traffic is an obvious one “when you look at the map”.

“Within 12 hours’ flight from the airport, look at where you can reach,” he says. “We are an epicentre for Asia, but also for Russia. St Petersburg is only three or four hours from Helsinki, so it’s in our catchment area. Russian passengers are important for us, as is connecting to Russia for passengers from elsewhere, with Finnair flying to Kazan, Moscow, Nizhny Novgorod, Samara, St Petersburg and Yekaterinburg.”

Helsinki is in the right place for European travellers wishing to fly to Asia, being positioned on the Great Circle Route between the continents.

This led national airline Finnair to claim that flying via Helsinki was good for the environment. The reasoning was that it could save up to 10 per cent in carbon dioxide emissions compared with flying through other hubs – since the route is shorter, it can carry less fuel and therefore fly more efficiently, aided by a modern fleet and less congested airspace.

Needless to say, this wasn’t perhaps an argument that played well with the environmental lobby, nor had much effect on frequent flyers.

Nevertheless, the shared aims of Finnair and the airport to capture Asian traffic provide Helsinki’s fifth key advantage. The two work together more closely than, for instance, Heathrow and British Airways are ever likely to, and since half of Finnair’s capacity is on Asian routes, airline president and chief executive Pekka Vauramo is unequivocal about the airport’s importance.

When I interviewed him earlier this year, he even admitted that for most travellers, Finnair’s product was “a transfer via Helsinki”.

Yes, the fully-flat bed being rolled out across the airline’s business class cabins is important, as is the Finnish design aesthetic, and good food and wine on board. In the end, however, it’s quick transfer times, competitive prices and a hub that facilitates journeys to and from Asia that are the main selling points.

Yet the airport does have its challenges – for one, being tied to the fortunes of its national airline. No matter how important the airport is to Finnair, the airline is even more vital to the airport.

For the moment, Finnair is sticking to its plans, with Vauramo ruling out joining the International Airlines Group (IAG), parent company of fellow Oneworld carriers BA and Iberia, “in the near future”, or “changing strategy”. (Finnair became part of BA and Iberia’s transatlantic joint business with American Airlines last year.)

In any case, it would need the government to change its ownership rules before it could do so. Still, it’s not impossible to think of a situation where Helsinki’s importance as a hub to Asia could be threatened.

Savolainen says it is natural that the strategy of the airport and the national airline should closely converge.

“It is not an exceptional situation,” he says. “Most hubs have a main customer, and on the other hand we have other important customers such as Japan Airlines [with whom Finnair has a joint agreement on Europe-Asia flights, along with BA]. Our strategy vectors are parallel with Finnair, but that is a strength.”

The airport is, of course, aware of the importance not only of being an efficient hub, but also of marketing itself as such. It is a small airport, not only in worldwide terms but even in Europe.

OAG ranks the airport 27th in terms of the number of flights it operates, and 31st in terms of the number of seats it offers (although this reflects the slightly smaller aircraft sizes operated).

Strolling through the airport, you’ll see plenty of copies of its consumer magazine, Via Helsinki, available in several languages.

The airport has trialled everything from yoga classes at the departure gate to skateboarding competitions. Some of these gimmicks work – I tried a yoga class when I was last there and found it a pleasant way to spend 20 minutes. There is also a dedicated You Tube channel called “FlyViaHelsinki”.

The facilities are constantly being improved, and, certainly for top-tier passengers with access to the lounges, the recent upgrade has made a good situation even better. The sauna in the Finnair lounge may be another gimmick (nothing wrong with that), but the lounges are clean, large and easy to reach from everywhere in the airport.

Economy passengers can access the lounges of Finnair (gates 22 and 36) and SAS (Gate 13) for a fee, as well as using the paid-for Almost@home (Gate 32) and Aspire facilities (27-28). Kainuu lounge is free of charge, although it offers no food or beverages.

There are good shops, and restaurants include Fly Inn Restaurant and Deli, which serves traditional Finnish dishes with a modern twist, and Two Tigers Sushi and Noodle for Asian food. There’s also plenty of modern art, including a gallery currently showing “Views en Route”, an exhibition of contemporary works by 14 Finnish artists.

Still, both Finnair and the airport need to convince those who can fly direct that not every transfer is a bad thing.

Frederik Charpentier, sales director for Finnair in the UK, recognises that one of the main challenges is overcoming preconceptions.

“People have had poor transfer experiences at the mega-hubs in Europe or the Middle East,” he says. “Helsinki is very different. For those coming from London, we emphasise that, unlike at Heathrow, with its two runways, here there are three. Helsinki is a hassle-free transfer experience.”

It’s an enviable position to have spare capacity, the political will for expansion and a clear strategy supported by the national airline. For those planning trips to and from Asia, Helsinki will remain a serious alternative to hubs and direct routes.


THE MASTERPLAN

Helsinki is determined to remain an attractive international hub, and has outlined an expansion programme continuing until 2020.

The main point is that transfer traffic capacity will be increased while remaining all under one roof, in one single building, “keeping distances short and services easily accessible and provid[ing] a customer-friendly airport experience”, as the proposal puts it.

Airport director Ville Haapasaari says the facility’s owner, Finavia, studied dozens of scenarios and took into account the views and suggestions of airlines and other operators when formulating its masterplan, which will take place from this year in three stages and is scheduled to be completed by 2017:

  1. Finavia will enlarge the facilities for long-haul passengers and increase the number of spots for wide-bodied aircraft for transit traffic. 
  2. Transit capacity will then be further increased and the service level for European and domestic flights improved.
  3. Terminal 2 will be expanded so that check-in, security control and baggage drop will all take place in one departure/arrival hall.

In addition, train services from central Helsinki, located about 20km south of the airport, will start next July.


HELSINKI IN NUMBERS

  • 15 million passengers (2013)
  • 2 million transferring passengers 
  • 1 million transferring to and from Asia
  • 130 direct flights
  • 12 daily connecting flights to Asia

Minimum connecting times

  • Flights within Finland: 25–35 minutes
  • Within Schengen area: 35 minutes
  • From Schengen to non-Schengen area: 40 minutes
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