DALLAS — Finnair (AY) is turning 100 this year, a milestone not many airlines can claim. Its hub at Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (HEL) allowed the Finnish flag carrier to be a leader in the Asia-Europe market, a success which can be traced back to 1983 when AY operated the first non-stop flight to Tokyo with a DC-10-30ER equipped with additional fuel tanks.
Since then, the airline has become a European leader in mastering the Europe-Asia corridor, serving a total of 15 airports in the Asian continent in July 2019.
In February 2022, with the pandemic nearing its last stages and only a few weeks before the Russian airspace closure, AY announced an ambitious €200m refurbishment plan to modernize its long-haul fleet comprised of Airbus A330s and A350s.
Together with the introduction of a premium economy class, the carrier was the launch customer for a new Business Class seat, the AirLounge, developed in collaboration with Collins Aerospace.
The seat takes inspiration from lounge furniture and aims to give each passenger a “living room” experience in the sky. As expected, the seat features a fully-flat bed in the sky. However, what ignited quite some debate around this design is the fact that no electronic seat reclining is found.
Airways had the chance to experience the old and new Business Class seats, on two relatively short flights, from Amsterdam (AMS) to Helsinki and from Helsinki (HEL) to London (LHR). The verdict?
Sometimes less is more, especially when carefully considered.
Amsterdam Schiphol to Helsinki – AY1302
My flight to Helsinki, AY1302, was scheduled to depart at 11:55 local time. I booked seat 3L, free of charge when checking in online. Passengers can take up to one small bag, two carry-on bags, and two 32 kg checked bags.
Since my stay in Helsinki was limited to only a few days, I did not take full advantage of this generous luggage allowance.
Flying Business Class allows you to access lounge nr. 26 at Amsterdam Schiphol, in the Schengen area, where I had a quick breakfast, continuing our tradition of espresso and croissant, and soon headed to the gate.
We boarded on time our A350-900XWB, OH-LWL, sporting the special ‘Marimekko’ livery. Despite not being older than six years, this aircraft is due for a cabin upgrade soon. The first section of this A350 welcomes 32 Business Class seats, and the remaining part of the cabin is dedicated to economy class.
This aircraft featured the “old” cabin design from AY, with no premium economy and reverse herringbone seats in Business Class. We took off from the famous Polderbaan runway in Schiphol Airport, enjoying some good views of Amsterdam from my window seat, 3L.
A hot towel was handed out after take-off, and a quick lunch service started soon.
The aircraft offered Wi-Fi, which was not enabled during our flight. However, the Nordic Sky interface provided some nice entertainment content, and in the near future, it will include a digital copy of the in-flight magazine.
The touchscreen IFE had a very low latency and could be controlled through a remote, although this comes in handy only for games. I particularly appreciated the fact that the IFE monitor could be stowed for extra window views.
Now, to the recliner seat. The itself seat felt a little plasticky, with a very light color palette that is prone to tear and wear. However, the reclining mechanism was fast and precise. I quickly tested the lie-flat bed, which is what you would expect from a reverse herringbone seat: not the widest seat in the skies, offering decent privacy when in sleeping mode due to the cabin’s configuration.
During this 2:20 hours flight, I checked multiple times the cabin to see how many people were actually using the seat in any hybrid reclined position. The answer? One person out of almost fifteen passengers.
Before testing the new seat itself, we already have a partial verdict: the so-rumored function that the new AirLounge is eliminating is not the most used in business class, at least for short-haul flights.
We landed in Helsinki after a couple of hours, and as far as intra-European flights go, this experience had just a few areas of improvement, which are simply the result of the cuts announced by Finnair in the past months.
However, any short hop across Europe on board a narrowbody aircraft in Business Class is a rare and pleasant surprise for any traveler.
Helsinki – London Heathrow, AY1331
AY1331, the first flight in the morning from Helsinki to London Heathrow, is scheduled at 8:00 am local time. I immediately checked in my suitcases and headed to security – which took a bit longer than expected as almost half of the carry-on luggage needed a second security screening.
Business Class passengers can access the flagship Finnair lounge next to gate 52, which was serving breakfast at the time of my early visit. Guests are welcome by a corner featuring the commemorative uniforms from Finnair’s 100 years of history, celebrating the important achievement.
I particularly liked the lounge design – the area can comfortably accommodate 450 guests in a stylish Nordic environment, which inspired the design of the new Business Class seat. The gate 52 lounge features different seating areas, all equipped with power outlets, multiple coffee bars and a central bar, together with book-on-the-moment showers.
My gate was immediately next to the lounge. Like the AMS-HEL flight, our beautiful A350-900XWB, OW-LWP, was again equipped with a special livery, this time featuring the Moomins.
As you enter the aircraft, the difference between the two cabins is quite substantial. Despite the lack of central luggage bins, the 1-2-1 configuration cabin feels more “crowded” due to the larger area taken by each seat, and the large dividing panels.
Once you sit down though, the feeling changes. The amount of space in the suite is drastically increased over the previous seat, thanks also to the use of continuous padding. A blue and wood color palette improves on the white colors of the old cabin.
Two pillows are found, further increasing the comfort of this shell. The ottoman is also significantly larger than the reverse herringbone seat, more on this later.
We soon pushed back and taxied to our runway for this 3 hours flight to London Heathrow. Hot towels and breakfast were served soon after take-off, and I had a lovely chat with the cabin crew about the traditional iittala glassware that Finnair uses in Business Class.
The breakfast service was excellent, with the flight attendants always checking on the full Business Class cabin. We were delighted with clear views of the Scandinavia peninsula as we climbed to FL400. I also connected to the complimentary one-hour Wi-Fi voucher, which worked brilliantly.
Back to the seat. the IFE monitor is larger and closer to you than in the reverse herringbone design, and its interface has also been updated. The touchscreen monitor can still be controlled through a remote located in a storage compartment next to the seat’s backrest, which also holds a USB C and A charger.
Close to the window, a storage compartment holds a bottle of water and the in-flight magazine, leaving enough space for personal belongings. A large table is found next to the seat, where you can comfortably put your laptop or camera, which also features a fast wireless charger for portable devices. A few electronic controls are placed underneath the table, including the switch to release the tray table.
The only electronically reclinable part of the seat is the footrest. A space filler is also manually raised to finish the long and wide lie-flat bed. Was the bed padding comfortable? Absolutely.
The sleeping configuration is one of the most comfortable you can find in Business Class today, with a greater overall surface area in which passengers can get comfortable. In my opinion, this makes up for the lack of reclining.
What impressed me the most about this new seat is the privacy, comfort, and overall bed quality. The new AirLounge seat really stands out and raises the bar for future premium seat designs.
There is no need for a sliding door as the large dividing wall already provides great privacy, and the lack of a complex reclining system allows you to save weight and use the suite space more efficiently.
For a short flight from Finland to the United Kingdom, this is as good as it can possibly get. Overall, the AirLounge design is a win-win: a more comfortable, lighter seat that provides more space and additional privacy.
The new AirLounge seat has a few cons too: the IFE monitor does not tilt, which can be an issue when laying down, and the tray table could have been sturdier and perhaps larger. These are minor drawbacks with respect to the many advantages that this seat brings.
We landed on time in London Heathrow Terminal 3, parking our A350-900XWB between two A330s, after a great intra-European flight on board a product that Finnair bravely introduced more than a year ago, which I think is paying off.
While these two flights were relatively short, they provided a very nice example of premium travel within Europe and gave an insight into Finnair’s future cabin.
Featured image: Yifei Yu/Airways