I know it sounds really cliché to say this, but time really seems to fly past you rapidly when you are having fun. Those seven days that I have spent in Europe were a whirlwind of touring historical sites and learning as much as possible about the histories and cultures of those countries that I visited. We managed to trek all the way to Berlin, Germany from Helsinki by taking the long away around, through Sweden, Norway, and Denmark before eventually arriving at the German port city of Rostock. Amazingly, we went back to Helsinki in the exact same way we came. Those short seven days spent in Scandinavia really improved my understanding of Europe as a continent and spurred my interest in Scandinavian culture.
Alas, it was time to travel to China, our next destination. We would be traveling to the city of Changsha in southeast China, where the majority of my extended family lives. After five days meeting my cousins, uncles, and aunts that I haven't seen in quite a few years, I would be taking a flight to Beijing, where we would take a week-long tour of the city and its surrounding areas, including the port city of Tianjin, as well as Chengde, where the emperors of China lived during the harsh summers North China often faced historically.
Up until now, Finnair's longhaul expansion has been mostly targeted at Asia. They serve all the major cities in both East Asia and Southeast Asia, as well as many secondary cities and tourist destinations. As such, Finnair is a popular airline for those who are traveling to Asia. Finnair actively promotes a single connection in the efficient Helsinki airport with a built-in stopover, much like what IcelandAir and WOW Air have done to promote stopovers and connections in Iceland.
Interestingly, Finnair was actually the second airline in the world (behind Qatar Airways) to take delivery of the innovative Airbus A350. They have ordered 19 such aircraft, and are mostly focused in deploying them on its lucrative routes to Asia. These fuel-sipping A350s allow them to increase capacity on certain popular routes, as well as provide an opportunity to present passengers with an exceptional passenger experience.
Helsinki-Beijing was one of those routes that was operated by Finnair's new A350. As such, our plan was to take the afternoon flight to Beijing, arriving in the capital city of China in the early morning hours. My mom built in a 6-hour layover for us in Beijing, simply due to how inefficient the airport was and potential delays that we might face in the notorious Chinese airport system. We will then be taking a nonstop flight to Changsha on an Air China A330-300, departing around noon. I should note that Air China, which is not a well-regarded airline, seems to be the only airline that my parents trust...does anyone here tend to go out of their way to fly Air China when they are traveling to Asia?
Before the Flight
After arriving in Helsinki around 7 AM on a ship from Stockholm, Sweden, we decided to explore more of the city before heading to the airport for the 4 PM flight to China. We decided to visit Suomenlinna (Finnish: Castle of Finland), a sprawling fortress complex spread over six islands located in Helsinki's South Harbor. There were abandoned cannons, fortification walls, and bunkers spread out everywhere. During the Finnish War of 1808, Suomenlinna was the site where Finland officially surrendered to Russia. Words really cannot do justice to the grandiosity of this UNESCO World Heritage site, so I'll let the pictures do the talking.
Pretty amazing isn't it?
After taking the ferry back to Kauppatori, we decided to walk to the bus terminal in Hakaniemi, right next to the Cumulus Hakaniemi, the hotel we stayed in our first night here. It took about 10 minutes, and soon enough, after grabbing some whole wheat bread with Salmon soup for lunch, we were at the bus stop waiting for the 615 city bus that connects Helsinki and Vantaa with HEL airport. Unfortunately, the bus runs only about once every 30 minutes, and we got the the bus station right after a 615 bus left. Bummer...
Once on the bus with our luggage, it was about a 45 minute ride through the outskirts of Helsinki and the neighboring city of Vantaa before we drove past the aircraft hangars and industrial complexes that surround Helsinki-Vantaa airport. The bus stops at both Terminal 1 (for intra-European flights; also known as the Schengen area) as well as Terminal 2, which caters to most long-haul flights out of Helsinki. It should be noted that although it may sound like there are two separate terminals, they actually form one long concourse, with terminals 1 and 2 being the check-in areas for Schengen and non-Schengen flights, respectively.
After checking in our bags in Terminal 2 with a friendly agent, we scanned our boarding passes at a gate, and proceeded to pass through a security check. After my dad got his face lotion confiscated, we walked through a snaking duty free store, where we bought some wine and chocolates for our friends in China. The duty free shop is fairly long, and every traveler is forced to pass through this shop on their way to the gates. Unfortunately, this seems to be the norm for most airports in Europe.
After the duty free stores, you'll have to walk past all of the Schengen gates before arriving at a passport control facility to access the international concourse. Now, Helsinki Airport features biometric passport processing, so all I had to do was scan my passport and stand in front of a camera that processed my facial features to see if it matched up with the passport or not. It was extremely efficient (and really cool!), and we got our passports stamped by an agent just 2 minutes later.
Our flight would be departing from gate 34, where a majestic Finnair A350, with distinct and modern features setting it apart from the A330s and A340s parked at neighboring gates, was resting before her next flight. Our aircraft would be OH-LWE, Finnair's 5th A350 and the second youngest in the fleet at that time. She was delivered factory-fresh to the airline in April 2016.
August 12, 2016
Finnair flight # AY 51
HEL (Helsinki-Vantaa International) - PEK (Beijing-Capital International)
Airbus A350-941 (OH-LWE)
Economy, Seat 42L
Flight Time 7:01
During The Flight
Boarding was called not long after we arrived at the gate, and OneWorld elites and Business class passengers boarded first, followed by Economy Comfort, and then followed by the two groups of regular economy. We had our seats assigned at the counter when we checked in, and I had no idea where we would be sitting, except for the fact that we were in the rear economy cabin.
Once I entered the aircraft, I was greeted by a friendly flight attendant at the door, as well as an interesting blue-white hue of mood lighting displayed by the aircraft. It almost felt like the sky itself with clouds was being displayed by the mood lighting system! As this aircraft was about three months old, it still had that new plane smell. Business class, arranged in an ultra-private reverse herringbone configuration with direct aisle access for every seat, featured seats manufactured by Zodiac. This seating arrangement seems to be the new standard in long-haul business class, and is about as good as it gets. Finnair did choose a fairly plain gray color scheme for its seats, but it was nicely complemented with colored Marimekko amenities at every seat. Finnair has also chosen Zodiac for its economy class seats. These were of the Z300 slimline model, a fairly new product designed especially for the A350. In fact, China Airlines has this exact seat on their A350s as well. Each seat was stocked with a large mesh pocket at the bottom, a large 11-inch diagonal width Panasonic eX3 entertainment screen (featuring Finnair's awesome A350 nose and tail cameras), and an articulating seat pan that offers an excellent amount of recline; furthermore, these aircraft have much more seat pitch than the A330s, meaning that I would have a fair amount of space to stretch out, even if the seat in front of me was reclined. Like business class, I felt that the predominantly gray color scheme was a little plain, but the green Marimekko blanket added a nice touch of Finnish design to the cabin. In terms of the aircraft itself, the A350 really does incorporate many elements that improve passenger comfort, in my opinion. The ceiling was noticeably higher than the A330, which meant that I wouldn't be banging my head on the overhead panel when getting up to use the lavatory. Furthermore, pivoting overhead bins allow for much more capacity for carry-on baggage. Furthermore, the mood lighting, which supposedly helps alleviate jet lag. The air inside the cabin is refreshed by the bleed air from the engines every 2-3 minutes (a small amount of the air sucked in by the engine is actually used as cabin air), and the lower cabin pressure should alleviate sinus congestion and make the flight a little more comfortable for passengers.
I was pleased to discover that my seat was 42L, one of the most coveted economy seats on the entire aircraft. The window seats in row 42 are special in that they do not have a seat in front; thus, they come with a window view, infinite legroom, and aisle access. These normally cost about 30 euros to select on a flight of this duration, though I was assigned it at no additional cost during check-in.
While I was putting my backpack in to the overhead bin, the video reminding passengers to join Finnair Plus (Finnair's FFP) and upgrade to an economy comfort/business class seats was shown. We pushed back just a few minutes after I sat down, and both Rolls Royce Trent XWB-84 engines were started up. I should mention that although these engines are highly efficient, they produce a pungent fuel smell in the cabin as they initiate fuel flows from the tanks. This is due to the fact that bleed air from the engines is being pumped into the cabin at this point, and usually disappears in less than 30 seconds. Apparently all A350s exhibit this interesting characteristic. Furthermore, the hydraulic-driven flaps are also fairly loud, similar to the Airbus A380. In fact, most modern Airbus aircraft tend to feature extremely loud flaps, as compared to their Boeing counterparts.
We had a fairly long taxi to runway 22R, the isolated runway at the northwest end of the airport. Along the way, the safety video was shown, with a live demo being conducted in the cabin as well. The entertainment screens were then activated, allowing the nose and tail cameras to be turned on for those who weren't in window seats. Unfortunately, I was not able to use my video screen because it was stowed in the armrest, which is prohibited for takeoff and landing. My dad had his tail camera on, though, so I was able to gauge our position at the airport.
Once we lined up on the active runway, the Rolls-Royce engines spooled up with a low-pitched hum, and immediately ramped to full TO/GA power after sitting at 50% thrust for a few seconds. I felt an intense amount of acceleration as I was pushed back into my seat, but the engines, surprisingly, were so quiet that it honestly didn't sound like we were accelerating at such a fast rate! The A350 is said to be 20% quieter than similar aircraft such as the Boeing 777, but I though it was much more quieter than that.
After takeoff, we immediately banked east, setting a course that would take us over Russia and Mongolia. Once we cruised through 10,000 feet, the video explaining the in-flight procedures was shown, and the dinner serve began. The options were chicken and potatoes, or Chinese barbecued pork with rice and vegetables. I chose the Chinese option, which consisted of a few slices of Sha Cha Pork, steamed white rice, and assorted vegetables. It came with a salad, bread, cheese, crackers, and a Finnish chocolate bar for dessert. It was fairly delicious, and very filling despite the small portion.
I took some time after dinner to explore the entertainment system. This modern eX3 system was larger and much more responsive than its counterpart on the A330s. It also featured an interface unique to the A350, with a timeline indicating when dinner, breakfast, and duty free would be conducted, as well as expected departure and arrival times. I though that this was a nice touch by Finnair, as it reminds passengers what to expect during the flight, presumably to not make them disappointed. The entertainment itself, though was decent, and the selection was different than the A330's slightly outdated selection. This version featured many more international and recent titles, in terms of both movies and TV shows. For some reason, there were no games, but the tail camera basically made up for everything, because whenever you were bored, you could just pull up the tail camera view, and watch the A350 cruise 40,000 feet above the ground. I could probably watch that all day for hours on end...
The entertainment system also came with the standard Panasonic eX3 moving map, an innovative system that displays the position of your aircraft from many angles, including a virtual cockpit view and passenger cabin views as well. Furthermore, Finnair has decided to customize the map by adding information about tourist attractions to the cities that they served with the A350. For example, you could find some information about the Forbidden Palace, the Temple of Heaven, as well as other attractions when you clicked on the city of Beijing in the map.
As this was an overnight flight, I decided to watch a Chinese TV show about a young boy who traveled alone from China to Fiji in order to meet his father. It was fairly entertaining, but as I was struggling to keep my eyes open, I decided to take a short nap.
I woke up three hours later over Mongolia, feeling somewhat more refreshed than I have been on other flights (presumably due to the lower cabin pressure and other environmental enhancements). I paid a small visit to the lavatory, which did not feel cramped at all. When I came out, the orange mood lighting, simulating a sunrise, was activated, and passengers were beginning to wake up. A breakfast service was also announced during this time. Although economy passengers don't get a choice, the meal was fairly delicious for me. It consisted of a small omelet, with breakfast potatoes, sausage, wilted spinach, and some tomato sauce. Some bread, yogurt, and tomato juice was also offered.
Looking out the window, you could see the sun rising over Inner Mongolia. One thing that I really enjoy about overnight flights is that you almost always get to see the sun rise in the morning - with brilliant hues of yellow, orange, and eventually red. Furthermore, the mood lighting reflected the environment outside the aircraft, gradually brightening as the sun rose. I thought that this was a very cool touch, and helped me wake up gradually instead of suddenly before we were scheduled to arrive at our destination.
Note: The pictures below were taken on the return flight from Beijing to Helsinki.
I spent the rest of the flight watching the moving map or using the tail camera. About an hour later, the Captain announced our descent, and we dived below some pretty thick clouds blanketing Beijing that day.
After we broke through the cloud cover, the sprawling metropolis of Beijing lay right below us. Although the day wasn't hazy, you could clearly see the immense industrial presence in this area of the country. We landed without delay on runway 36L, before a snaking queue of planes. As this airport was far from Terminal 3, where we were scheduled to dock, we had a fairly lengthy taxi. I was really amazed by the size of the airport alone, with the massive Terminal 3 stretching as far as the eye can see. It's surprising that an airport this size only has three runways (then again, that explains why it usually has massive delays).
Once we docked next to an All Nippon Airways 777-200ER from Tokyo, we were released into the lower level of the gate itself (yes, the gates here are two stories high), which directed us over to the passport control area. Although the airport itself was just waking up at this point (with not a lot of flights), the passport control experience was just downright unacceptable. With just two flights' (our flight and the Etihad flight) worth of passengers, immigration should have been a breeze. Unfortunately, only two of the 10 lanes I believe were opened, so it took me almost 2 hours to get through passport alone, and another 20 minutes were spent retrieving our bags from the baggage claim.
Once we were through, we had to exit the terminal and re-enter the domestic departures area because no international-domestic transfer services were available; thus, we had to re-check our bags, re-clear security, etc. Because of how big Terminal 3 is, the walk from the international arrivals area to the domestic departures area took almost 30 minutes. Hopefully the new Daxing airport, set to open in 2019, solves many of these problems.
Finnair's A350 exceeded my expectations by offering a superior experience from a passenger standpoint. Again, the Nordic culture theme took center stage in this flight. Through their interior designs, food, and service, Finnair has demonstrated how proud they are about their local culture. Personally, I feel really proud flying Finnair because of how much they have invested to give passengers a taste of Scandinavian culture. The Zodiac Z300 seats are much more superior to those on the A330s, and having an infinite seat pitch really did make the flight much more enjoyable. The eX3 entertainment suite is a huge step up from its predecessor, though Finnair could offer a few more recent Hollywood movies. However, the exceptional tail camera and moving map helped offset many of these negativities. The A350 itself was a magnificent aircraft, since it was designed from the bottom up to be an epitome of passenger comfort. Sure, the immigration process at Beijing was terrible, but I was so excited from my first A350 flight that I simply didn't care at all. To conclude, Finnair has a very solid product in Economy on their A350s, and I certainly wouldn't hesitate to fly on this aircraft with them in the future.