Image: Lehtikuva


Once Finland's crown jewel, the partly state-owned Finnair has seen a steady decline in its stature. "The world is like an apple," begins a nostalgic Finnair advertisement from the 1960s. "We live here," illustrates a hand, sketching a modest circle on the apple. "While we've been exploring nearby destinations, this spring heralds a leap farther. With our two majestic DC-8-62 jets, we promise America. Daily flights via Amsterdam and Copenhagen lead you to New York and back."

The scene shifts, capturing a pilot savouring a bite from the apple. An apple, branded with the Finnair logo and bearing a bite mark, rests on the table. "The world is drawing closer," the voiceover proclaims.

Those were golden times when Finns ventured beyond their saunas, eager to uncover the world. Finnair played the role of the bridge, connecting them to distant horizons.

Yet, like any story, Finnair's journey encountered highs and lows. Periods of prosperity interspersed with staggering financial losses. The carousel of CEOs revolved. In a dramatic pivot, the airline, in a bid for self-preservation, seemingly distanced itself from its Finnish roots. No more taking Finns to the world or bringing the world to Finland. Investing heavily in the "Via Helsinki" strategy, Finnair acquired a fleet of Airbus A350 XWBs, presenting itself as the optimal conduit for the influx of tourists from China, Korea, Japan, and other parts of the Far East, heading to Europe's iconic cities. Interestingly, not to Helsinki itself but "via Helsinki." The Helsinki-Vantaa airport transformed into a bustling transit hub. The majority of passengers merely changed flights, continuing on to Paris, Rome, London or Vienna. Then, Covid reared its head, halting flights for nearly two years. The only exception being empty flights, preserving prized airport slots globally. As air travel hinted at a resurgence, geopolitical tensions involving EU's stance on Russia threw a wrench in Finnair's operations. Finnair’s northern route relied heavily on using Russian airspace. Most Asian routs suddenly became 40% longer. Flights to Osaka, Nagoya, Tokyo Haneda, Sapporo, and Fukuoka were suspended. A350s were leased to Eurowings. Again, Finnair's momentum was curtailed.

Have the airline’s ups and downs been a string of unfortunate events or is mismanagement at play? Finnair lost an staggering billion euros in 2020 -2021. Decpite that, in 2020, CEO Topi Manner received nearly 400,000 euros in bonuses. Meanwhile, the state (read tax payers) capitalised Finnair with almost 300 million euros and guaranteed loans of 600 million euros. Despite this financial support, the company balanced its finances with significant layoffs and terminated 1,000 employees, effectively transferring them to receive unemployment benefits, i.e. taxpayers payrolls. Following the co-determination negotiations, Finnair's total annual earnings for its staff also decreased by 40 percent. Manner recently resigned from Finnair. He is still in charge of the company until the end of this year, after which he will go to lead Elisa.

Indeed, as the world shrinks, the aviation industry's competitiveness intensifies. The key to thriving hinges on offering unmatched quality or unbeatable prices. Finnair, regrettably, couldn't champion either. The result? A precarious position no airline wishes to occupy: subpar and overpriced. 

To counteract this, a succession of questionable decisions emanated from the corporate echelons. The introduction of the "economy superlight" ticket is merely the latest stratagem from a company seemingly losing its pulse on both market realities and customer sentiment. One can almost picture the discussions: "Charge the passengers for every conceivable service!" Every aspect of the journey was monetised, from seats to meals, and even cabin luggage. The irony isn't lost on many: the very taxpayers who've repeatedly rescued Finnair from the brink have felt the brunt of these measures.

Unchangeable, nonrefundable, no cabin luggage, pay extra for seat selection, pay extra for snack or food; the ticket is meant for cargo, not a passenger. 

Finland has never been synonymous with sterling customer service. Combine that reputation with Finnair's increasingly apparent apathy towards its passengers, and the result is far from commendable. This glaring discrepancy offers rivals an amusing spectacle. A tongue-in-cheek slogan for Finnair might read: "Finnair: Just settle the bill and hold your peace,” says your cashier in the sky.

Feedback on Finnair's modus operandi and passenger treatment has surged. The Helsinki Times is inundated with letters from exasperated patrons every week. From lost luggage, bad treatment and cancelled flights to the poor quality food or subpar service, complains are plenty and frequent.

Recounting a travel debacle, one passenger says, "Our flight from Kuopio to Helsinki was abruptly cancelled. Finnair's solution? A bus ride to Helsinki." Their request for compensation was met with a nonchalant, "You arrived at your destination, didn't you?" The five-hour journey was punctuated with a frugal offering that masqueraded as a sandwich.

An aggrieved mother recounts her ordeal of attempting to reschedule her daughter's flight. The mother's frustration is palpable. A refrain emerges: Finnair's unwavering focus on revenue, often at the expense of passenger satisfaction.

"My daughter was set to join me on a work trip to Rome, purchasing her ticket with a credit from a previously cancelled Finnair flight. When my conference dates changed, I altered my booking. Despite contacting Finnair three times to explain my daughter's neurodivergent status and anxiety, which meant she couldn't travel alone, their indifferent (sometimes outright rude) customer service turned us down each time. They pointed to her "light" ticket's no-change policy, even though seats were available on the earlier flight.” She adds, "Finnair's maddening policy meant we couldn't even buy a one-way ticket without cancelling the return leg of her initial booking. It was either travel separately or forfeit the original fare AND purchase a new roundtrip ticket for a whopping 700 euros." The difference between a ”light” and ”classic” flexible ticket would have been about 40 euros. The mother’s frustration is palpable. "We were curtly told to consider these issues when purchasing a 'light' ticket. Their representative even admitted they receive hundreds of such calls weekly—each of which they charge €1.7. If an airline fields hundreds of complaints on one issue, isn't that a glaring sign something's amiss?"

"When I boarded the plane, there were empty seats all around me. My baby girl was alone at home and had to travel the next day. I was heartbroken. All that was just because Finnair wanted to punish us for buying a light ticket." 

Finnair's recent advertising campaigns seem a far cry from its adventurous past. "Illaksi kotiin," or "Ensuring you're home by nightfall," they declare. This inward-looking message suggests caution rather than exploration. While they promise a return to familiarity, it's with a caveat: subject to flight availability and barring any corporate turbulence. Perhaps the prudent choice is to stay grounded or entrust another carrier with your journey.


Alexis Kouros

Editor in Chief

Helsinki Times

*Updated 22 sept. Manner's resignation added.*