Quality is an important word at Helsinki Airport. Whether you are talking about the Finnish gateway’s approach to social media, customer service or passenger comfort, you will keep coming across it.
And while the strategy has yet to pay noticeable dividends in terms of traffic – the airport saw a slight decline in passenger throughput in 2012 – operator Finavia is confident that it will pay off long-term.
When it comes to customer service, the 2011 launch of its Quality Hunters programme is, arguably, Finavia’s best example of thinking outside the box.
Jointly launched with Finnair, the groundbreaking initiative saw a group of passengers report back on some of the most innovative ideas they witnessed on their travels to 40 airports in seven weeks.
Using social media channels, such as Twitter, Facebook and Pinterest, and through blogs and YouTube, Quality Hunters snowballed into a near global phenomenon.
It is estimated that the online community, which comes up with passenger-friendly suggestions for the airport and airline, has a reach of nearly 10 million people.
Such has been the success of the scheme that feedback from followers has persuaded the gateway to open a free 24-hour art gallery and a book-swap station, in addition to shortlisting a host of other ideas for possible consideration in the future.
The ideas wish-list includes the proposed introduction of an airport casino, hostel, Finnish/Asian fusion kitchen, the strategic theming of gates and bringing Finnish nature to the airport.
It is this dedication to the passenger, and this willingness to embrace social media and online communication – coupled with Helsinki’s location as a springboard between Asia and Europe – that leads airport CEO, Kari Savolainen, to believe that the airport is on the right track.
“As you know, flying is not so fancy these days, because airlines are competing on price, so service suffers when the focus is on cutting costs, which means the nice part of flying is more and more the airport,” he says.
“As a result, we have to continue improving our offering. Quality Hunters is one good example of how we do this and it is something we have continued. In today’s highly competitive world, we have to utilise social media and open our services earlier. Before the trip, passengers should have information on what is the best way to spend their time at the airport.
“What are the customers’ needs? How can we improve the customer experience? It is a big issue because there is not a standard or typical airport passenger and there is no one single solution to satisfying people.”
While Helsinki has yet to see traffic soar as a consequence of its efforts, the same cannot be said of its passenger satisfaction levels, as the gateway’s Airport Service Quality (ASQ) score jumped from 3.92 to 4.02 (on a scale of one to five) in 2012.
According to the results, which saw 1,400 travellers polled, the airport has improved its services in almost all of the topics covered in the survey.
In 2012, passengers were happier than ever before with queuing times, Wi-Fi, and the politeness and helpful attitude of the airport’s security staff.
Other strengths noted were the ease of switching planes, the well-functioning border control procedures, the feeling of security, and the ease of moving around at the airport.
“We have worked hard to make the airport an even smoother hub,” admits airport director, Ville Haapasaari. “The results show we have performed very well indeed. However, the airport will never be perfect, which means we will continue to work hard for a smooth and comfortable passenger experience.”
On that note, Helsinki continues to make changes in anticipation of increased passenger numbers. Terminal 2 underwent an expansion and revamp in 2011, and last year the gateway invested €1 million on new bus gates and immigration and security enhancements to ensure that it can continue to offer impressive 35-minute connection times for transfer passengers.
Ground transportation to the airport is also set for a major boost, with the anticipated 2015 opening of a new high-speed train service to downtown Helsinki.
And it is not only the Quality Hunters initiative which proves Helsinki is on the ball when it comes to online communication with its passengers – the airport also won SimpliFlying’s Best Airport on Social Media in 2012.
“We like to think that smooth travelling starts online,” says Markus Haapamäki, head of social media at Finavia. “What we would like to see in our social media channels is an interaction with our passengers to improve their travel experience.
“But we also want to share accurate information with the public, allowing people to become aware of who we are and what is on offer for them when they get to Helsinki and any of our other Finnish airports.
“The best result has got to be if we can invent something new via interaction with our passengers via our social media channels.
“Quality Hunters was born out of our decision along with Finnair to hire eight people to travel the world and come up with suggestions for making air travel more convenient. This has now snowballed into a truly global community.”
Helsinki is certainly out to impress its business travellers, with Savolainen saying the airport wants to do more for its hard-working passengers.
There are already neat little touches around the airport, such as wireless charging points for passengers’ mobile phones, a hairdressers, and art exhibitions for those with a longer wait between flights.
The airport’s free Wi-Fi is a huge success, too, with the number of users increasing by an impressive 3,000% in four years. There are 30 times more users now than there were in January 2009, and the figure has rocketed by 168% in the last 12 months.
There is also Suvanto, a new lounge introduced in May last year. Finavia, with partners such as Clear Channel, launched the concept, giving passengers separate spaces to work and relax.
There are currently three Suvanto lounges in the airport and they each provide ergonomic workstations, as well as power points for various electronic devices.
It is fair to say that the gateway’s passenger numbers were not great last year, with a slight decline on 2011 figures. The dip was particularly alarming in the final quarter of the year with a 2.3% fall, meaning the final total dropped just short of the 15 million mark.
However, the airport still maintains it is in a good position – both economically and geographically speaking – to see growth in the coming years.
Savolainen maintains that Helsinki is ideally placed as a stop-off between Europe and Asia, and believes that once the global economy begins to recover its location will ensure it will be one
of the first to benefit.
Indeed, the silver lining for the airport in 2012 came in the form of Helsinki’s Asian traffic, which continued its rapid growth to 1.8 million passengers, an enviable 8.3% rise.
This was primarily due to Finnair’s new direct route to the Chinese city of Chongqing. And the number of direct connections to Asia will further increase this year as Japan Airlines introduces a new service to Tokyo, and Finland’s national flag carrier launches routes to Xi’an and Hanoi in June.
Savolainen admits that Helsinki is confident that these new “quality routes” will be a success and should ensure that the gateway records an upturn in passenger traffic in 2013 and for the next few years.
“We are in a very strong position to bridge between Asia and Europe,” explains Savolainen. “This is, economically, a growing area, and it means that when the global financial situation gets better, we will see growth immediately. In the next five years we anticipate quite good numbers for growth.”
Helsinki does not go out of its way to attract budget airlines – it is certainly not a no-frills airport – but it still has some low-cost traffic. However, Savolainen is a firm believer in long-haul transfer traffic, and thinks this will always be Helsinki’s main traffic driver.
“Our main role here is our hub status between Asia and Europe, which means long-haul network opportunities,” he says. “Sure, some low-cost carriers do serve Helsinki, but the bells and whistles we offer here doesn’t really suit their business model.
“We want to be a good quality, cost-effective airport with the customer and quality service at the centre of what we offer.”
Which airports does he consider to be Helsinki’s greatest rivals? “All airports that are bridges or hubs between Europe and Asia are effectively competing with us,” says Savolainen.
“This means Stockholm, Copenhagen and Frankfurt in Europe, the Gulf countries in the Middle East and, more recently, St Petersburg–Pulkovo in Russia, which is investing heavily.
“Helsinki Airport’s importance to the Finnish economy, however, means that we have to be the winners of this competition.”
He maintains that Helsinki Airport is changing, adapting and growing by evolution, rather than revolution, and admits that this policy is likely to continue for the foreseeable future.
Talking of the future, Savolainen believes that the current gateway could handle up to 20mppa, after which the Finnish government would have to think seriously about “revolutionary investment and infrastructure”.
Whether this means upgrading the existing gateway or building a new one remains open to debate, but whatever the future holds, one thing remains certain, the search for quality will remain at the heart of Finavia’s business strategy.