Topi Manner, CEO of Finnair discusses the hard and soft skills required to make a modern airline safe, sustainable, and successful 

Due to its geographical location, Finland is a key point of travel between Asia and Europe. At the state-owned carrier, Finnair, understanding this unique value proposition and building around it with strong alliances, increased digitalization and a commitment to sustainability has the airline in a strong position, as CEO Topi Manner explains.

Is the airline’s strategy still based on providing services to Asia?

Providing the shortest connections between Europe and Asia is at the heart of our strategy and is reflected in the recent growth of our Asian network.

We are adding our fifth Japanese destination, Sapporo, to the network in December 2019, and in March 2020, we start operating the only non-stop connection from Europe to Busan, the second largest city in South Korea. We are also increasing our weekly frequencies to Beijing to 10, with three weekly flights to the new Daxing International Airport starting in November 2019.

Geography works in our favor, as the shortest route between many European cities and the megacities of Asia goes through Helsinki. This enables efficient 24-hour fleet rotation and crew rotation, and convenient timetables for our customers.

Is oneworld still important to you and how will alliances develop?

Alliances continue to have an important role in our strategy. oneworld extends our network and enables us to provide a better offering for our customers. Also important are the joint businesses we have with our oneworld partners on Atlantic traffic as well as on traffic between Europe and Japan.

Similarily, Finnair and LATAM Airlines Group implemented recently a new codeshare agreement on flights between Finnair’s hub in Helsinki and LATAM’s hubs in São Paulo, Brazil, and in Santiago, Chile, via five European gateways: London, Paris, Madrid, Barcelona, and Milan.  

But collaboration comes in many forms and shapes and does not have to be limited to alliances. We have recently announced codeshares with China Southern and Juneyao
 in China, and these new codeshares provide enhanced connections to our customers from our Shanghai and Guangzhou destinations onwards.

Up to 80% of our landings at Helsinki are fuel and noise-saving continuous descent landings, which supports our sustainability targets

How important is partnering with digital companies as you strive for sustainable, profitable growth?

In the digital world, small can be beautiful, as it makes us agile, and while we have a strong in-house digital team, collaboration gives us scale.

Our collaboration with Alipay is a good example of this: Finnair was the first airline in the world to offer Alipay mobile payment onboard, and the introduction of this popular payment method was very well received by our Chinese customers.

Collaborations with digital platforms such as Fliggy in China extend our reach and make our offering more widely available.

We are also partnering with digital players in introducing artificial intelligence (AI) to different parts of our operations. We have AI solutions in use at our customer services to speed up the responses and in our flight operations to predict the impacts of weather 
in our operations, for example.  

Why is company culture so important to Finnair and what benefits do you see?

A great customer experience requires a great people experience. Customer service is creative work and it requires a good atmosphere.

It is absolutely essential to have a company culture that supports the company strategy. I find that a common set of values and an open and honest continuous dialogue within the organization is key to achieving strategic goals. It is also important every now and then to take the pulse of the company culture, as it evolves as the company goes through different phases. You cannot take culture for granted.  

Are you happy with the infrastructure in Helsinki, both on the ground and in the air?

The expansion of Helsinki Airport supports our growing traffic, and we work closely together with Finavia and other partners to ensure that the customer experience at the airport is as smooth as possible during the renovation and expansion, and that we avoid creating bottlenecks for transit customers. Transfer customers bring over 50% of our revenues, 
so a smooth transfer experience is vital for us.

We are also expanding our own facilities. Our renewed business class lounge and the new Platinum Wing on the non-Shengen side of Helsinki airport offer more space and new services for our customers.  

The uncongested airspace in Helsinki, meanwhile, allows us to fly fuel-efficiently. Up to 80% of our landings at Helsinki are fuel and noise-saving continuous descent landings, which supports our sustainability targets.

In March 2020, Finnair will operate the only non-stop connection from Europe to Busan, South Korea’s second city. We are also increasing our weekly frequencies to Beijing to 10. Geography works in our favor, as the shortest route between many European cities and the megacities of Asia goes through Helsinki.

What do you see as the main challenges ahead for aviation?

Globally, the climate challenge is something we all must do more about. There are no easy answers, but we must use the entire toolkit that is available; technology, which will be the largest part of the solution, infrastructure improvements like more efficient airspace use, operative measures such as reducing aircraft weight, market-based methods such as the Carbon Offsetting Reduction Scheme for International Aviation (CORSIA), as well as sustainable aviation fuels.

It is also important to see and understand the links between challenges, whether it is aviation emissions, fuel prices, airspace or fair competition. Pulling on one string has a ramification on another. Aviation leaders, such as IATA and ICAO, are at the forefront in ensuring that we identify comprehensive solutions that can strengthen sustainable business on all fronts.  

Can European congestion be solved?

The congestion and inefficiencies in European airspace are key challenges that we must address. It would benefit travelers, airlines, and, most importantly, it would greatly help 
in meeting industry targets for CO2 reduction.

The fragmented airspace currently hinders airlines from flying the shortest possible routes and from using fuel-saving flight methods, such as continuous descent landings.

Stakeholders have recently signed a Single European Sky declaration to show commitment, which is one step forward. But more open-minded collaboration is needed to get there. The solutions for more environmentally-friendly European skies are in the hands of European Union (EU) institutions and the EU member states.

A more efficient use of airspace would save 10% of CO2 emissions from European aviation. We cannot afford not to reach this target.

Tell us about “Push for Change” and whether you think aviation can win the public relations battle on the environment, particularly in light of the flight shame campaign?

In the Nordics, the discussion around aviation’s CO2 footprint is very active, and it provides us an opportunity to say more about what we as an airline are doing, and also what customers can do.

As an industry, we must all do more to solve the climate challenge. We launched a CO2 offsetting and sustainable aviation fuel service for our customers at the beginning of 2019 to provide our customers an easy way to be a part of this work.

Via our website, customers can either offset the CO2 emissions of their flights through a certified CO2 reduction initiative, or purchase sustainable aviation fuel and thus reduce the emissions from their flights. The initiative has been well received, and in August, we flew two sustainable aviation fuel flights with a 12% blend from San Francisco to Helsinki, supported by our customers’ fuel purchases.

At the same time, we continue to decrease our environmental footprint. Fuel efficient flight methods, decreasing the aircraft weight and investment into new technology are all important in this, and we place a strong focus on these.

The real battle is with finding zero emission energy sources, but we cannot ignore any of the smaller steps either. CORSIA plays a key role and I sincerely hope it is given all the support it deserves.

Founded in 1923 as Aero O/Y, Finnair operated its first flight in 1924 from Helsinki to Tallinn

83 aircraft make up the Finnair fleet

130+ destinations served by Finnair across three continents

Finnair is the sixth oldest airline that has operated continuously

Do governments do enough to support aviation considering the benefits of the industry in terms of jobs and economic growth?

Aviation creates both social and economic good and funds its own infrastructure. Governments can support aviation by ensuring a stable and predictable operating environment, which is needed to ensure profitable operations that enable investment in the future.

To solve the global climate challenge, we also need action from governments, the industry, and the international community that have a real and tangible impact on CO2 emissions. For example, creating a healthy sustainable aviation fuel market requires collaboration that shares the costs of the fuel between the different players.

What skills or attributes do you need as a modern airline leader?

The airline industry combines both sides of the brain in a fascinating way. This is about sense and sensibility. Listening is key, as is building a team that delivers.