BACKGROUND This was the return flight from Xi’an, after Finnair launched the route on the previous Friday (for a review of this inaugural service, click here).
FIRST IMPRESSIONS I arrived at Xi’an international from the Hilton hotel, located within the city walls, after an hour long transfer. The terminal is large and modern and was fairly quiet at 0845 in the morning. After a little searching I found the Finnair check-in area, located at the far left of the international terminal, after a quick self-service x-ray check of my baggage.
There was no queue for the business check-in, but I had checked in online already that morning, selecting my seats and my boarding pass was emailed to my phone. However, I was told I would need a paper boarding pass so joined the queue and had my hand baggage weighed and tagged. I passed through an empty security channel where my departure card was checked and then moved through the x-ray, where I didn’t have to remove my belt but got a quick wand check before heading on my way.
Airside is very basic, with three duty free outlets – one for fashion; another selling alcohol, cigarettes and Chinese sweets; and the third scarves, toys, key-rings, terra cotta models and jewellery. The system is fairly complicated so try to purchase everything in one go. You must hand over your items first and receive a receipt, you then go to the cashier and pay before going back to the first person to hand over the stamped receipt and collecting your items.
THE LOUNGE The Simple Business Class lounge does exactly what it says on the tin – free wifi, Chinese power points, some soft drinks and Tsingtao beers in the fridge and some basic cold snacks, as well as instant noodles and green tea and a jug of hot water.
The lounge is a small, bright room with comfortable chairs and a television showing Chinese news and two Dell computers with headphones. All literature is also in Chinese. The decor is 1990s Chinese restaurant, with elaborate embroider tablecloths, fake flowers, framed Chinese relics and old-fashioned chairs, but it is a comfortable place to wait for your flight. The leather massage chair amused plenty of the group I was with.
BOARDING I left the lounge at 1000 when a lounge attendant came round to say that boarding was commencing. The gate was located right opposite and the priority queue was empty so I was in my seat by 1010.
THE SEAT I chose 2L, a window seat near the front of the cabin. This was three rows in front of the seat I chose on the way out so I was served quicker. To read about the details of the angled lie-flat seat see my review of the outbound journey.
One thing I did find more irritating on this flight was the lack of storage space, as I wanted access to my laptop, book and headphones multiple times.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE After choosing two window seats on this side of the cabin I would have the L seats as my preference. I wouldn't want to sit in row one as they do not have fixed screens and there is nowhere to store items near your feet. The small cabin of two rows is also unattractive as the galley and economy cabin can be loud. Seat 2L proved excellent and the day was clear so I spent plenty of time gazing out at the blank, mountainous terrain of central China.
THE FLIGHT I was served a glass of orange juice and then champagne and had my jacket taken almost as soon as I sat down. Boarding was complete by 1030 and newspapers and magazines were offered, including some English magazines. Take off was at 1045 and the seat belt sign was turned off at 1100. A hot towel was offered and a lunch menu and wine list given out at 1110.
The menu read:
- Starters – Seafood and beef on a salad bed including tuna in black pepper, grilled scallop and prawn, black pepper beef; or orange flavored pumpkin soup.
- Mains – Fried salmon, with shrimps in seafood juice, puree of peas, baked squash and asparagus; fillet of beef with black pepper sauce, oven baked potato and warm vegetables; sweet and sour pork, pan fried spaghetti and Chinese vegetables.
- Deserts/cheeses - Black forest cake or Haagen Daaz vanilla ice cream, Camembert and Emmenthaler cheeses, and coffee, tea and digestifs
I opted for the salad and the salmon. First drinks orders were taken and an amuse bouche served in a small glass bowl. This consisted of two small pieces of bread topped with a black mousse and pickles, and smoked salmon with lemon, which was particularly delicious. I had a diet coke and the starter was served at 1130.
The salad was a real indicator of what can be done with plane food. All the items were cold but were fresh, full of flavour and arranged nicely. The block of peppered tuna and large prawn were particularly delicious. The main of salmon was also good. The fish was as well cooked as can be expected and retained its flavour, and the accompanying vegetables tasted fresh. I had a glass of red wine with lunch and sparkling water and top-ups were offered regularly. I had a tub of ice cream and a coffee at 1220, before finishing my film (the excellent Side Effects directed by Steven Soderbergh).
Many people dozed for the rest of the flight or worked. I played around with the angle of the seat depending on if I was reading, typing, watching the IFE or watching something on my laptop. I asked for a green tea at 1430 while I worked and this was served quickly and with a smile. A plate of fresh fruit was offered at 1445.
I dozed until 1700 when I was woken by the clinking of cutlery. Table cloths were laid out at 1740 and a light meal served at 1800. I had the baked potato, which was fairly bland but I was hungry after my nap. This came with steamed courgette and corn on the cob. The accompanying cheesecake however was incredibly rich and “moreish” and I ate the whole thing with a cup of Moroccan mint Sirocco tea.
ARRIVAL We received a 15-minute warning at 1820 as we started our approach to Helsinki. We landed at 1900, 15 minutes ahead of schedule. We were bused to the terminal at 1410 (local time) and I was through the automated gates at border control by 1415. There was one line for security and even with my multiple bags and items I was airside by 1425. A quick goodbye to my colleagues and then I made my way to the non-Schengen side of the terminal, via passport control, and entered the Finnair lounge in between gates 36-37 again for a quick beer and check of my emails before my flight started boarding at 1525.
LOUNGE This was the same Finnair lounge I used when transferring for my outbound flight and it is a very nice modern facility. I grabbed a drink and charged my devices until 1525 when I made my way down to gate 37C. The lounge was far quieter than for the outbound leg, when it was nearing capacity.
BOARDING I joined the short queue here and entered the extremely small waiting area and stood waiting for a bus until 1535, and was in my seat by 1545. It was fairly chaotic boarding via the steps as it was raining and a bus full of passengers got off at once.
THE SEAT I was in 2C, an aisle seat on this A321 near the front of the cabin. Business class was busy on this flight and most people had carry-on luggage, so I used the free space under the spare middle seat in front to store my bags. The seats don’t offer ample legroom but there is enough space at the knee in these middle seats and they are comfortable enough, with the middle seat left unsold for added space.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE I would have preferred a seat in row one simply for the added space and to disembark first but they were not available when I was checking in that morning so went as close to the front as possible. All the seats are much the same so it really boils down to personal preference.
THE FLIGHT My jacket was taken at 1555 and boarding was complete at 1600. The captain informed us that we were battling a heavy head wind but was hopeful we could get off on time and make a decent arrival back at Heathrow.
We pushed back at 1610 and take off was at 1615 – no Heathrow-style waiting here at Helsinki airport. The flight looked almost entirely full, in both business and economy, a good sign for the carrier and was codesharing with American Airlines, BA and Cathay Pacific on this route.
Service commenced at 1645 with a drink and pretzels served. Dinner was rolled out at 1700 and consisted of a rillette of reindeer with a flatbread and lingonberry jam, that was rich, gamey and delicious. This came with a hot dish of herb crusted salmon fillet with creamed potatoes and leeks, another great meal for a short-haul flight. A bread selection was offered with dinner.
I had a can of Carlsberg, served in a glass, and a tea afterwards with my two Godiva chocolates. Trays were cleared at 1750 and I settled in for the remaining hour or so, reading and working until we began our descent at 1845.
ARRIVAL We landed at Heathrow T3 at 1920 after making a couple of circles and disembarked via air bridge soon after. I was one of the first off and was through the e-passport gate at 1730 (local time). As I had no baggage I was out through customs and on the tube by 1745, a completely stress-free arrival.
VERDICT Finnair maintains a great level of consistency between their short and long-haul flights in terms of service and the quality of catering. The long-haul business product is due an upgrade but this is in progress and the short-haul service is on a par with, if not outperforming, the likes of Lufthansa and BA and Swiss.