Finnair – Carrying the Flag

Finnair is Finland’s flag carrier, specialising in traffic between Europe and Asia, headquartered in Vantaa on the grounds of its hub, Helsinki Airport. This airline and its subsidiaries have established themselves as a major European player in terms of air travel and cargo service provider. We find out how Finland’s largest airline has shifted towards a great focus on cargo to help aid the COVID-19 crisis.

“We’re one of the oldest airlines in operation,” says Mikko Tainio, Managing Director of Finnair’s cargo division. “We’re building on our Nordic heritage by staying innovative and listening to our customers. We’re a premium airline for passengers and cargo.”

One of the reasons Finnair occupies such an enviable place in the market is that the airline has established connections across the globe, making travel easier for passengers and cargo alike.

“What’s really unique is the network we have, especially between Europe and Asia,” Tainio says. “We offer the shortest connection time between the two continents, really giving the shortest route between many European capitals and big cities, and the connections are smooth. That’s unique.”

This network has enabled Finnair to undergo a period of tremendous growth in recent times, as Tainio points out, “What’s special about us is the growth we’ve seen in the last couple of years. We have focused on making ourselves one of the biggest European carriers to Asian countries, for Japan and China, and that is where our focus will be. Connecting traffic especially is something we’re very much focusing on with a lot of growth coming from those passengers and cargo.”

Converting for Cargo
Of course, this year saw the advent of a global crisis that would have an impact on airlines in particular, and with a strong presence in Asia, Finnair was among the first to see the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We first started seeing the impact in early February because we’re flying a lot to China and we saw cancellations there from customers,” Tainio says. “Then after the spread of COVID-19 in March, we started ramping down our network, serving only the primary routes via Finland. What’s happened in the cargo area is normal passenger airlines were wound down in favour of cargo flights.”

Cargo has always been an integral part of Finnair’s business model, but the COVID-19 pandemic would see it become even more significant as the world’s logistics and supply chain networks came under strain.

“We started discussing if it would make sense in flying cargo-only flights to destinations we’re normally serving and very quickly the situation started emerging where we were seeing requests for customers coming in with a demand for these kinds of operations,” Tainio tells us. “As 90% of passenger planes vanished from the logistics market the global distribution chain was broken for a while.”

Finnair’s work here proved to be essential to improving the global supply chain situation, especially as demand for PPE manufactured in Asia skyrocketed.

“We helped clear the backlogs of the global supply chain,” Tainio says. “There was especially a need for protective equipment supplied by China, so we ensured an adequate response to the crisis by delivering this protective equipment as quickly as possible from China and other Asian production centres to Europe.”

To meet this rising demand Finnair embarked on a huge conversion project regarding two of their A330 passenger planes.

“Very early on we sought more capacity because there was already some congestion due to the huge cargo demand. We started seeking out ways to extend the capacity of our aircraft, and we had close discussions with the authorities and it became possible for us to do a modification on these aircraft,” Tainio says.

Converting a passenger plane into a cargo plane is not simply a question of ripping seats out, however. It is a huge and complex project, but also one that needed to be achieved quickly so that Finnair could meet the demand for cargo flights.

“Normally it’s a long process to make such extensive modifications to an aircraft but the technical side of the design took only a couple of days. That is as well as the time to do the technical rework on the aircraft, as well as a lot of work to ensure the safety of the aircraft. It is not just about removing the seats. It is making sure the plane is loaded properly with cabins normally designed for passengers. There’s a lot of restrictions and monitoring that needs to be put into these flights,” Tainio says. “We now have three of these operating so far more than 80 flights and the capacity of the aircraft has been more than doubled for cargo.”

Protecting Their People
Thorough the COVID-19 crisis, Finnair has taken steps to ensure the health and care of their staff.

“First of all, this is a big crisis for the whole airline industry, with more than 6,000 employees furloughed,” Tainio says. “For three months our staff was practically not flying aside from cargo-only and some special flights. Especially in the most difficult times, we have concentrated on keeping our staff informed, keeping close communication loops for all our staff, keeping everyone on track with what is happening and what is being done. We’re trying to make sure all our staff are still feeling well and able to return to work as quickly as possible.”

As lockdown eases in various parts of the world, Finnair is looking beyond the pandemic at the work they can be doing to update their industry sector and help the environment.

“We’re now starting to ramp up back to normal, although obviously there’s a question mark over how long that will take,” Tainio admits. “We’re trusting that in the future the projects and development we saw as very important before the crisis will stay important after the crisis and we will be focusing on those areas. The things we will be developing, especially on the cargo side it’ been a fairly old-fashioned industry so far with the digitalisation of deliveries just taking off. We’re going to be focusing on that with our customers the sustainability aspects of the airline industry are also ones we take seriously.”