Welcome to second instalment of the latest Brian’s Travel Spot, covering my journey to Tokyo, flying with Finnair via Helsinki, a new route and new airline (for me). Part I covered my journey from Manchester to Helsinki, while this, Part II, covers my onward flight from Helsinki to Tokyo’s Narita airport.
On my previous three trips to Japan, I’ve flown British Airways, and, wherever possible, I fly direct (one less thing to go wrong). However, since I was starting in Manchester, I had to change planes somewhere, so I decided to try the Manchester-Helsinki-Tokyo route, flying with British Airways’ One World alliance partner Finnair.
Compared to the route I would normally take, flying to Heathrow with British Airways and on from there, this meant a longer first leg, heading over the North Sea to Helsinki (approximately two hours in the air versus 35 minutes), followed by a shorter second leg, roughly 9½ hours as opposed to 11½ hours. That may not seem like much, but when you’re trying to sleep on the plane, that’s actually two hours less sleep, which can be crucial!
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself: my first challenge was to make my connecting flight at Helsinki.
On balance, I enjoyed my flight from Manchester to Helsinki. The big positive was Finnair, which provided an excellent service, while the downside was departing from Manchester’s Terminal 1, which is not my favourite. Also, since I wasn’t flying with British Airways, I missed out on having some Union Hand-roasted coffee, which British Airways now serves in its lounges and in-flight (although sadly not to World Traveller/World Traveller Plus passengers).
Having never been to Helsinki before, let alone caught a connecting flight, I really didn’t know what to expect. While I’ve made plenty of connecting flights at various airports around the world, the only thing that I’ve really learnt from that experience is that every airport is different. This is even true at Heathrow, where it all depends on whether you’re changing terminals (where you have to go through security again) or if you’re staying in the same terminal (where you walk off the plane, through a door and you’re into departures).
As it turned out, transferring at Helsinki was ridiculously easy. Like many European airports, there’s no real segregation between arriving and departing passengers, so we walked off the plane and straight into the terminal departure area. My only disappointment was that I’d hoped to visit the Johan & Nyström coffee shop, but that’s in Terminal 1 and I was arriving and departing from Terminal 2.
I’d been led to believe beforehand that I could walk between the two terminals, which in a sense is true. Unfortunately, Terminal 1 is in the Schengen area, while Terminal 2 is outside Schengen, so you need to go through passport control. I suspect that had I shown my passport and pleaded my case I might have been able to go through and come back, but since I technically only had half an hour before my flight was due to board, I really wasn’t interesting in taking the risk of getting stuck on the wrong side of passport control and missing my flight!
Instead I consoled myself with a trip to the Finnair lounge where I was reminded that now I’m Gold Status with British Airways, I’m allowed into the First Class lounge (I’d forgotten, so it came as a pleasant surprise, softening the blow of missing out on Johan & Nystrom). The business and first-class lounges share a common entrance, with the larger business class lounge to the right. Instead, I turned left and found myself in a moderately-sized set of three, interconnected spaces. There’s an island bar directly ahead, behind which are three tall, oval tables. To the left is a smaller lounge seating area, while to the right is a much larger dining room offering table service, with some further lounge seating at the front and off to one side.
I was sorely tempted by the dining room, but with only half an hour to wait (10 minutes of which I’d already spent trying to get to Johan & Nyström) it was out of the question. Besides, I was still full after the excellent lunch that I’d had on the flight over from Manchester. However, if I’d been on a later flight, I’d have been very tempted to have dinner there and just sleep on the plane.
As it was, I settled down at one of the three oval tables behind the bar, ordered an espresso and got my laptop out to make some notes. At this point, I decided I’d best plug it in, having used it for a couple of hours on the flight over (and remembering my lesson from my flight back from Boston). However, while I’d brought a UK plug for my laptop (having come from the UK) and a Japanese plug (since I was going to Japan), it had not occurred to me to bring a European one. However, a quick trip to the front desk and the crisis was averted, the staff loaning me an adaptor.
My espresso, by the way, wasn’t too bad. It was a pretty dark roast, darker than I’d like, but otherwise was well done and very well made. Definitely a cut above your standard airport coffee! By the time I’d drunk that, it was time to board my flight.
As it turned out, I had slightly more time that I first thought, although not enough to make a difference. My flight was originally scheduled to leave at 16:45, with a boarding time of 15:55, but when I checked the boards, it was showing as delayed until 17:00. It came up as boarding at 16:15, just after I’d finished my espresso, so I packed up and headed to the gates, a couple of minutes’ walk away.
Helsinki Airport is in the middle of a reconstruction project (it’s a very fine airport, by the way, even with all the building work). My gate was 50G, which seems to be part of new gate block (50A-M) off to one side and below the main terminal. It’s a pretty neat space, with its own café and food outlets, some seating, and a row of gates on either side. The only thing that’s missing are the planes! That’s because it’s a satellite gate, buses taking you to your plane, parked somewhere out on the tarmac.
I arrived at 16:25 and the initial queues had already gone, so I went straight to the gate and onto bus, which then sat there for another five minutes until it was full. We drove for more than five minutes, passing several groups of planes on the tarmac, some with boarding steps attached. Eventually we pulled up outside what looked like a maintenance facility on the far side of the airport where our plane was waiting for us on the tarmac.
Although it had been dry when I landed, by now it was pouring with rain, so I was really grateful that it was literally just a few steps from the doors of the bus (three: front, back and middle) to the steps to the plane (also three: front, back and middle). I was even more relieved to discover that the steps were covered, which is just as well for the remaining passengers (at least two buses arrived after ours) since the rain started to hammer down after I boarded. Welcome to summer in Helsinki!
I left the bus by the front set of doors and headed for the front set of steps, which brought me up to the galley between the two business class sections, where I turned left, since I was in Seat 2A, almost at the front on the left. Just as I had on the flight from Manchester, I was greeted in my seat by the purser, so maybe it’s something they do for their gold status members. Either way, it’s a nice welcoming touch.
The purser apologised for the delay and told me we had an estimated flight time of 8 hours 50 minutes (the entire flight was scheduled for 9½ hours, but that includes taxiing at either end, plus some padding). She also informed me that we’d most likely be further delayed and didn’t expect us to leave before 17:00. This was later put back to 17:30 due to a combination of factors, including waiting for passengers on connecting flights, construction at the airport and renovations on one of the runways!
In many ways, the delays played into my hands since the longer we were on the tarmac, the later it would be when I came to get some sleep, improving my chances of actually falling sleep! Since I’d only had five hours sleep the night before I was going to need all the sleep I could get, particularly given the shorter flight time.
Despite this, I decided to try an espresso while I was waiting on the tarmac, hoping that it wouldn’t keep me awake. Served in a cute, cylindrical cup, it was pretty decent, a reasonably well-balanced shot that was commendably short, although I preferred the espresso I had in the lounge. Like that one, it came with a small chocolate which was appreciated as much as the coffee!
The final bus came and left at 17:20, depositing a handful of passengers, at which point the crew declared boarding complete and we were ready to go.
The doors closed and the safety video started at 17:30. Once it had finished, we began taxiing and, since we were off to one side of the airport, we got onto the taxiway quickly enough, but then had to taxi to the far end of the runway to take off into the wind. Ironically, this meant taxiing pretty much directly towards Tokyo, then taking off in the opposite direction!
A couple of planes took off while we were taxiing but Helsinki’s not a busy airport, so by the time we reached the end of the runway, we were good to go, taking off right away. This meant that we left Helsinki at 17:45, exactly an hour late. We went straight into the clouds and immediately turned right in a big semi-circle to head off to the north-east.
Perhaps because of the delay, or maybe because of the relatively short(!) flight time, the meal service started soon after take-off, with an appetiser and drinks being served at 18:10. That said, it was a fairly relaxed service, with the table only being laid for dinner at 18:30. I had a vegetarian meal pre-ordered, while the cabin crew came around to take everyone’s order from the menu (which, I have to say, looked very good) prior to take-off. They also handed out breakfast cards, where you had to select what you wanted for breakfast (or, indeed, if you wanted breakfast at all) and when you wanted to be woken up.
Dinner was excellent, by the way. My starter was a more elaborate version of what I’d had on the flight from Manchester, complete with bread and hummus, plus an additional warm bread roll, when I got to choose from the bread basket. My main course arrived 15 minutes later, a really tasty radish and walnut ravioli, topped with a creamy sauce, every bit as good as the cannelloni I’d had on the flight from Manchester. Finally, there was dessert, plus the chance to have some cheese and port, all of which arrived at 19:00.
Although I suspect that I could have had any of the desserts from the main menu, my vegetarian meal came with a rather appealing (and probably vegan) mango cheesecake which turned out to be just as tasty as it looked, so I happily stayed with that. By this point, I was completely stuffed, but still had cheese and port to go, which I took at a leisurely pace.
There were two cheeses, a rather sharp blue cheese and a cheddar-like hard cheese, both of which were excellent. These were served with a long, thin cracker and an interesting chutney which was probably my least favourite part of an outstanding meal. The port, by the way, just capped everything off perfectly. A 10-year-old Tawny from Krohn, a port house I’d not heard of before, it this was rich and complex, with a little bit of a kick at the end. Perfect.
As well as being the first time I’d flown with Finnair, this was also my first time on an Airbus A350-900, which, I’ll confess, added to the attraction. I’ve flown in plenty of Boeing 777 and 787 aircraft, and, in terms of size, the A350-900 feels bigger than a 787 and more on a par with a 777.
Like quite a few airlines, Finnair doesn’t have first class (even though it has a first class lounge). This means that the business cabin is at the front of the plane, with just the galley between the first row of seats and the cockpit. In all, there are 12 rows, with eight in a forward section, and four more in a smaller rear section after the main galley. In many ways, I’d have preferred to have been back there, but on my flight, the rear section didn’t seem to be in use. If you want more details, don’t forget that you can see the layout over on SeatGuru.
The seats are typical business-class pods, with two in the centre of each row and one on either side, all angled at around 60°, and facing forwards. The pair in the centre face inwards towards each other, while the two outer seats face towards the windows.
I had seat 2A, in the second row on the left. My seat had two windows, one immediately to my left, which offered the best views, and one directly ahead of me at the end of the seat. The layout of the pod is fairly standard, with a fully-reclining seat that converts to a lay flat bed by sliding forward until the seat touches the footrest. The back of the seat, meanwhile, slides down to form the top part of the bed.
The front of the seat tucks into the space behind/to the side of the casing of the seat in front, with a large, fold-out monitor which I used mostly for the map display. Unlike some, where space at the front of the seat is quite short, here it extended a fair way under the seat casing in front, resulting in a pretty deep footrest, with a correspondingly large space below, which was used for stowing the bedding when not in use.
The first thing to say is that the seat was very comfortable and not as narrow as some. Whereas in other seats, I’ve felt like I’ve been constantly cramped, or banging my elbows, there was none of that here, which made it one of the more enjoyable flying experiences.
One of the many things I like about any long-haul business class seat is the sense of space you have. Space both to stretch out and to put your stuff. Compared to some other business class seats, there wasn’t as much storage space, but what there was provided more than enough storage for me. And, compared to my benchmark of a British Airways Club World seat, there was bags of room.
Starting to the right of the seat, there’s an armrest which sinks down into the seat casing when not in use. Between that and the seat is a triangular storage area with a pop-up lid. This is just large enough to fit the airline-supplied headphones and the power supply for my laptop. Off to the left, and slightly ahead of the seat, is a large, flat triangular area which houses the table (more on which later). This is a useful spot to keep everything else, including my camera, any drinks and, when I was sleeping, my glasses. There’s also a magazine rack below the table which, frustratingly, is ever so slightly narrower than my laptop (and has a big sign saying “magazines only” so I shouldn’t complain). This also has a bottle holder on top and was another potential spot for resting my glasses.
The seat casing to the left, behind/above the table area, has a reading light (in addition to two in the panel above the seat), a detachable remote control for the screen, a socket for the headset, a USB outlet and a standard international power socket, below which are the seat controls. Finally, there’s a recessed storage space with a hook in the front of the seat casing, just above the table, although I never really found a use for it.
Turning to the table, this is housed underneath the triangle in front of the seat and swivels out on a single hinge, making it extremely stable (stable tables are definitely one of the things I look for!). It’s wide, but not very deep, folding out lengthways to double its width. That said, it was still more than deep (and wide) enough to take my laptop, as well as providing ample room for my meals. It’s also one of the easiest tables to take out and put away (as long as you remember to fold it in half before trying to stow it!).
My only complaint with this otherwise excellent table was that it had no forwards/backwards travel because of the swivelling hinge. This meant that to find a good typing position, I had to fiddle around with the controls for the chair, trying to move it forward while keeping the back upright (typically, moving the seat forward causes the seat back to tilt backwards, ready to convert to a bed). It’s only a minor gripe though. On the plus side, it makes getting in and out of the seat really easy, even when there are things on the table, since you can just rotate it slightly, so it’s out of your way but not stowed. So, on balance, I like it.
Although the experience of flying via Helsinki was a new one to me, the route was very familiar, since the British Airways direct flights from Heathrow fly over Finland and then on over northern Russia, exactly the route we were taking. I’d decided that I would try to get some sleep when there was about seven hours left in the flight, or around 19:45. This, I reasoned, would give me around five hours sleep, since I’d asked to be woken for breakfast 90 minutes before landing. It turned out to be good timing on my behalf since it was starting to get dark, with the sun setting behind the plane as we flew east. The cabin crew also dimmed the lights at this point, so I took that as a hint.
It was 20:00, when I started getting ready for bed, changing into my pyjamas (the pair I got from British Airways when I flew first class from Chicago last year). Of course, my body clock still thought it was about 18:00, but I’d hoped that the darkness, the gaining two hours in Helsinki and the fact I only had five hours poor-quality sleep the night before would count in my favour.
So, what about my seat? I’d liked it for sitting in, but how would it fare as a bed? The first thing to say is that the extra-deep footrest worked really well for me. Whereas with most lie-flat beds, the maximum I can get is six feet, this was long enough for me to lie completely flat at 6’2”. However, it does suffer from the same problem that all seats of this design have: there’s an awkward ridge in the middle of the bed (the join between the two parts of the seat) which is right in the middle of my back. It’s not terrible, but it’s nowhere near as comfortable as, for example, the bed in Virgin’s Upper Class, where the seat back folds down to form the base of the bed.
Unfortunately, I didn’t sleep well. I don’t think it was the coffee, or, frankly, the bed. I just think that my body clock was sufficiently messed up that I couldn’t sleep properly. In all, I got maybe 4½ hours of interconnected dozes before I decided to give up, rising at 01:00 (07:00 in Tokyo), just in time for breakfast, which was an interesting (and tasty) French toast concoction. My coffee, meanwhile, which came with milk, was drinkable, but that’s probably the best I can say of it.
The good news is that five hours of poor-quality sleep followed by 4½ hours of poor-quality sleep appears to be enough to stave off jet lag. This was probably helped by not having any conference calls until Wednesday (I arrived on Saturday morning), so I had plenty of time to get myself into good sleep routine before needing to either stay up late or get up early.
Normally I’d say I woke up over Russia (which, from past experience, is probably right). However, I can’t be sure on this trip since the route map system crashed during the night. The main cabin monitor did come on at the end of breakfast, showing us crossing the Russian coast and flying south towards Japan, but it crashed again shortly afterwards.
Breakfast was over by 01:30, although it probably helps at this point to think in Tokyo time, where it was 07:30, since getting up at seven in the morning doesn’t sound as bad as getting up at 11pm (the time back in the UK). At this point, I was even more thankful for the delays at Helsinki, since without them, we’d have been getting ready for landing!
As it was, I got about 45 minutes work done before we had the announcement, at 08:10, that we’d be landing in about 25 minutes. Looking out of the window, I could see we were flying over water, which I took to be the Sea of Japan, so I was surprised when a further announcement, five minutes later, said we’d be landing in 10 minutes! With hindsight, I think that the water down below was the sea south of Tokyo Bay as we turned to come back into Narita (or potentially Tokyo Bay itself). To be honest, I’m completely lost without the on-board map!
We landed at 08:25 and within ten minutes we were at the gate, where the airbridge was attached to the correct door this time. From there, it was the usual long walk from the gate to immigration, where I arrived at 08:45.
Since my previous visit to Narita, automated passport readers have been installed, which also take your photo and fingerprints. However, in true Japanese style, these are operated by an immigration official, one per two terminals, which slows the whole process down since you have to wait for the officer to take and scan your passport rather than doing it yourself. Then, once you’ve been scanned and processed, you queue up again to see a human agent, which made me wonder what the point was!
Despite this, and despite there being quite a long queue, things moved quickly, so I was through immigration in just 15 minutes, although all the waiting felt a lot longer. By the time I reached the baggage carousel, it was 09:00 and my bags were waiting for me. Before you could leave, there was another long but relatively fast-moving queue to hand your custom form to the customs agent, but that was it. I was out into arrivals and could finally say I was in Japan.
All that remained was to get myself out of the airport and onto the next stage of my journey, which you can read about in the next Travel Spot.
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