Finnair is enduring a torrid time as it attempts to combat soaring fuel costs and global uncertainty, but the airline remains confident its policy of concentrating on Asia will pay dividends.
The Finnish flag carrier also recently wielded the axe on 500 of its mainly temporary staff and is looking to squeeze cost savings of £50m per year in a bid to remain competitive.
Premium passengers form a central plank of Finnair's philosophy, although the current market volatility has seen plans to introduce fully-flat beds put on hold as Hienonen outlined.
”We have made the first decisions on fully-flat beds but this is to come,” Hienonen said. ”Everybody is talking about the oil price, increasing fares and the fall in demand. It's the wrong time to talk about new beds as right now, we are in a downturn.”
Despite a ”horrible” drop in load factor to 62.4 per cent in May, which prompted urgent talks with the unions, Finnair believes its Asian focus, coupled with oneworld Alliance flexibility, will continue to provide a unique draw for business travellers.
But despite the overall optimism surrounding Finnair's Asian strategy, the carrier has nonetheless decided to drop its Guangzhou service from the beginning of the winter timetable. Apart from the obvious fillip of the Olympic Games this year, the recent devastating earthquake has dented confidence in travel to China leading Finnair to rejig its schedule.
The carrier recently tweaked its departures from Helsinki to allow improved connections both from Finland and on from Asia, with the airline capitalising on its oft-repeated mantra that its geography allows for the fastest routes to the east.
This clearly doesn't work from say, London to Korea where Korean Air has direct services to Seoul, but for passengers flying from secondary European hubs to the Far East, a relatively short connection time in Helsinki offers a practical solution to Far East travel.
Finnair also claims its oneworld alliance strategy has allowed it faster growth to Asia than competitor groupings.
”Oneworld has been a good help to us - with Star Alliance we could never have had a liberty to develop our long-haul strategy as we have,” said Hienonen. ”We've been able to grow in Japan on a larger scale than British Airways and we also have the opportunity for bilaterals where it is in our best interest. Asia is fundamental for Finnair and we have 65 weekly flights there.”
And that impressive total will increase this winter as Finnair capitalises on its geographical position at the top of north-east Europe. Specifically, long-haul destinations from the start of the winter season on 25 October will be per week: Bangkok 13; Beijing seven; Shanghai seven; Hong Kong seven; Delhi six; New York six; Osaka five; Tokyo four; Mumbai four; Seoul four and Nagoya three.
Finnair has also placed its code on Japan Airlines and is talking to Korean Air - and others - about potential co-operation: ”We need partners,” noted Hienonen.
The Finnish company is also looking to its modern aircraft - apart from the carrier's ageing MD-11 fleet as Hienonen concedes - to achieve significant fuel efficiency but the CEO doesn't rule out grounding aircraft this winter in common with several competitors or even trimming schedules.
Perhaps surprisingly, Hienonen insists that former low kerosene prices have not led airlines to strive for best efficiency practices, a situation that is clearly now turned on its head with oil at $146 a barrel.
”Oil has been too cheap and there was no motivation - the high oil price will motivate more efficiencies,” he said, also tipping his hat to Virgin boss Richard Branson's recent foray into biofuel experiments. ”It”s a bit of a talking game but the true picture is happening with engine and airframe manufacturers.”
Finnair is putting its money where its mouth is in terms of new technology by ordering 11 Airbus A350 widebodies, with fuel consumption front of mind, although cannily the airline resisted any temptation to be the launch customer given both Toulouse and Seattle”s delivery difficulties of late.
”If there was a [A350] delay, it would be extremely painful but the company would not go belly up,” said Hienonen, noting wryly nonetheless that ”Airbus made us an offer we could not refuse."