Finnair enters 2017 in buoyant mood.
The airline last year saw revenue increase by 2.8 per cent year-on-year to €2.3 billion, capping a decade of growth.
Focused on building a bridge between Europe and Asia, the Finnish flag-carrier has carved out a lucrative niche for itself.
Launching its first flight to Tokyo in 1983, Finnair took the explicit decision to punch above its weight.
It has not looked back since.
Last year it became the largest European carrier to Japan, with rapid growth also underway in China.
Speaking to Breaking Travel News, Juha Järvinen, chief commercial officer, Finnair, explains: “Connections to Asia are around 50 per cent of our capacity.
“Our Asian routes definitely lay the foundations for us to develop and to try to utilise the geographic advantage we have with Helsinki.
“It lays the foundation for our European traffic.
“Also, in China, we now have 35 frequencies a week; we are again one of the biggest European carriers there.”
Indeed, Finnair is in some respects ahead of where it hoped to be in 2017.
In 2011 the carrier set a target to double Asian traffic by 2020, but is reaching the milestone ahead of plan.
“We are currently looking to reach that doubling by 2018, so two years ahead of schedule,” explains Järvinen.
“We have prioritised the routes in Asia and at the same time we have accelerated the long-haul fleet growth.
“We are maintaining some of the aircraft that are supposed to be returned – so we now have strong fleet growth ahead of us.”
The focus on Asia was a strategic decision on the part of Finnair to capitalise on the geographical position of its hub in Helsinki, offering quick connections from across Europe to booming Asian markets.
“Our base in Finland is a great advantage and that is not going to change – cutting the distances between the two continents of Europe and Asia,” explains Järvinen.
“We can rotate our aircraft through Asia in 24 hours which gives us a permanent asset benefit.
“But our overall customer focus is also to build quick, seamlessness connections out of Helsinki Airport.
“It takes 40 minutes to transit, so our connection reliability is over 99 per cent, so it is a very easy airport to change.
“That is the foundation of our future growth.”
With Asian connections developing nicely, Finnair has also been turning its attention to growing capacity on its west-bound flights, adding a series of new destinations.
“With our Caribbean and Mexican expansion, it is all about diversifying the network, even though we have been very successful in our Asian operation,” continues Järvinen.
“Of course the competition is tough, especially in the winter season.
“We are launching scheduled flights to the Dominican Republic, Cuba and also the Mexican Pacific coast, Puerto Vallarta.
“The catchment for those flights is Scandinavia, the Nordics, Baltics, and Russia.
“Russian demand has suffered for a number of years now, with the downturn in the economy, but this is beginning to stabilise .
“We are confident that we also see an improved demand out of Russia, and this also applies to our North American routes as well.”
Cuba, too, is rising up the agenda for the Finnish carrier, with new connections launching later this year.
“We are launching twice a week, to Havana, firstly as a seasonal route, but based on the performance we may go year round.
“The European demand for Cuba has existed for a long time, but now there is a lot of investment into Cuba, in hotels and tourism capacity, so we believe there is potential for growth.
“Demand from the US has also not grown as expected, so there is an opportunity for European travel.”
There has, however, been rumbling discontent from Finnair over the development of oneworld.
Chief executive Pekka Vauramo has previously argued the carrier is operating at a disadvantage because of the airline alliance’s failure to secure a partner in the fast growing Chinese and Indian markets.
While agreeing, Järvinen is also quick to point to the successes of the body.
“oneworld has in many ways been very successful for us,” he explains.
“It is a facilitator to joint businesses where we are now involved; the Atlantic joint business, which we have with American Airlines, British Airways and Iberia; and then the Siberian joint business with Japan Airlines, British Airways, and Iberia.
“oneworld lays the foundation for our international platform and the joint businesses are of course and excellent example of it.”
So who does Finnair wish to see join oneworld?
“In China we want to maintain a good dialogue with multiple carriers, and those discussions are on-going, which is a normal process to map the alternatives.
“We hope to find a partner in the near future.”
In the longer-term there are also concerns Finnair could be left behind by the continued consolidation in the European aviation market.
Finnair chairman Klaus Heinemann has revealed concerns Finnair could be “further marginalised” by increasingly strong competition, damaging both the carrier and Finnish business more generally.
Expanding, Järvinen explains: “We are of course actively following what is happening in Europe.
“Our overall opinion is that consolidation will continue.
“Our main focus is to ensure Finnair remains on its profitable growth path, to deliver a positive financial return.
“This is of course the best way to ensure we can have an active discussion in a consolidation scenario if that happens.
“We will then hopefully be attractive to a potential consolidation.”
So what of the demands the Finnish government should consider a change in the ownership of the airline to mitigate risks of potential marginalisation?
Järvinen bats away the question: “We cannot comment on behalf of the owners - they make their own decisions.
“We believe that would be the best for the future of Finnair, but it is up to the owner to make that decision.”
With Finland celebrating its centenary of independence from Russia in 2017, tourism is also seeing a sharp boost.
Explaining how the trend benefits the carrier, Järvinen adds: “We look forward to our own centenary in 2023, but first Finland of course, our home base.
“It is important that we participate this year.
“Overall, what is positive for us is that there is sizeable growth in incoming tourism to the Nordic region at the moment.
“This is from China especially, visiting Finland and Lapland.
“There is sizable interest in Nordic region and central Europe from Asia and we of course aim to capitalise on that interest.
“Also from the US, the number of US passengers on Finnair grew by over 30 per cent last year, so we do see a strong interest toward Finland and the Nordic region.
“It is a new destination for tourism.”
Finnair flies between Asia, Europe and North America with an emphasis on fast connections via Helsinki, carrying more than ten million passengers annually and connecting 18 cities in Asia with more than 60 destinations in Europe.
The airline, a pioneer in sustainable flying, is the European launch customer of the next-generation, eco-smart Airbus A350 XWB aircraft.
Finnair is a member of oneworld, the alliance of the world’s leading airlines committed to providing the highest level of service and convenience to frequent international travellers.
Find out more on the official website.