Finnair's Topi Manner on U.S. service and joint-venture deals

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In March, Finnair launched a Los Angeles-Helsinki flight, its fifth U.S. route, joining Helsinki service from New York JFK, Chicago O'Hare, Miami and San Francisco. Airlines editor Robert Silk spoke with the carrier's new CEO, Topi Manner, about its U.S. network, its joint-venture partnership with American and other Finnair initiatives and airline industry issues.

Q: How has your new Los Angeles route performed so far?

Topi Manner
Topi Manner

A: The start has been very upbeat. We see a lot of demand; Nordic people wanting to visit Los Angeles, and increasingly we see people from the U.S., from all destinations, wanting to visit the Nordic region. U.S. travelers are especially connecting to Scandinavia, also the Baltics and to Russia. It's the magic of the Nordic winter that attracts people during the wintertime, so the northern lights, the winter activities, the tranquility. And then, during the summer, the midnight sun in the Nordics and the lush, green forest. Also, I think that Helsinki is probably the best-kept secret in Europe. For example, the restaurants are top-notch in Helsinki these days.

Q: What else is Helsinki known for that maybe our U.S. market isn't aware of?

A: The Nordic design of its architecture. That's definitely one. It is a city where the Nordic minimalistic architectural design meets the old buildings from the time of the czars in Russia, back in the 16th, 17th, 18th centuries. And when you look at the cultural scene, whether you are talking about music or art, I think that the city has a lot to offer.

Q: Some readers might not know that you are a part of the transatlantic joint venture that also includes American, British Airways and Iberia.

A: We are flying 95 destinations under the Atlantic joint business umbrella. Fifty-five of those are from American, 32 from BA, eight from Iberia and five is our number.

Q: How does your joint business strategically help Finnair in the U.S. market?

A: We are a midsize airline and partnerships are a possibility for an airline like us to seek scale beyond our size. The collaboration that we have with American in terms of sales and distribution in the U.S. is very important for us. We have a very international clientele on these routes, and when we look at the customers coming from the U.S., a notable number of them are customers who are booked through American as codeshare customers.

Q: On the joint business, what can customers expect in terms of seamlessness? If someone books their flight through Finnair but they are actually flying on an American plane and they have a disruption in their itinerary, can Finnair address their problem, or can only American help?

A: In the Oneworld context overall, we are trying to improve the digital experience for customers who are connecting with multiple airlines and flying multiple legs. The initiative is called Carrier Connect in Oneworld. What we will be doing in the latter part of this year and moving into 2020 is progressively rolling out updates to this service and thereby gradually improving the seamlessness for our customers.

Q: At this point, are there situations where a customer might be told: we don't have the backend systems aligned, you need to talk to American even though you might have booked on Finnair?

A: The way it works today is that if a customers has a connecting itinerary, they are able to view the itinerary on the Finnair app, but they will be redirected to the AA website to actually do the check-in formality.

Q: So, let's say, they fly on Finnair and the flight is late and they don't make the American connection, and they want to have American resolve it, will American have to refer them back to Finnair or could American deal with it?

A: Actually, I must say that I'm not sure. (Editor's Note: Finnair spokeswoman Paivyt Tallqvist followed up on this in a later email: "We have recognized this pain point. At the moment we have different booking systems and all the changes done in the marketing booking don't necessarily always reflect to operating carriers systems, but we are working to solve this issue together with Atlantic Joint Business partners. Our aim is always to serve the customer at the first point of contact.")

Q: You joined Finnair in January, and recently Finnair announced its NDC Partner Program, which provides content to participating travel agency partners that won't be available on other indirect channels. Is distribution transformation a particular focus of yours?

A: Absolutely. It is an important focus area and an important initiative for us. As you know, digitization enables efficiencies in distribution. We are encouraging our travel agency partners to adopt these new technologies. We want to do that in collaboration with the travel agents. We think that the travel agents will continue to play a very critical and important role in our value chain in many of our markets. We are introducing open APIs for them to connect with our distribution technologies. We are also introducing NDC capability in partnership with the GDSs. Our solution, as opposed to the likes of Lufthansa, does not include a GDS surcharge.

Q: When does this program roll out to the U.S. market?

A: We are starting with Finland, Sweden, Norway, Russia, Germany and the U.K. We don't have a timeline for introducing other markets as of now. But, of course, we will be collecting experiences over the course of the fall, and we will be deciding on the subsequent rollout plan afterward. The plan is to cover all of our markets.  

Q: Crashes in the airline industry have bumped upward in the past one-and-a-half years. I know Finnair doesn't fly Boeing planes. But are there processes taking place, not just with Boeing but among regulators, that are perhaps weakening safety?

A: First of all, as you stated, we have an all Airbus fleet, so we are observing the situation with Boeing from the outside. When I look at the work of regulators around safety, I predominantly have the experience of European regulators, and I think they are as focused as ever on safety. And I think the regulatory demand and regulatory scrutiny is definitely the way it should be.

When it comes the fundamental question of is there enough focus on safety in this industry, my take on this is that definitely there is.

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