Helsinki Airport director, Joni Sundelin, tells Joe Bates more about the ongoing development of his gateway as it looks to cement its status as northern Europe’s transfer hub to Asia.
Helsinki Airport recorded double digit growth in 2018 when an all-time high of 20.8 million passengers (+10.4%) passed through its facilities.
The upturn follows an impressive 9.9% rise in 2017 and a 50% increase in passengers over the last decade, which perhaps best explains why the airport is in the midst of a €1 billion development programme to raise its capacity to 30 million passengers per annum.
The biggest capital development programme in its history effectively started with the 2017 opening of its South Pier, and by the time it ends in 2022, the terminal space at Finland’s capital city gateway will have increased 45% in size through a series of expansion projects.
The key projects of the upgrade include the expansion and revamp of both its terminals (Terminal 1 and Terminal 2) and the addition of new transfer traffic enhancing South and West piers.
In this respect, 2019 is a pivotal year for Helsinki Airport (HEL) as its new ‘Aukio’ central plaza opened in February and the extension to the short-haul Schengen area of Terminal 1 was completed in April.
Next up, the first half of its new West Pier will be unveiled in May – with the remainder set to open in October – and a bigger and more passenger friendly immigration control area will follow before the end of the year.
Elsewhere, construction work began in January on a planned new “iconic entrance” to Terminal 2 and the creation of new Departure and Arrivals halls for Schengen passengers, with both projects expected to be completed in 2021.
“Our strategy is to be the leading airport in northern Europe for transfer traffic, especially between Europe and Asia, and the development programme will raise our transfer capacity to allow us to achieve this goal,” says Helsinki Airport director, Joni Sundelin.
“The expansion programme will double the number of gates built for widebody aircraft from 9 to 18 and transform the whole terminal area to further enhance the airport experience for our passengers.”
In terms of enhancing the airport experience, Sundelin is particularly proud of the new security area that transfer passengers have to pass through before reaching HEL’s Aukio central plaza, which he believes has set the benchmark for others to follow.
“I rate it highly and believe it is one of the best new airport security areas in the world,” states Sundelin. “It is spacious, full of light and features special architecture and, most importantly, state-of-the-art security technologies.
“It has also allowed us to double our capacity for screening transfer passengers from around 140 passengers per line per hour to between 280 to 320 per hour. This is quite significant.”
New Aukio central plaza
The latest addition to the airport’s facilities is the impressive ‘Aukio’ central plaza, which is the new Nordic-designed heart of Helsinki Airport and a place for passengers to congregate, sit and relax or be entertained before catching flights.
Located between the South and the West piers and surrounded by shops and F&B outlets, Aukio – which is Finnish for plaza – features a wooden floor and modern seating and is circled by a 360-degree video screen playing films showcasing the beauty of Finland.
Sundelin, for one, is confident that it offers a unique sense of place that will leave visitors with memorable first and last impressions of Finland.
New F&B additions around it include Finland’s first Ajisen Ramen, Jamie’s Deli and Moomin Coffee outlets, which according to Finavia complement the airport’s wide range of other F&B outlets and ensure a good mix of international and local brands.
The new outlets mean that the airport now has a total of 41 speciality stores (retail and convenience), four duty free shops and 31 cafes and restaurants spread across an area of 3,100sqm.
“The driving forces of all the restaurants at Helsinki Airport are diversity and quality,” notes Sundelin. “As an international airport, we pay attention to the needs and preferences of many different nationalities, while, at the same time, highlighting Finnishness in our choices.
“Many of the restaurant concepts that we have created in co-operation with the restaurant operators reflect the locality and natural character also in their food selection.”
Terminal 2 revamp
Talking about the modernisation and expansion of Terminal 2, Sundelin says: “We are building an expansion to house check-in, security control, baggage drop and an area for greeting passengers.
“As a result, the current Departure and Arrivals halls of Terminal 2 will undergo a complete transformation and become part of the gate area. This means the airport will have plenty more space for passengers and more opportunities to make its service offering more diverse.”
The new-look Terminal 2 building will have a floor area of approximately 40,000 square metres that includes new check-in and baggage drop facilities, security control and a multi-modal travel centre.
In addition to the terminal expansion, a new parking hall will be constructed with 1,800 extra parking spaces. There will also be a new a 4,500sqm zone for taxis and a 6,500sqm area for buses.
A host of companies working on the project, which is being partially being funded by the European Union, include Finavia, SRV and the expansion design team ALA Architects, HKP Architects and Ramboll Finland.
As previously mentioned, the expansion programme is necessary because of rising traffic demand, which Sundelin attributes to the growth in international transit traffic, the attractiveness of Finland as a travel destination and an upswing in air travel by Finns.
“If we are looking at international traffic, we have had double-digit growth for the last three years, which makes Helsinki one of the fastest growing major airports in Europe, behind only Heathrow in 2018,” enthuses Sundelin.
“All areas of our operations have grown. The majority of traffic is still within Europe, but Asian transit traffic, in particular, has been growing more rapidly than expected, and helped us cement our status as a hub for transit traffic between Europe and Asia.”
Not surprisingly, national flag carrier, Finnair, currently accounts for 65% of the traffic at Helsinki Airport and 95% of all transfer passengers, which make up 35% of the annual total.
The next biggest operators in terms of market share are Norwegian (15%), SAS (3%) and Lufthansa (3%), and Sundelin is quick to point out the positive impact that the former has had on long-haul traffic out of Helsinki.
“Norwegian has made a significant impact, particularly to the US, where it serves 13 destinations,” notes Sundelin. “As an airport we continue to add destinations in the United States, and the services from the East Coast and Midwest to Helsinki offer the fastest routes to Asia from the US.”
Helsinki’s unique selling point is that it offers the fastest flying times between Europe and Asia and, for passengers going west, rapid onward connections to the UK and Mainland Europe, and this is something that it actively promotes when talking to Asian and Middle Eastern carriers about the possibility of them launching new services to Helsinki.
Indeed, Sundelin notes that the airport is very proactive when it comes to expanding Helsinki’s route network, and its route development team has enjoyed considerable success in recent years either through new route launches or persuading carriers to increase frequencies to existing destinations.
As if to prove the point, three new airlines (Air Serbia and Chinese carriers Tibet Airlines and Juneyao Air) launched operations to Helsinki this summer, following in the footprints of carriers such as FlyDubai, Qatar Airways and Turkish Airlines which have all either launched services or heavily increased frequencies to HEL in the last couple of years.
He reminds me that Japan Airlines now operates three daily flights to Tokyo and that when Finnair starts flights to Sapporo in December, they will each offer five services to five Japanese cities, making HEL one of Europe’s best-connected gateways to Japan.
Another interesting statistic is that 75% of all passengers from the Chinese market – served by three airlines operating non-stop routes to eight destinations this summer – transit through Helsinki.
“We have been working heavily on the route development side for the last four or five years and are beginning to reap the rewards,” adds Sundelin.
Its continually expanding international route network means that international traffic now accounts for 90% of all passengers at the airport and domestic services for roughly 10%.
Sundelin confirms that operator, Finavia, takes customer service very seriously, so he is absolutely delighted by HEL’s success in ACI’s 2018 Airport Service Quality (ASQ) customer experience awards.
Helsinki finished equal top with Athens and Prague for the Best Airport in Europe in the 15-25mppa category in the ASQ Departures Awards, and he believes that HEL’s success is down to Finavia’s “strong passenger focus”.
“Our customer service promise is ‘smooth travelling’, and that means that we strive to put the customer first in everything we do, and that includes the planning, design and operation of all new facilities,” says Sundelin.
Arguably another reason for the airport’s popularity is its passenger-friendly size, because although it officially has two terminals with two different entrances, it is actually one building divided into two inter-connected sections, so everything is effectively under one roof and walking distances are short.
Sundelin agrees, assuring me: “We are determined to maintain our competitive advantages such as short distances, easy access to services and world-class service standards even as the number of passengers continues to rise.”
So, Finavia has a very clear plan for Helsinki Airport going forward and is unambiguous in its desire to hold onto and grow its status as a key transfer hub for northern Europe. With new infrastructure coming onboard and an expanding route network, who would be bold enough to bet against it achieving its goals?