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Best of Airways — ‘Flying Through HEL’ Actually, Heaven

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Best of Airways — ‘Flying Through HEL’ Actually, Heaven

ELIAS HADJARI

Best of Airways — ‘Flying Through HEL’ Actually, Heaven
August 07
15:00 2017

By Enrique Perrella • Airways Magazine, May 2017


The first thing that comes to mind when we think of Finland is perhaps the cold, ruthless weather that reigns over the region for the better part of the year. Even the Finnish people are thought of as reserved individuals with a bit of cold in their personalities. Take, for example, the Formula 1 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen, who is dubbed the Ice Man.

Well, one would think of both icy conditions and cold weather as insuperable obstacles for airport operation. Think again; HEL has become the most reliable, on-time airport in the Northern European region, serving as the hub for Finnair’s impeccable operation (Airways, March 2017)—managing to beat the constant snowfalls, low visibility, and windy conditions that often cripple northern latitudes.

Airways was invited to see how HEL does it first-hand and explore the exciting developments the airport has undergone over the last five years.

Not too old of an airport

Originally opened for the 1952 Olympics, HEL has grown into a key player in the Nordic economy. The airport was conceived in the late 1940s, the postwar era that begged for efficient air connectivity throughout Europe.

The site for HEL was pinned about 20km from Helsinki’s city center, in the outskirts of Vantaa. On July 10, 1952, it opened its doors and the old Aero—now Finnair (AY)—transferred all its flights from the smaller Malmi Airport to the new Helsinki Airport.

According to Finavia—the company that handles the airport—HEL was built with two long runways, reaching 6,500ft (3,500m) and 5,900ft (2,900m).

During a lovely one-hour meeting with Airways, Ville Haapasaari, Helsinki Airport’s Director at Finavia, explained that, even though there wasn’t much traffic in the early years, the second runway was opened to mitigate the terrible winter and wind conditions.

“You know, harsh winter conditions in Helsinki forced the opening of a second and an eventual third runway,” he said. “We need to remain open in all wind conditions, so we need additional runways to allow this to happen.”

The airport’s rapid success and versatility were fueled by incoming jet aircraft, which brought increases in traffic, demanding a more formal passenger terminal.

The main building—still standing today—was finished in 1969. Subsequent attachments, which became home to today’s international terminal, were finished in 1983, allowing HEL to host over five million passengers per year in 1988.

An aerial view of Helsinki Airport, showing its convenient L-Shaped design with Terminals 1 and 2 visible on the lower and upper sides, respectively. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

An aerial view of Helsinki Airport, showing its convenient L-Shaped design with Terminals 1 and 2 visible on the lower and upper sides, respectively. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

Haapasaari proudly noted how, today, Finland’s main airport handles over 17 million passengers a year and provides around 20,000 jobs to the Finnish community.

Easy Flow

Since we’re not talking about a monstrous airport such as Paris Charles-de-Gaulle (CDG), HEL is very easy to transit. Haapasaari said it practically guarantees a connecting time of barely 35 minutes between flights, an accomplishment that has given it the distinction of being the most efficient hub in Europe.

The airport’s somewhat linear design enables excellent passenger flows. Terminals 1 and 2 are interconnected, allowing passengers to switch between them with ease.

Terminal 1 is mainly used for domestic and intra-European flights; Terminal 2 is used for Schengen and non-Schengen flights, among which are the long-haul operations from Finnair and foreign carriers.

The modern-looking main atrium in Terminal 2 is dedicated to Schengen and non-Schengen departures departures. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

The modern-looking main atrium in Terminal 2 is dedicated to Schengen and non-Schengen departures. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

In between T2’s Schengen and non-Schengen areas, a customs and passport control area processes incoming and outgoing passengers with extreme efficiency. Citizens of EU, EEA, Switzerland and Japan are processed by automated machines, which take less than 20 seconds to welcome them into Europe. Likewise, citizens of Korea, the US, Canada, Australia and New Zeeland can use them when they depart.

Both terminals were renovated to beautiful new standards between 2013 and 2016. “If you’d been here five years ago, you’d be surprised how much things have changed around here,” said Petra Laivonen, Communications Specialist at Finavia.

Customs/passport control machines process incoming and outgoing passengers with extreme efficiency. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

Customs/passport control machines process incoming and outgoing passengers with extreme efficiency.
PHOTO: FINAVIA.

As one walks into either terminal, beautiful modern wood, glass and tall ceiling designs give a fresh and airy feeling that’s second to none in the region. Proper lighting and spectacular runway views make passengers “feel cozy”, as Laivonen very appropriately described it.

“Some important Finnish touches have been added to both terminals,” she said. “The reason behind this is because we wanted to keep that unique Finnish feel to the airport, despite the fact that we were becoming more international in every way.”

The airport’s Sleepy Area allows passengers to rent spaceship-looking beds and sleep.  PHOTO: FINAVIA.

The airport’s Sleepy Area allows passengers to rent spaceship-looking beds and sleep. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

Such touches include wooden floors and walls, and a dedicated relaxation room with cork-made walls adorned with tree branches and a colorful rag rug on the floor. “Passengers come here to relax. They can bring a book and exchange it in our book-swap corner. A couple years ago we even had the famous Helsinki Airport Yoga sessions. Perhaps we’ll bring them back soon.”

On top of that, an entire section of the airport is dedicated to tired passengers looking to get some shuteye. “Passengers who wish to overnight inside the terminal can come to the Sleepy Area,” Laivonen said, “where they can rent a spaceship-looking bed and sleep for as long as they want.” Rates go from €5/hour (US$5.30) for short periods of time. Overnights carry a considerable discount.

Extra Revenues: Must

As we continued to stroll down the spacious terminal, stores and restaurants were nicely placed along the way. Laivonen explained that HEL opened its doors to diverse global operators a little over two years ago.

“Back then, we used to have fewer stores and operators and we weren’t capitalizing from essential non-aeronautical revenues. Today, not only have we increased our offerings, but we also increased service quality while our product prices became more affordable. Now, we’re increasing our avails,” she said.

The Book-Swap corner is another great relaxation area for passengers. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

Non-aeronautical revenues, such as those from car parking and leasing out space to duty-free shops and other operators, have become major sources of earnings for airports around the world, the perfect way to counteract regular fee drops.

One would think that airports survive by charging airlines for landing fees and items alike; however, the truth is that airports compete against each other to secure new airlines and routes, which forces them to drop some essential fees.

Finavia plays this game to perfection. “We have become the cheapest hub in Europe,” Haapasaari said.

“Our turnaround cost for an Airbus A321, is less than 50% of the average in Europe.”

Airport officials put a lot of thought into additional revenue sources. Petra Laivonen revealed that, before opening the doors to additional tenants, various studies were carried out to find out passenger needs and how to carefully position high-end stores where the most promising customers were more likely to pass by.

The beautifully designed baggage claim area is among the world’s favorites. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

The beautifully designed baggage claim area is among the world’s favorites. PHOTO: FINAVIA. 

“Our best spenders are passengers originating from China,” she said. “We have placed numerous high-end stores and Asian restaurants on the way from long-haul gates to the connecting area, and it’s working wonders.”

This Chinese traffic boom has prompted Finavia to establish a cooperation agreement with China’s Capital Airports Holding Company (CAH), operating over 40 airports in China, including Beijing-Capital (PEK). The goal: to gain a better understanding of the Chinese flyer.

“We have a joint benchmarking data sharing agreement in place with them,” Haapasaari said. “A comprehensive co-marketing and personal exchange program is in place to train our staff and gain experience on how to serve Chinese passengers better.”

Asked about future prospects, Haapasaari was certain about the future lying with China. “Our strategy is aligned with Finnair’s China expansion,” he said. “We are aiming to increase connectivity between Europe and China and officially talking with Chinese airlines to come into HEL. After all, we are the shortest and fastest way from Europe to Asia and the other way around.”

LCCs? Not entirely

One thing you won’t find at HEL is the omnipresent sea of LCCs. The reason? Their profile doesn’t really match HEL’s business model.

“Not necessarily unwelcome,” Haapasaari clarified. “LCCs are always welcome as long as they agree to the same terms we have for all our airline customers.”

Ryanair (FR), for instance, flies to some Finavia airports north of Helsinki. “We just don’t have an interest in giving any airline preferential treatment here,” Haapasaari noted.

“You see, we treat all our customers equally and cannot provide special treatment. Norwegian (DY), Vueling (VY)—and soon Transavia (HV)—are operating at HEL. There would be more interest from other LCCs in Helsinki but we haven’t found mutual terms for that so far,” explained the Airport Director.

“They [LCCs] demand things like a dedicated low cost terminal… And we cannot build one for them,” he affirmed.

“We’re already the cheapest hub in Europe. Dropping our prices more, just to have them here, would be unfair to our other carriers.”

Asked about the potential increase in traffic that LCCs normally bring, Haapasaari nodded, but sounded skeptical.

“I’m sure they would create a stimulus in traffic,” he said. “But, in the long run, we need to look after our development as a hub.”

Fundamentally, Ville Haapasaari believes the LCC point-to-point model wouldn’t fit with HEL’s current business model, because “connectivity through transfer traffic is important to us, and LCCs don’t adhere to that style.”

However, since the aviation world is a fast changing one, he believes “it might naturally change in the future when LCCs start connecting traffic and cooperating with other airlines,” he explained.

This strategy is paying off: Qatar Airways (QR) recently spread its massive wings into Helsinki. “They [Qatar] are a big traffic driver. We’ve experienced a noticeable increase since they opened their Doha-Helsinki link. They’re operating full flights into and out of here!” he said.

Currently, QR flies a daily Airbus A320 into HEL. “Sooner, rather than later, it could be a wide-body. We are expecting it!” he said.

Stellar Ground Handling

When it comes to ground handling and winter maintenance, Helsinki Airport owns serious bragging rights. It has won numerous awards for cleaning up a snow-covered runway in less than 11 minutes.

“During winter time, our team is ready to take action at any given time during the day,” Haapasaari said. “The last time we experienced a full airport closure was in 2003, for just 30 minutes. Since then, HEL has remained open even during the worst weather conditions,” he proudly noted.

Helsinki Airport has won numerous awards for cleaning up a snow-covered runway in less than 11 minutes. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

Helsinki Airport has won numerous awards for cleaning up a snow-covered runway in less than 11 minutes. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

Having three runways guarantees that at least one will always remain open, the Airport Director explained. “The other two can be cleaned quickly, making our airport the perfect alternate when things go bad elsewhere.”

One time, in fact, even an Airbus A380 landed at HEL. “I was ready to go to bed when operations called and told me that an Emirates (EK) A380 was diverting from Moscow because of bad weather,” Haapasaari said. “Everybody came back to the airport to see the big plane on our tarmac; surely an unforgettable experience.”

As far as baggage handling and de-icing are concerned, several contractors compete to get contracts from airlines. “The fact that we have different ground handlers forces them to be better than the others,” Haapasaari said. “They have to deliver and be price competitive, which makes them more efficient and attractive to airlines.”

Finavia constantly audits these contractors. “We need to make sure they deliver a quality product,” he said. “If they don’t, airlines might experience delays and, ultimately, leave. We can’t afford bad service.”

To coordinate these services, Haapasaari said, Finavia takes care of the organization, whereas the execution is completely in the hands of the contractors.

Growing Traffic. Growing Terminal.

In 2000, HEL experienced its first 10 million-passenger mark, a figure that continues to grow.

An Iberia Airbus A330-200 gets de-iced under a stunning clear and cold night—the norm at Helsinki Airport. PHOTO: ELIAS HADIARI.

An Iberia Airbus A330-200 gets de-iced under a stunning clear and cold night—the norm at Helsinki Airport. PHOTO: ELIAS HADIARI.

“This year, we’re expecting to reach the 18 million mark,” Haapasaari said. “This is over 80% of the total Finavia traffic, which comprises 21 airports around the country.”

To cope with the growing traffic, Helsinki Airport is going through a €900 million (US$950 million) expansion, designed to accommodate 20 million passengers by 2020, and 27 million by 2030. The airport’s total area will increase by a whopping 45%.

“This master plan is quite big for us,” Haapasaari admits. “We’ve gotten a €200 million (US$210 million) capital injection from the state, whereas the rest is being auto-financed by us.”

HEL’s traffic patterns, which are strictly determined by three major arrival/departure banks, feature periods during which the airport is deserted. Even so, Haapasaari said, the airport is at maximum capacity right now.

“Our airport gets incredibly busy during our three main banks,” he said. “If you come to HEL during these rush times, you’ll see masses of people moving through. It’s quite impressive.”

Each day, most of Finnair’s Asian flights arrive during the afternoon bank, and depart again around midnight. North American flights arrive during the morning bank, and leave during the afternoon.

Therefore, “the expansion plan will make sure long-haul operations are well catered for,” said Haapasaari.

Even though Finavia isn’t expecting any regular A380 service soon, they like to be prepared. “We are making one stand for the big jet. Our apron and taxiways are fit for it. But I don’t think it will be coming here within the next five years,” the Director said.

Economically Viable

Despite keeping the LCC sea away, Finavia makes money and remains profitable. “Our turnover is €380 million [US$350] per year,” he said. “2016 was surely a record-breaking year. We’re still waiting to get our final results.”

The Arctic Bar, located in front of Gate 30, T2, offers a spotter-friendly terrace where pictures can be taken of the tarmac/runways. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

The Arctic Bar, located in front of Gate 30, T2, offers a spotter-friendly terrace where pictures can be taken of the tarmac/runways. PHOTO: FINAVIA. 

But Finavia doesn’t take future success for granted. “We must ensure that traffic numbers keep steady for the upcoming years,” the Director said.

“We are a small company with a big responsibility, as what we earn here in Helsinki, we must use for the other 20 airports in the region.”

Asked about a potential privatization of Finland’s airport infrastructure, Haapasaari said that the Finnish government has strategically decided to keep Finavia a public entity.

The  ‘Almost Home Lounge’ is a comfortable and cozy place where travelers can stop by and relax between flights. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

The ‘Almost Home Lounge’ is a comfortable and cozy place where travelers can stop by and relax between flights. PHOTO: FINAVIA.

Cargo to Sustain

Cargo-handling, mostly in long-haul flights, is another way HEL makes money to offset low airline fees. “We don’t have a big freight operation here,” explained Haapasaari. “But airlines do carry big loads in their bellies, making long-haul flights very profitable.”

According to Finavia, over 200,000 tons are handled every year. About two thirds belong to belly cargo.

A Spotting Haven

And let’s not forget the most attractive characteristic of this airport: Helsinki Airport is happy to host a strong spotting community within and beyond the airport’s walls.

“We don’t see any harm in it,” Haapasaari said. “Spotting spreads the word of our airport. It’s nothing more than a positive thing!”

Aviation enthusiasts and professional photographers often come to HEL and spend hours shooting the stunning sunsets and unique Nordic scenery that combine so well with incoming and outgoing airplanes.

Dramatic night shots are also possible at Helsinki Airport. PHOTO: ELIAS HADIARI.

Dramatic night shots are also possible at Helsinki Airport. PHOTO: ELIAS HADIARI.

Steady. Fast. Like the Ice Man

Helsinki Airport has been on a two-decade winning streak. It has won endless awards since 1997, including Best Airport in Europe, Best Airport in the World, Best Lounge in the World, and Best Airport in Social Media.

SkyTrax constantly ranks it as one of the best airports to visit. It’s all the product of the hard, steady, and fast work of the excellent team that steers the Finavia ship.

So if you ever have the chance to ‘Fly Through HEL’, I’m certain it won’t be as bad as it sounds. In fact, it will be quite heavenly.

An EuroAtlantic Boeing 777-200(ER) departs under a typical Finnish afternoon. PHOTO: ELIAS HADIARI.

An EuroAtlantic Boeing 777-200(ER) departs under a typical Finnish afternoon. PHOTO: ELIAS HADIARI.

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About Author

Enrique Perrella

Enrique Perrella

Commercial Pilot and Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Graduate. Aviation MBA, Av-Gas Addict, Spotter, Globetrotter, Airplane Collector, Cook, AS Roma fan, and on my free time, I fly the Airways Ship. Favorite airline, airport and aircraft: Viasa, Tokyo-Haneda, and MD-11. Love to Fly, Fly to Love.

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