Tundra to tropics
Finnair's first non-stop flight to Guangzhou took to the skies from Helsinki-Vantaa Airport three times a week starting on September 4.
"Finnair has intentionally concentrated on Asia business since 2000," says Henrik Arle, executive vice president and chief operation officer (COO) of Finnair's scheduled passenger traffic division.
"Guangzhou is already the fourth Chinese destination for Finnair, along with Beijing, Shanghai and Hong Kong. We will also be opening a new route to Nagoya, Japan in spring 2006."
Departures are on Mondays, Wednesdays and Saturdays, with return flights from Helsinki on Tuesdays, Fridays and Sundays. The flights take about 10 hours.
The new route connects the icy northern European city to the Chinese tropics.
"This is our selling point," says Mikko Rautio, Finnair's director of sales for South Korea, the Chinese mainland, Taiwan and Hong Kong.
"We want to show north Europeans that there is sunshine not just in Bangkok, but in south China, too. Cantonese passengers will also have an opportunity to experience a colder climate," Rautio adds.
He says that Finnair will package Hainan Province, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, Hong Kong, Macao and Guangzhou together as southern China tourism products.
"We're encouraging Finnish people to see the region. We've done our research, and we think that Guangzhou can be a tourist destination," says Rautio.
Guangzhou is a historically significant city with an authentic traditional Chinese atmosphere. Two thousand years of foreign trade have also left their mark on the city.
The Reinius brothers were the first Finns to visit Guangzhou, on behalf of the Swedish East India Company in 1745.
"Next year, an ancient sailboat will depart for China from Sweden, to trace the East India Co route. This is raising Guangzhou and China's profile in northern Europe," says Rautio.
"An increasing number of Finnish enterprises have chosen Guangdong Province for investment and trading. The annual China Foreign Trade Guangzhou Exhibition will also benefit from our new route."
Guangzhou is one of the fastest growing industrial production regions in the world, and is one of China's most important economic hubs. It is located close to the mouth of the Pearl River and is part of the Pearl Delta economic triangle.
"I am sure the new route will strengthen trade ties between northern Europe and China," says Rautio.
"The keys to success are the right people in the right place at the right time, which is why we are competitive. It's kind of like that old Chinese expression, 'tian shi, di li, ren he'," Rautio says.
Finnair flies to Guangzhou's modern new airport that opened last year. The airport also provides onward connections to the rest of the Chinese mainland, Hong Kong and Macao.
"Finnair is the third European airline to use the new Guangzhou airport," says Rautio.
Air France and German Lufthansa also operate flights from the facility.
"The average income in Guangzhou is comparatively higher than the rest of China and Cantonese are also big international travellers. The time is right to get into this market."
The airline's expansive network offers connections for both Asian and European customers through Helsinki-Vantaa Airport, where changeover times are as fast as 35 minutes.
"Compare that to the chaos at Charles de Gaulle in Paris or the airport in Frankfurt. Helsinki-Vantaa is good because it's small," says Rautio.
"That has really helped Finnair's transfer times. We're always one of the top three most punctual airlines in Europe."
Timing depends on both the airline's management and the airport's air traffic control staff.
"Finland is also the closest European country to China, so our flight times are always the shortest."
The Beijing to Helsinki flight takes about eight hours and the Shanghai flight takes nine.
"Any airline going from China to Europe has to pass Finland. Changeovers in Helsinki offer the shortest total travel times to passengers. We're blessed by geography," says Rautio.
Finnair's network covers much of Europe, but only 10 European countries are home to airlines serving China. Most destinations on the continent require transfers in these countries.
"Finnair is the best choice for simple transfers and shorter travel times," says Rautio.
The airline is firmly committed to passenger-oriented service.
"Helsinki-Vantaa is the only airport in Europe with Chinese signs, and Finnair employs Chinese receptionists there to serve all airlines to and from China. Chinese passengers can easily get help in their mother tongue."
The airline also has Chinese cabin crews for its flights.
"Localization of Chinese cabin crews is very important. We only hire local people. The Guangzhou route is only staffed by Cantonese speaking city residents," says Rautio.
Business Class cabins on Finnair's Boeing MD-11 aircraft serving are also being revamped with new lie-flat seats. The upgrades will be done over the coming winter and all Boeing MD-11 Business Class cabins will feature the seats by March 2006.
"We don't have First Class cabins, but we can raise Business Class to the same standard by changing seating, food and service," says Rautio.
Finnair keeps passengers by maintaining positive relationships with travel agencies, particularly companies catering to package tourists.
"Finnair is not a huge airline, but I am confident our service and short flight times are strong selling points for agencies."
Finnair's future prospects in China are promising, Rautio says.
"We plan to continue expanding there."
Finnair opened its first route in China 17 years ago. It has grown from those original two to 18 a week in four cities. The airline plans to launch a new route in the near future. Tourism, population and business will determine the location.
"The destination has not yet been decided, but it will likely be an inland city," Rautio says.
"We won't ignore places where Finnish and northern European companies invest. Nokia recently announced it will build a research and development centre in Chengdu, (Southwest China's Sichuan Province). We have definitely taken notice."
Nokia provides a base line for Finnair's cargo. Nearly every Finnair flight carries the Finnish companies' products.
"Our relationship with Nokia means we never worry about our cargo business."
Asia accounts for 25 per cent of Finnair's entire business and more than half of its Asian routes are to China.
"Ten per cent of our sales revenues come from China routes."
The airline will fly 140 monthly intercontinental flights from next spring on seven Boeing MD-11s to Tokyo, Nagoya, Osaka, Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong, Singapore, Bangkok and New York.
(China Daily 09/19/2005 page5)
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