Embarking on a three-country trip to Asia, I needed to craft an itinerary that would allow me to fly into my first destination (Japan), and fly out of my last destination (Thailand), at a good price point and duration. Asian carriers seemed to be a natural choice, however, the choice of European flights from Bangkok and the price (about 60% of the cheapest Asian carrier from Chicago, EVA Air) led me to a new airline, Finnair.
Getting to Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport is easy for anyone, with direct rail service from downtown Chicago via the city’s Blue Line subway, buses from suburban areas, and ample taxi, Uber & Lyft drivers around the airport. However, O’Hare’s Terminal 5 (the terminal for most international departures, save for American, United and a few of their partners) is set apart from the main terminal complex, requiring connecting passengers or those arriving via public transport to take the airport transit system, a train that connects the terminals to each other, as well as to various parking lots around the airport.
I arrived at Terminal 5 via Uber and walked straight into the terminal. At 7:45pm, the check-in area was a quiet area, with the European rush occurring a few hour prior, and only a few flights departing around our scheduled departure time at 10:00pm.
Finnair had five desks allocated for their flight, with one dedicated to Business Class and Finnair Plus elite members, and four dedicated to Economy Class passengers. With a line of only a few passengers, it was expected that it would be a short wait, however, it took almost ten minutes for us to be served. At the desk, when checking in baggage, I could see that some of the check-in staff were struggling to communicate with passengers in different languages. I interpreted this as a sign that Finnair’s model of funneling passengers through Helsinki was working, as I heard people around me going to destinations such as Delhi, Gdansk, Moscow, and St. Petersburg.
The Swissport employees staffing the desk instructed me to bring my check-in luggage to a TSA pre-screening area, which was a hassle given its location halfway across the terminal. However, within a few minutes, everything was taken care of, and with passport and boarding pass in hand, I proceeded to the Business Class line at the main security checkpoint…until I realized that it just merged with the regular security line halfway down the hallway. Security took around 20 minutes, not too bad for O’Hare, which is notoriously slow, especially in the international terminal.
Lounge & Boarding
Terminal 5 underwent a two-year renovation between 2012 and 2014, and is still shining inside, with a decently-sized duty-free shopping area and food selections from Chicago’s most popular restaurants, including Rick Bayless’ Frontera Grill, a favorite of passengers traveling through all of O’Hare’s terminals.
Finnair’s Business Class passengers can use the Air France-KLM Lounge, one of seven lounges in Terminal 5 (the others lounges operated by British Airways (2), Korean Air, SAS, Swiss/Austrian and Swissport). Finnair recently made the switch from O’Hare’s Swissport lounge to the AF-KLM Lounge, which is great for passengers; one of the lounge attendants inside the AF-KLM Lounge told me that many passengers have told her the Swissport Lounge is akin to sitting in a dungeon.
The AF-KLM Lounge is one of the nicer ones at O’Hare, however, with nearly half the airlines operating into T5 allowing their passengers access into the lounge, it can get very packed at peak hours. When entering the lounge, about 80% of the seats were taken by passengers traveling on Finnair, LOT and Royal Jordanian, and a few early EVA Air passengers. The lounge is split up into three rooms, and it was relatively easy to find an open chair in one of the side rooms.
The lounge offered a few options for food, but nothing too special — a soup, cold sandwiches, chips, fruit, candy and instant ramen. There was a place for hot options, but during my time in the lounge, there were no hot options to be seen. When leaving, I saw attendants putting out a noodle dish, just as a number of EVA Air passengers began to walk in.
The attendants made boarding announcements for every flight departing that night, and the Finnair one was made promptly at 9:20pm, the time listed on my boarding pass. The walk from the lounge to M16, the gate, was a bit long but covered in around five minutes. Business Class and priority passengers were boarding as I walked up, and a gate agent took my passport and boarding pass, checked and scanned them, and waved me through.
Cabin & Seat
Finnair’s Airbus A330-300s have a variety of Business Class cabins in terms of the number of seats, however, all of their aircraft have seats configured in an alternating 2-2-1, 1-2-1 configuration.
The A & C paired seats (on the left-hand side) share a center console and do not have a privacy divider between them. This could be nice for couples or those traveling with people they know, but there is enough space between the seats that it should not be socially awkward for those who do not know each other. Seats in the middle have one table per seat, as do the L seats (on the right-hand side).
I selected 5L, as all of the single seats with a table on the aisle side of the seat had been selected already, and the “throne” seats (seats with two tables) had been selected as well. For those who book far in advance, and are traveling alone, the best seats to choose would be 2A, 4A, and 6A — the thrones.
The seats in the cabin are 21 inches wide and offer 60 inches of pitch (according to Seatguru). When the seat is in full-recline mode, the bed is approximately 75 inches long — just enough for my 73-inch frame to lie down flat comfortably.
I was greeted at my seat with two menus, an amenity kit, slippers, a pillow and a pair of noise-cancelling headphones. A blanket was stored by the flight attendants in the overhead compartment, which allowed passengers to store their personal belongings in the storage spaces available to them during takeoff. The spaces allotted for storage in the seat were ample for fitting all of the things given.
While the seat was very comfortable, the product was showing a bit of wear and tear, including dents and scratches on different compartments around the seat.
Takeoff / In-Flight
After settling down into my seat, I was greeted by one of the two main flight attendants working the Business Class cabin that night, carrying around a tray of drinks including champagne, water, and blueberry juice — something different that I’ve never seen before. Intrigued, I grabbed a glass of the blueberry juice. It was a very refreshing flavor, and not too sweet. After drinks, the flight attendants came with a cart full of newspapers. Most were in Finnish, fresh off the presses that morning and brought to Chicago on the Finnair flight just a few hours prior. In English, they offered the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times.
While flipping through the menu, 10 o’clock came, and the doors closed. However, we did not move, and it took fifteen minutes for the pilots to announce that we were delayed because the ground crew “forgot” to load six pallets onto the plane. The flight attendants came through the cabin, asking passengers if they’d like refills, and apologizing for the delay, which was a nice touch. They also used this time to ask passengers what main course they’d like for the meal — more on food later. At 10:34pm, we pushed back from the gate, and announcements were made in English and Finnish. After a five-minute taxi to Runway 28R, we were off to Helsinki.
Our flight path took us over the western suburbs, before curving northeast, flying over Wisconsin and Lake Michigan, before crossing into Canada. I took this time to explore the IFE system. The physical screen is a bit on the smaller side, but large enough to see the content when lying down. Finnair’s IFE system is configured in five different languages — English, Suomi, Chinese (Simplified), Korean and Japanese. The system has around 60 movies, a number of TV shows, but most importantly to avgeeks — a front and downward-view camera, and a flight map.
Finnair’s in-flight wifi service, Nordic Sky, was activated after we passed through 10,000 feet. There was no announcement that wifi was available on this flight, however, the in-flight magazine mentioned that wifi was available on select A330 and all A350 aircraft. Joining the network was easy, and the online interface was very easy to use. One of the best functions was the ability to see connecting flight information at your fingertips, instead of waiting later in the flight for flight attendants to come out with scrolls of paper with all connecting flight information.You can purchase Wi-Fi access for one hour for €7.95, three hours for €11.95 or for the whole flight for €19.95.
Business Class, Economy Comfort, and Finnair Plus Gold passengers get one hour of complimentary access to the Wi-Fi, while Finnair Plus Platinum passengers get complimentary access the entire flight. The wi-fi was fast enough to load emails and social media apps such as Facebook and WhatsApp. However, it was not fast enough to use (or intentionally blocked access to) Instagram and Snapchat.
The dinner service did not start until around 11:20pm local time, in part because of turbulence and also because of our late departure. The meal was served in three courses; a smoked salmon and cream cheese starter (not pictured), a shrimp and cabbage salad appetizer served with the main course (along with a side salad and assorted bread), and a choice between ice cream and small cakes for dessert. There were three options for the main course, but I went along with the chicken. It was surprisingly not dry, and the risotto served it was quite flavorful.
For dessert, the vanilla ice cream was Haagen-Dazs, and no one can go wrong with that.
During the middle of the flight, the flight attendants set up a little self-service snack bar area in the galley aft of the cabin, which offered a mix of sweet and salty snacks, including chocolates, fruit tarts, chips, popcorn, toasted corn and instant ramen. Given the late timing of the flight, not a lot of passengers took advantage of it, and much of the food was left over or offered to passengers before the end of the flight.
Breakfast was served about an hour and a half before landing. Two options were given:. I went with the omelet, which was served with a plate of fresh fruit, yogurt, and more bread. The omelet was standard, but the hash browns were surprisingly crispy. The croissant served was disappointingly soggy, but the fruit still tasted fresh.
Throughout the flight, I downed a few glasses of the blueberry juice (something I’ll have to look for in the supermarkets close to home now!). I remarked to the flight attendant that I’d never had it before that flight, and she told me that Finnair introduced it on its flights starting with the introduction of the A350 into the fleet. To whoever was responsible for ordering the A350 at Finnair — thank you for ordering a beautiful aircraft, and for bringing me blueberry juice!
A few years ago, the airline teamed up with Finnish brand Marimekko to create new designs for onboard products, including its amenity kit. There are five different designs, with all passengers aboard a flight receiving the same design.
Finnair offers a bare bones kit at each seat upon boarding, with additional items available on request. The basic kit includes an eye mask, toothbrush & toothpaste, L’Occitane brand hand cream (labeled as “Fabulous Serum”) and lip balm, a pair of ear plugs in a Finnair-branded holding case, and a sheet of paper detailing the additional items on request and a brief description of the collaboration between Finnair and Marimekko. Slippers, socks, shaving kits, mouthwash, hair brushes and makeup remover wipes are available upon request from the crew.
The eye mask was soft and comfortable to use, and I especially liked how the eye mask featured a flap at the bottom to block light coming in from around your nose — something that I find often occurs when using eye masks aboard other airlines. The L’Occitane products felt like an upgrade compared to other airlines which use generic airline-branded lotions onboard, which was a nice touch.
The lavatories featured hand lotion as well as hand towels for passengers to use, however, there was no place to put used hand towels besides in the garbage, which was confusing. The flight attendants kept the lavatories quite clean, checking and cleaning them about once an hour throughout the flight.
The flight attendants at Finnair were both friendly and professional at all times and seemed to enjoy talking to all passengers, whether it be about travel or common interests. The flight attendants seemed to communicate with each other quite well too — essential to serving a good product to passengers.
Every flight attendant on board was at least bilingual, with most being trilingual, and a few even quadrilingual; the quadrilingual flight attendant working the Business Class cabin was fluent in English, Finnish, Swedish and Italian. They switched effortlessly between the languages when moving throughout the cabin, which was very impressive to watch.
While the flight attendants kept to themselves in the galley during the quiet parts of the flight, they were also very attentive to passengers; when I went to the self-service snack bar, a flight attendant in the galley immediately stood up and asked if she could help in any way. Later in the flight, when I asked about the details of connecting in Helsinki, the flight attendants were very helpful in giving me the information I needed to know and offering to connect me with a Finnair representative when on the ground who could assist me in the case they did not satisfy what I needed to know. These smaller touches really made the in-flight experience stand out.
Our arrival path into Helsinki took us north of the airport, before turning 180 degrees and landing. We touched down five minutes before our scheduled arrival time, even with the 35-minute delay in Chicago. Upon landing, we taxied to a remote stand, where two buses were waiting to take us to the terminal. While only one staircase was connected to the aircraft, the flight attendants blocked Economy Class passengers from deboarding until every Business Class passenger had left the aircraft, which made deboarding a much more peaceful experience.
Finnair had checked my luggage all the way to Tokyo back in Chicago, and connecting from a non-Schengen flight to another non-Schengen flight did not require me to pass through passport control. Instead, it was a three-minute walk from the gate to the Finnair lounge, where I spent a calm two hours before descending into the frenzy of Helsinki Airport at rush hour, battling my way to a bus gate to board to Tokyo.
Finnair’s Business Class product is a great way to cross the Atlantic. From their courteous flight attendants to the good culinary options and comfortable hard product, all at a cheap price, it is no doubt an option I would choose again if given the option. The only lackluster parts involved checking in and the lounge experience at Chicago O’Hare, as well as the bit of wear and tear on the seats, however, these weren’t enough to take away from the great impression that Finnair’s product left on me. Finnair’s Airbus A330s are also due to be outfitted with Finnair’s A350 Business Class product soon, which should make a great experience even better.
All photos by author except noted. Featured image by Valentin Hintikka via Wikimedia Commons.