“all kinds of things … can be copied by your competition, but the geographical advantage — you can’t copy that”

The gateway to Europe

Finnair’s special connection with Japan

Text by Andrew Howitt /  Photos by Kageaki Smith

At the turn of the millennium, then-president of Finnair Keijo Suila made a bold — and risky — decision to invest seriously in routes to Asia. It was a time when traffic from the continent only accounted for 6% of the airline’s revenue. But he believed there was great potential in the region and, in 2005, placed an order for 11 of the yet-to-be-built Airbus A350 aircraft — wide-body planes designed for long hauls. Suila’s sagacity has paid off. Today, with that initial Airbus order filled, Asia has become Finnair’s largest growth area, and Japan is the company’s biggest market outside Finland.

“We are the national carrier of Finland, but we have grown beyond Finland with the business model we have,” explains Pekka Vauramo, president and CEO of Finnair. “We have a lot of connections with Japan: 28 per week, growing to 31 next summer. And those 28 have already made us the biggest European carrier to Japan by number of weekly flights.”

The decision to add more flights was made because of demand. Visit Finland, run by the Finnish Tourist Board, reported that overnight stays from Japan have increased by 14% in the past year alone. One reason for this boost in tourism, specifically, could be that both Lonely Planet and National Geographic Traveller ranked Finland in the top three best places to visit in 2017. It has also been a great year for Aurora Borealis.

Perhaps the greatest advantage that Finnair can give the Asian traveller is Finland’s location. Helsinki is the first city in Europe that planes reach on a typical flight path from Asia. By choosing to fly Finnair, customers in Japan who want to connect to other European destinations could shave several hours off their travel time.

“The question we are often asked is, ‘How do you differentiate yourselves as an airline?’,” says Jonne Lehtioksa, area vice president of Asia and Oceania for Finnair. “You can have food, service, all kinds of things that can be copied by your competition, but the geographical advantage — you can’t copy that.”

Vauramo adds: “If there’s no direct flight to your destination in Europe, Finland is the natural place to transfer.”

Helsinki Airport is a hub that connects Japan’s airports in Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya and Fukuoka, as well as other cities around Asia, with the more than 100 European destinations Finnair serves. There are numerous benefits for Japanese travellers transferring at Helsinki Airport. All the signage is in Japanese, for example; and, as a medium-sized airport, distances to other gates are relatively short, allowing for smooth connections. There is also Japanese-friendly passport control.

“Coming into Europe, only Japanese and South Korean passport-holders can be expedited through the gate — the same as European citizens,” says Hiroaki Nagahara, general manager of Finnair Japan.  “All they have to do is pick up their bags. It’s stress-free, and very convenient.”

And, unlike some major European airports with only two runways, Helsinki Airport has three.

“So, we don’t circle around,” says Lehtioksa. “We just land.”

Demand for additional routes is not solely one-way. Finnair flights to Japan are also selling well in Finland and throughout Europe.

“They used to be heavily weighted on the Japan traffic, but now, interest in Japan is growing, and lots of Europeans are visiting Japan more,” states Nagahara. “The route balance is much healthier.”

The success that Finnair is seeing today came after a carefully considered restructuring that ended in 2014. In its revised strategy, Finnair has chosen to focus on four main areas. The first is to grow the business, something it is currently doing at an accelerated rate. The second is high-quality personal service, which will allow the company to differentiate itself from the many airlines that have gone in the opposite, bare-bones direction. The third area of focus is cooperation with its staff, since they are the ones delivering the service. The fourth point is transforming the business to prepare it for the future, including digitalisation.

“We believe that we will grow as the market grows,” says Vauramo. “I would like to see us continue to grow at this rate, so we become a bigger airline than we are today.”

Thanks to the implementation of this new strategy, 2017 is shaping up to be the most successful year in Finnair’s 94-year history. Sales in 2016 were approximately €2.4 billion and, this year, the company is on track to see that increase by close to 10%, with profits expected to be between €135 million and €155 million.

This year is also a noteworthy one for Finland as it celebrates 100 years of independence. One way Finnair has been commemorating the event is with special meals onboard. In business class, Finnair is offering a menu created by Finnish chefs — and supported by the ELO Foundation for the Promotion of Finnish Food Culture — that has been inspired by the centennial. Passengers in economy class are also being treated to a unique culinary experience. Since 1948, every school in Finland has provided nutritious meals free to all students, grades one through twelve. To give Finns and the rest of the world an appreciation of this valuable social programme, Finnair is offering school meals, such as a macaroni and minced meat casserole or Finnish meatballs, as chosen by elementary school students from the city of Turku.

The celebrations will continue as 2018 marks Finnair’s 35th anniversary in Japan. It will also be five years since it entered into a joint venture with Japan Airlines (JAL), British Airways and Spain’s Iberia.

“We’re very happy with the cooperation,” says Vauramo. “It has brought very good results.”

According to Nagahara, JAL’s influence in Japan is significant and, once it started operating the Helsinki route in 2013, the Japanese market quickly became better informed about travel to Finland.

“The joint venture is our biggest tool to expand ourselves in this market,” adds Nagahara.

Finnair has a clear idea of where it is headed.

“We will move away from just being an airline and logistics company,” explains Vauramo. “We want to move towards providing experiences for passengers — during the flight, and even before and after the flight — to make travelling easier and more exciting for people. That’s how we feel that we will be more attractive as a company.” 

“we will grow as the market grows”