In an ideal world, I would like to spend as little time as possible in airports. I go to an airport to catch a plane, just like I go to a bus-stop to catch a bus. Do I want to shop, eat and drink while waiting for a bus? No, I want to get on that bus now! Same goes for flying: I want to get on that plane as soon as possible. I can shop, eat and drink pretty much anytime I want. That is not why I go to an airport.
Of course the modern logistics of flying and in particular the increased security mean one can't just turn up at an airport and hop on the plane as one could in the early days of commercial flying (or as one still can if one is The Queen).
Airports are now glorified waiting rooms.
With that in mind, what I (and presumably many other travellers) are looking for in an airport are 2 things:
- To get quickly through the tedious bits (check-in, security, passport control)
- To have a pleasant environment to spend the time waiting
Specifically, here are 10 reasons to like Helsinki airport:
- Car-park near the terminals: Whether you are driving yourself, dropping off or picking up someone, having a car-park a few steps away from the terminal is bliss as anyone who has had to suffer the "bus to the car-park-at-the-end-of-the-universe" at Heathrow will tell you.
- Efficient checking and security: I rarely use the counters to check-in these days but when I have done so in Helsinki, they have been reasonably quick. I do go through security every time though and that is also fast and efficient (especially if you know about the alternative security area at Helsinki T2). Two small things make a world of difference. Firstly, like many airports these days (but not Heathrow), Helsinki security has a special area for passengers to prepare themselves (emptying their pockets of metallic objects, taking laptops out of bags, etc.) Only when people are ready do they proceed to the actual scanning area. This means those passengers with few items can whizz through without having to wait for those who need a lot of time to get ready. Secondly the security-belt is long on both sides of the scanning machine, so you can put down your things sooner on the belt, and you don't have to wait for previous passengers to collect their stuff before yours can emerge from the machine. And guess what Heathrow? These 2 little things results in shorter queues!
- Automated passport checks: The queues for passport-check are rarely very long at Helsinki, whether on departure or on arrival, but if they are any, there are also "automated border control" machines that can read European passengers' biometric passport. Currently Heathrow T3 has 3 machines on arrival, Helsinki airport has many more. One airport has queues for the machines, the other doesn't.
- Ergonomic terminal: The terminals at Helsinki airport are modern, roomy and have plenty of natural light. None of this can be said of Heathrow T3. And strangely, some of us like a relaxing environment to wait in.
- Pleasant shopping: This is possibly the most striking difference between Heathrow and Helsinki. The London airport is all about getting passengers to spend, spend, spend. Precious space that could have been used for more efficient security or for a more ergnomic waiting area has been sacrificed to make room for shops. This is not a pleasant experience – it's loud, it's in your face. In contrast, Helsinki has nice shops set in a context that is inviting without being overwhelming. That is quite a relief to those of us who are not there to shop.
- Free wifi: Need I say more?
- Nice business lounge: A bit of a frequent-flyer perk, but the Finnair lounge at T2 is very nice – roomy, light, relaxing. The generic lounge is a little less so, but still OK. That said, the British Airways and the Cathay Pacific (Finnair) lounge at T3 are also pretty nice.
- Spa: Helsinki airport has a spa. I have never tried it, but my guess is it beats Heathrow's in-your-face retail therapy anytime in terms of relaxing one ahead of a flight.
- Reasonably rapid luggage collection: Why do so many people drag their luggage across an airport and onto a plane? It's not because they want to be close to their belongings; it's largely because it often takes so very long for checked-in luggage to reappear on arrival – and who wants to hang-around in an ariport any longer than one has to? The luggage delivery at Helsinki airport is usally pretty quick.
- Planes actually fly: Famously, Helsinki airport has only closed once as a result of bad weather, and that was for 30 minutes. Heathrow airport suffers closures or major flight cancellations at least once a year due to snow or fog.
However, Heathrow has made certain choices (e.g. putting shops ahead of passenger comfort) that make the experience of travelling through that airport substantially less pleasant than using Helsinki. If I were an international passenger looking to use an airport for a connecting flight, I would definitely look to use an airport like Helsinki ahead of Heathrow.
Heathrow may like to bask in the glory of being the world's busiest international airport, but as car-rental company Avis pointed out years ago, those not in first place try harder. The same could be said of Helsinki airport.