August 9, 2013 7:17 pm

The airline less travelled

The captain’s name is Antti and I’m about to tuck into a reindeer and beetroot canapé

Guess where I’m sitting right now? I’m on an airliner but not just any airliner. It’s an Airbus A340 with a white fuselage (nothing unusual there), bold new navy-blue graphics spelling out the airline’s name and some very large flowers to match – with a splash of yellow. Inside the cabin there are similar graphic flourishes on bits of crockery, napkins and plenty of items in the duty-free catalogue. This particular aircraft is heading to Asia, and, while the airline hails from the extreme east of the European Union, business class is full of Japanese couples.

Have you figured it out yet? OK, here are a few more clues. Most of the passengers seem to have bought birch stools from Artek; those who didn’t have purchased Moomin oven mitts, and the captain-in-command’s name is Antti. Yes, I’m on Finnair bound for Tokyo Narita and I’m about to tuck into a little reindeer and beetroot canapé.

I don’t often make the connection to Asia via Helsinki (I usually fly direct nonstop). This week, though, it made perfect sense as I was in Sweden visiting my house (yes, it’s still with me but is about to go back on the market) and Finnair seemed the obvious choice to get to Japan as it doesn’t involve backtracking to Copenhagen or Frankfurt and I’ve always liked the human scale of Helsinki’s Vantaa airport.

The Finns should really give all those Gulf carriers something to think about and make more noise about the advantages of flying over the top of the world. At the same time, they might want to take a page from the Emirates play book and offer a premium service from all their European destinations rather than waiting till passengers have connected to their long-haul aircraft in Helsinki.

Let me explain. One of the reasons the Gulf carriers have succeeded in winning business traffic travelling to Asia (and from Asia to Europe) is that they offer long-haul comfort from most of Europe all the way to Abu Dhabi, Doha and Dubai and beyond. The drawbacks are that the connection times are often antisocial, that passengers have to walk down endless corridors where people are camped out sleeping barefoot and that the Gulf happens to be close to the fattest part of the world in terms of circumference – making it longer in terms of flying miles. In a curious coincidence, recent health data suggest that the same goes for the waistlines of Gulf citizens as well.

On Finnair, they offer those slimline European seats (Finns happen to be some of the skinniest people in Europe) even in business class – which must be a rude awakening for those Asian passengers who land at Helsinki in long-haul comfort and then are squeezed into tiny Airbuses with a configuration not far removed from that of low-cost carriers.

It wouldn’t take too much economic and design engineering to figure out a way of offering a better class of service for passengers within Europe, and to get the long-haul experience off the ground the moment they board in Milan, London or Brussels, rather than waiting till leg two of the journey.

Better yet, Finnair might lead the way by establishing a whole new alliance concept that allows it to jump out of the jumble sale of airlines that now make up these alliances (do any of them mean anything any more?) and develop something that’s more along the lines of SLH (Small Luxury Hotels of the World) or Relais & Chateaux.

As we hurtled over Russia, Finnair offered a variety of touches that went some distance in setting it apart from the bigger, more cumbersome partners in the Oneworld alliance. Aside from the Marimekko pattern on the fuselage, there’s the signature icicle-style glassware and bold ceramics from Iittala; Finlayson-made Moomin aprons in the duty-free catalogue and well-groomed crew (Finns and Japanese) who seem genuinely proud of the brand they’re flying for. While not the most luxurious experience, it was solid, well executed and stood for something.

After 72 hours in Tokyo, I was on an aircraft belonging to another carrier I don’t spend much time on and had a similar sense of national brand and pride – only this time it was more about the selection of wines, the wool blankets and trolls of a different kind – yes, I was on Air New Zealand. It might have something to do with countries with populations hovering around the five million mark and the simple fact that small is beautiful, or that Finns and Kiwis simply have to work harder to define themselves in the world.

Whatever the reason, there’s a case to be made for a confederation of Small Leading Airlines of the World for all those passengers fed up with flying on bulky carriers that offer little emotional connection. Finnair and Air New Zealand can be the charter members and they might start by inviting the likes of Lebanon’s MEA, Panama’s Copa and Austrian into the mix.

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Tyler Brûlé is editor-in-chief of Monocle magazine

tyler.brule@ft.com

More columns at www.ft.com/brule

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Strew Tyler’s path with rose petals / From Mr Howard Jones

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