Welcome to another Brian’s Travel Spot, quickly following on from the previous one, where I noted that I wasn’t writing many Travel Spots this year! This particular Travel Spot covers what is my fourth trip to Japan in a little over two years. However, whereas for each of the previous three trips, I’ve flown British Airways, this time I’m flying Finnair via Helsinki.
Wherever possible, I fly direct (it’s quicker and there’s less to go wrong). However, on this occasion, I was starting in Manchester, so I was going to have to change planes somewhere. Normally, I’d fly down to Heathrow with British Airways, taking a direct flight from there, but since Finnair is part of the One World alliance with British Airways, the Manchester-Helsinki-Tokyo route was shown as a (significantly cheaper) option, which prompted me to book it.
Since my Travel Spots run on the long-side, and since each flight is a considerable journey in its own right, I’ve split the trip over two posts. This first part covers the flight from Manchester to Helsinki, while Part II covers the onward flight to Tokyo. And hopefully there’ll be a Part III for my flight back from Tokyo with British Airways.
This was my first time flying with Finnair, which was part of the motivation for writing this Travel Spot (similar to my motivation in writing up my flights with Virgin Atlantic in the last two Travel Spots). For all that I’ve been captured by British Airways and it’s airmiles/status system, this is (I think) the 12th airline I’ve flown with in the past three years.
My flight was scheduled to leave Manchester at 10:25, so I decided to book a taxi from my Dad’s for 07:15, wanting to get to the airport in plenty of time and miss the commuter traffic around Manchester, which can be pretty awful at times. Sadly, I had a conference call the night before, which didn’t finish until 01:00, so by the time I’d packed everything up and gone to bed, it was almost 02:00 and I didn’t sleep well, getting in, at best, five hours of poor-quality sleep.
I rolled out of bed at 07:00, got dressed and rolled into the taxi right on time. Fortunately, the drive into the airport was as smooth as they come, plus it was done in glorious sunshine after two days of rain. My taxi dropped me off at 08:10 and I was ready to go.
Normally I fly with British Airways from Terminal 3, but Finnair flies from Terminal 1, which I’d only flown from once before, on the start of my round-the-world trip in 2016. On that occasion, I was flying with Emirates and I remember really disliking the terminal, so I can’t say I was looking forward to it this time around.
Let’s just say that the intervening three years has not done Terminal 1 any favours. I never thought I’d find myself writing this, but I’ve been spoilt flying from Terminal 3, particularly these days when I have lounge access, even when I’m flying economy. In comparison, Terminal 1 is much bigger and hence much busier.
The first challenge was to find the check-in desk. These are split over two levels, with the majority on the lower level, where there’s a split between left (1-30), right (31-60) and behind on the right (61+). I was looking for desks 66-68 (at the back on the right) which took me a little time to find. When I got there, I found a considerable queue, and was just about to resign myself to a long wait when I spotted a priority check-in zone at the far end.
It was hard to see whether there was just a single queue, but I took a chance and moved down, where I discovered that there were indeed two queues, with just a single person ahead of me in priority. As a result, I was checked in by 08:20, only to face my next challenge, dropping off my rucksack.
Like many older airports, Manchester can’t take rucksacks at the check-in desks, so instead there was the usual ritual of taking my bag to the oversized baggage area, which doubles as baggage inspection.
In all the times I’ve flown from Terminal 3, I’ve never had more than a couple of people in front of me, but here the queue was already pretty long (and by the time I’d dropped my bag off, it was twice the size it had been). It was also very slow-moving, with each person taking a minimum of two minutes.
The problem with combining oversized baggage with baggage inspection is that those of us who are dropping off regular bags, are grouped in with those like the people two ahead of me, who were trying to take a chainsaw on the plane with them. And, no, I’m not making this up. They had a holdall with a chainsaw in it, the inspection of which took around five minutes, including the confiscation of a can of lubricating oil. When it came to my turn, my computer stand caused some excitement, but fortunately I wasn’t required to haul it out for manual inspection.
In all, it took me 35 minutes to drop off my bag, after which, security was a breeze, helped immensely by having priority access. Even so, there was a queue, but it moved quickly and I was through in 20 minutes, despite my bag being pulled aside for a closer look which resulted in nothing more than it being put back through the x-ray machine without being opened.And let me just say, for all my moans about Manchester Airport, the security staff there are some of the most thorough and courteous I’ve met anywhere in the world.
By 09:15 I was in the terminal, which, I have to say, is much bigger and nicer than Terminal 3, although the duty-free area is huge (I’m only exaggerating slightly when I say it took me five minutes to walk through it, something I commented on the last time I flew from Terminal 1). The free Wifi also didn’t, something else that hadn’t changed in three years!
Although the main terminal area looks much nicer than Terminal 3, with more seats and many more options, since I was flying business class, I made straight for the Aspire Lounge. It’s churlish to complain too much, since a lounge is undoubtably better than waiting in the terminal, but I’ve really been spoilt by the British Airways lounge in Terminal 3. Not that there was anything wrong with the Aspire Lounge, which is much bigger and busier than its British Airways equivalent, it’s just not as good, particularly not the food, and especially not the coffee.
The lounge is T-shaped, with the doors at bottom of the T. Off to the left is a quiet zone, by far the noisiest part of the lounge thanks to the group of four who had decided to sit there and hold an animated conversation, involving plenty of shouting. The food is just to the right, where there’s also a bar and coffee machine, which had one redeeming feature: it provided hot water. Beyond this is more seating, while the front of the lounge (the long part at the top of the T) is all windows, looking out over the gates at Terminal 1, ideal if you like plane spotting. The seating, by the way, is a good mix of computer desks, open lounge seating and more booth-like sets for four and six people. There’s also free Wifi (which worked), plus at seat power at the computer desks and, bizarrely, in the quiet zone, but not in the main zone.
As a result of the delay when dropping my bag off, I didn’t have long in the lounge, just enough time to get some breakfast (on a par with a below-average hotel buffet), something which I desperately needed, not having eaten since getting up at 07:00. At this point, my flight, which was showing as delayed five minutes to 10:30, had a “go to gate in five minutes” message up on the boards. Had I been settled, with a table and my laptop out, I would probably have waited until it showed “boarding”, but as it was, I decided to make use of the coffee machine to get some hot water.
I used this, naturally enough to make my own coffee, using my Travel Press and grinding the beans (Grumpy Mule’s Widescreen espresso blend) with my Aergrind. I then popped it into my Therma Cup and took it down to the gate with me.
The one area where Manchester Airport really, really lets itself down is at the gates. To me, a gate is somewhere to you wait in relative comfort before you board your flight. As a minimum, it needs to have enough seats for the expected number of passengers.
A good example of how to do this is Boston Logan, where the gates at Terminal E on my flight back from New England two weeks previously, had been exemplary (although these were all gates serving long-haul, international flights). In contrast, Manchester Airport seems to reserve gate seating for its long-haul flights, although even there it’s fairly basic. When it comes to short-haul, its idea of a gate is a corridor where we can all stand around, waiting for the flight to board, with a handful of seats along the sides which don’t seem to be associated with any particular gate.
Gate 6, where I was departing, was a classic example. By the time I got there at 10:00, the corridor was full, the flight showing no signs of boarding. Indeed, had I not seen a Finnair Airbus A321 parked outside, I would have wondered if I was in the right place. Boarding was announced at 10:05 and there was the usual scrum. I joined the priority queue, which was much shorter than the economy queue, although both were fairly long.
And then nothing happened.
We stood there, two long, fairly orderly lines, completely blocking access for anyone who needed to get to the other gates further along the corridor. And we waited. And waited. The most ridiculous moment was when the flight was announced as final call for boarding, which raised a few laughs from the queue since no-one had actually boarded the plane!
After ten minutes of this, I was just about ready to give up. My plan was to take a seat, reverting to my old policy of not boarding until there was no-one left in the queue. However, we suddenly started moving, so I stayed in the queue. Once we got going, we boarded surprisingly quickly, using the old school method of walking across the tarmac and up a flight of steps to the door. For once, Manchester cooperated by not raining, otherwise it would have been quite miserable.
Boarding was complete by 10:30, which was only five minutes after we scheduled to depart, so that wasn’t too bad. There were the usual pre-departure checks before we pushed back at 10:35. This included the cabin crew politely telling me to put my laptop in the overhead locker which is unusual; normally the cabin crew are happy to let me keep it in the seat-back pocket. The purser also came and introduced herself to me and one other passenger in business class, which was a nice touch, although it was a little disconcerting to be singled out like that. She also reassured me that I’d make my connection.
Finnair fly Airbus A321s on this route, the biggest of the narrow-body Airbus models, and one which I’m very familiar with, having flown on lots of them with British Airways. However, this was an older plane with no TV monitors, so we had a manual safety demo, only the second time that’s happened to me in a good few years. I did not that it was a lot of quicker than the usual video, so we were still on the tarmac during our five-minute wait when the cabin crew finished.
There was a short taxi from the terminal to the end of the south runway, with a short pause while a Norwegian flight landed on the north runway, which we had to cross. That out of the way, we then just rolled onto the south runway and immediately accelerated towards take-off, leaving the ground at 10:45. Within two minutes, we were in cloud, then, 20 seconds later, we were above it, turning right in a big loop that probably took us over Manchester (I could see some big conurbation through breaks in the cloud).
The seat-belt signs came off five minutes after we took off and, with an estimated flight time of 2¼ hours, it looked like we would be landing around 13:00 (15:00 Helsinki time), which is slightly earlier than scheduled. The clouds soon broke up and we had some lovely views as we flew northeast over the Pennines. Our flight path took us just south of Newcastle, and then over Tynemouth and out over the North Sea at 11:05, although since we had no inflight map (I felt very lost without it, I had to work all this out afterwards).
The cabin layout is slightly different from what I’m used to when flying business class. There’s the usual six seats a row, with three seats on either side of a central aisle, but unlike British Airways, where the middle seat is explicitly put out of use, here it is just used as a place to keep the cushions/blanket for the other two seats. I suppose that’s done to help flexibility, since all you have to do to expand business class is move the divider back an extra row. Indeed, when I booked the flight, several months before, I recall only being offered the first two rows as business class, whereas here the business class extended back to the fifth row.
Other than that, the seats were fairly standard economy seats. I managed to get seat 1A, the front row, bulkhead seat by the window, and, as an added bonus, the other seat wasn’t taken, so I had the row to myself. This meant that I could spread out into the middle seat, using it as an extra table effectively, without worrying about clashing with the other person.
Since I was in the bulkhead row, my table folded out of the armrest, in this case to my right. There’s a single large hinge, then the table folds out in two, although it’s not quite wide enough to reach the armrest on the other side. However, it does have good travel forwards and backwards. While it’s more than adequate for my laptop when it comes to suffers from the usual problem of hinged tables like these: it’s not very stable. Unless I rest the far side of the table on my knee (which is uncomfortable) it bounces when I type, so in many ways I prefer having it on my lap.
I’m used to taking the short hop down to London, so in comparison, the service was much more relaxed. Drinks arrived, along with a packet of pretzels, as we passed over the North Sea Coast, 20 minutes into the flight. If we’d been going to Heathrow, we’d have been getting ready to land at that point!
The meal arrived at 11:25, and was lunch, rather than breakfast, so I was glad that I ate in the lounge, although by the time I’d finished my lunch, I was feeling rather full! It was excellent though, a small starter of guacamole and potato salad, a main of hot spinach and ricotta cannelloni and a moist blueberry sponge for dessert. There was also bread and hummus, all of which was really tasty and well-cooked. The service was excellent, by the way, and my tray was cleared away by 11:45.
I also tried the coffee which was really thick and syrupy when poured from the pot. I turned down the offer of milk, which may well have been a mistake, since this was a really dark, robusta-laced brew. However, it was surprisingly not too bad, a very old school taste, but well-made and definitely a cut above most of the insipid airline coffee I’ve had (British Airways/Union notwithstanding).
The whole meal service took place as we flew over the North Sea. I saw a couple of other planes, a few ships down below and one line of what I assume were oil rigs, but otherwise it was just a clear blue sea to match the sky above.
We reached what I think was the southwestern coast of Norway at 12:05, but immediately flew over cloud, so it was hard to tell exactly where we were from then on. We ran into some turbulence at 12:10 and the seat belt sign came on for about 15 minutes. After another 20 minutes of flying over cloud, we started our descent at 12:45, the purser once again coming to say hello and to let me know that my onward flight to Tokyo would be departing from Gate 50G, another nice touch.
The seat-belt signs came on at 12:55, by which time the clouds were starting to break and I got my first detailed views of the Finnish countryside around Helsinki, although I had no idea exactly what I was looking at. We made quite a few turns, so I suspect we were holding for a little while, since we didn’t land until 13:15 (15:15 local time), but then went straight to gate, the quickest I’ve ever got to a gate from landing. However, we were then kept waiting for 10 minutes while the gate staff attached the airbridge to the wrong door, realised their mistake and moved it!
And then it was time to disembark, check out the airport and catch my onward flight. That, however, is another story, which is covered in Part II of this Travel Spot.
I have been rather rude about Manchester Airport in this post, although I don’t think that anything I’ve said has been inaccurate or unfair. However, in the airport’s defence, it has said that it is spending over £1 billion to improve the facilities there, so I look forward to that since I’m likely to be using Manchester Airport for some time to come.
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