BACKGROUND This was the inaugural flight between Helsinki and the Chinese city of Xi’an (home of the Terracotta Army), on June 14, 2013, making Finnair the first European carrier to fly direct to the city.
The route was welcomed by the new CEO of Finnair Pekka Vauramo, the ambassador for China and two dancing dragons. Vauramo outlined the importance of the route launch as part of Finnair’s broader strategy of offering the best connections between Europe and Asia through its Helsinki hub, with the carrier now serving 13 destinations in the region.
“Strong economic growth in China and Vietnam, combined with a growing appetite for outbound travel from both destinations, are driving our strategic focus on Asian traffic. There continue to be many exciting opportunities for growth in the East,” said Vauramo.
Finnair will operate to Xi´an three times a week throughout the summer, until October 26, operated by A330/A340 aircraft. Finnair hopes to expand services to the city but will assess the route after the summer.
Outbound flights operate on Tuesday, Friday and Sunday, departing Helsinki at 1740 and arriving in Xi’an at 0630 the next day. The return flight operates on Monday, Wednesday and Saturday, departing the Chinese city at 1035 and arriving back in Helsinki at 1415.
I was connecting on to the 1740 flight from London Heathrow, with a 1020 (AY832) flight on an A321 aircraft (to read a flight check of this short-haul service, click here), flying business on both legs.
I arrived at Helsinki at 1520 and found the connection process seamless, with no security checks to complete, giving me just over an hour to kill before the inaugural service started boarding.
LOUNGE Fortunately the Finnair lounge, located between gates 36 and 37, is a fantastic facility (to see pictures from the opening in 2009, click here). The lounge was extremely busy, with the incredibly comfortable reclining seats that look out on to the tarmac almost all taken, with lots of people working on the seats just behind, as these had power points and reading lights.
The facility is broken up into distinct zones. Where I was, at the back and up a flight of stairs, many people were working quietly. Then there is a dining area with high tables and a more sociable and relaxed area with comfortable seating and coffee tables, where more people were chatting.
The space is very Scandinavian – minimalist, but comfortable and functional – with friendly staff, and the crockery and seating are attractive in design. The food selection was good, with soup, salad, bread, cakes, biscuits and hot breaded chicken fingers. There is a wide range of hot and cold drinks, a lager on tap and wine and champagne available. I had some chicken fingers and a green tea and did some work by the windows.
Wifi is free throughout Helsinki airport and is accessed simply by clicking through the landing page, no password or email address required.
BOARDING The flight showed as boarding very early, at 1615, and, when I made my way over at around 1645, there was a small opening ceremony and some speeches celebrating this inaugural service at the gate itself (35). Boarding began at 1700 and I was in my seat by 1715, via a priority queue.
THE SEAT This is the old angled-lie flat business class product, configured 2-2-2 on this A330-300. There are seven rows in total, five at the front and a further two rows, separated by a galley (to see a seat plan, click here). I had pre-chosen 5L and was happy with the selection. This is a window seat and at the back of the first cabin, so there is a fixed screen in front of me.
The seat looked and felt a bit tired, with the right-hand armrest particularly shaky. This does drop down though, allowing for a great deal of shoulder space when sleeping, as you can take advantage of all the space up to the cabin wall.
There is a distinct lack of storage space in the seat, with just a literature pocket in between the seats in front. There is also a small pocket down to the right-hand side designed for a bottle of water. There is a cocktail tray area in between the seats, along with the seat controls. Fortunately, Finnair is upgrading all the business class seating on its A330s so these will eventually be replaced with the new fully-flat seat (for more information, click here).
There are five settings of various recline, including dining, take-off and landing, and sleeping. The in-flight entertainment (IFE) remote is located on the left wall of the seat, as is the headphone input. Noise-cancelling headphones by Phitek with a three-pronged jack are also provided in a zip-lock bag. The tray table comes out from the left-hand armrest (right, when sitting in the aisle) and was sturdy enough to use a laptop on. Down to the left and inbetween the two seats, there is a plastic shutter that reveals a handy English socket, which I plugged my laptop charger into. There is also a USB port located here.
I was initially concerned by what looked like a lack of privacy as the pairs of seats are very open, but once fully flat and facing the wall I was comfortable enough to sleep as I dipped below the central console.
The screen is large and the selection included films split into five categories (family, comedy, drama, action, classics and international) with a strange selection of old and new. You would struggle to find many people that consider Mr Popper’s Penguins a classic, but I’m sure most people would be able to find something entertaining. The system is controlled by remote or touch screen, with the touch screen proving far more responsive than the remote, despite being harder to reach. The picture quality was good but couldn’t be described as crisp.
WHICH SEAT TO CHOOSE I was tempted by rows 6 and 7 and would always want a window seat, but went with 5 eventually as I felt it would offer better privacy than the open front row seats, space wouldn’t be an issue and I would have a fixed IFE screen, rather than a pop-out one. This seat was near the galley but the toilets are towards the front so I thought noise would not be an issue. However, there was a lot of banging and clicking audible from the galley during the flight so I would recommend moving forward, to say 2L/A.
THE FLIGHT Take-off was at 1800 and the seat belt signs were turned on at 1815. Hot towels and departure cards were handed out soon after and I grabbed my laptop to do some work before dinner.
Dinner menus and a wine list were handed out at along with the departure cards and read:
- Starters: Duck Waldorf salad with cold smoked duck breast and figs; or creamy green pea soup
- Mains: Fried hake with warm tomato salad and saffron basmati rice; Chinese-style beef with brown bean sauce; risotto, with mushroom ragout, manchego cheese and pine nuts
- Winemaker’s cheese, brie; or cheesecake with berries
- Followed by tea, coffee, cappuccino, espresso or sirocco teas
- Breakfast was also listed as scrambled eggs with chicken, hash brown patties, spinach and hollandaise sauce; fresh fruit, muesli and yoghurt with tea and coffee.
- Champagne: Joseph Perrier Cuvee Royale Brut
- White: Schlumberger Reisling Grand Cru Saering 2011 from Alsace, France and Paolo Leo Numen Chardonnay 2011 from Puglia, Italy
- Red: Chateau Malescasse 2005 Haut-Medoc, France and San Polo Brunello Di Montalcino 2005 Tuscany, Italy
- Sweet: Chateau Lafaurie-Peyraguey 2002 Sauternes, France and Niepoort Colheita 1998 Port, Portugal
At 1830, table cloths were brought round and placed on tray tables ready for dinner service. Dinner orders were taken on a clipboard at 1845 and I went for the duck salad and the Chinese style beef. An amuse bouche of “reindeer mousse delight” served in a pastry case was served at 1900. Drinks followed soon after and I had a coke.
The staff were all excellent, some quite young but very professional, courteous, well presented and all spoke excellent English.
We were also told that there were two magicians on board as special pre-dinner entertainment for the inaugural flight.
Starters were served at 1940. The salad was the right portion size, the foie gras delicious but the breast pretty tasteless. I had a glass of the French red and staff were keen to top up wine and water throughout the meal service. I was particularly fond of the frosted glassware. Bread was offered and I had a slice of rye.
The beef was good but no better than I have had in economy on other airlines. The beef was soft and sticky and the mushroom and onion accompaniment was tasty. I watched The Hustler starring Paul Newman as I ate dinner and the noise cancelling headphones did an excellent job.
Trays were then cleared away and more top-ups given, before cheese or cheesecake was offered with tea, coffee and more drinks at 2020. I had the small but tasty cheesecake and a coffee with a small wrapped chocolate before enjoying a cognac and finishing my film.
I was offered a blanket and laid my bed flat at 2200 and was awoken for breakfast at 0000 by the cabin lights – but I had been asked if I wanted to be woken regardless. I probably only got an hour’s sleep as the cabin grew very hot. I shed my blanket and put on my eye mask but still struggled to sleep well, despite finding the seat pretty comfortable.
The two toilets are located at the front of the cabin and were clean, with a window and fresh towels, as well as amenities such as tooth brushes and toothpaste, a shaving kit and small tubes of moisturiser, a welcome touch.
The breakfast I enjoyed a great deal, consisting of a small fruit plate of grapes, pineapple and apple, a basket selection of croissants and breads with jam, butter and cheese and a hot plate of scrambled eggs, with bits of chicken ham, tomatoes and hollandaise on top, with two hash brown cakes and some creamed spinach. I had a couple of cups of black coffee and tried to shake out the little sleep I got. Trays were taken at 0030.
ARRIVAL We were told to stow items and prepare for landing at 0100 and we landed on schedule at 0130 (0630 local time). We were welcomed by a water cannon salute and some collected officials and media before bussing to the terminal, where there were short queues for immigration. Some checks were made on my passport, arrival card and visa and I was sent on my way with a new stamp and a smile before waiting for my baggage. This came out quickly as it was priority tagged and I left the quiet terminal to get my transfer to the Hilton Xi’an.
VERDICT A great service but the fully-flat seats that are currently being installed are a much needed upgrade to this product. The service and catering were excellent but the IFE is behind many of Finnair’s competitors in terms of selection. The seamless and modern transfer facilities at Helsinki are certainly a big selling point though.
Plane type: A330-300
Seat width 20.1 inches
Seat length 62-3 inches
Seat recline 169 degrees
Price Internet rates for a flexible business class return fare in mid-July start from £1,870