Saturday, 10 March 2012

Why I Quite Like Helsinki Airport

As a frequent flyer, I spend a lot of time in airports. I can't say I ever really enjoy any of them but some airports are more pleasant than others, and Helsinki airport is one of the best.

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:

  1. To get quickly through the tedious bits (check-in, security, passport control)
  2. To have a pleasant environment to spend the time waiting
Helsinki airport delivers on both of those pretty well. In contrast, Heathrow Terminal 3 (where most London-Helsinki flights depart and arrive) doesn't.

Specifically, here are 10 reasons to like Helsinki airport:
  1. 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.
  2. 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!
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. Free wifi: Need I say more?
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.
Of course, as I often point out to my Finnish friends and colleagues, it is not quite fair to compare Helsinki airport with Heathrow. Helsinki handles about 15 million passengers a year (2011), Heathrow processes close to 67 million (2010). Heathrow's Terminal 3 alone handles more passengers (20 million) than Helsinki. Even London's 3rd busiest airport, Stansted, is bigger in terms of passenger numbers (18 million).

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.


  1. I was really impressed with the children's play area in our departure lounge, too. Having travelled with children a lot, that sort of facility can make a BIG difference. Kids get to run off some steam without annoying all the other passengers (as well as their parents) before getting on the plane. Excellent.
    I would definitely choose to connect through Helsinki... if it weren't already about as far away from home as I can possibly get!

  2. You're right, Heathrow's T3 is absolutely horrible place to spend time. But to be honest the new(ish) T5 is actually really nice and even manages to work well nowadays after the 'minor' issues during the launch! I think they might even have studied Helsinki in it's design.... :)

    1. It seems all new airports follow the same basic design these days, and yes, T5 at Heathrow is better, though Heathrow in general still suffers from being too busy (the slightest problem causes mass cancellations, and Heathrow treats its customers abysmally). Also, there seems to be no connected thinking in the development of the airport.

  3. Helsinki is very good at getting your baggage to you quickly, but it was in the news just the other week that it had to close again due to stormy weather recently. So it's not completely weatherproof! I actually don't mind the shops at the big UK airports because at least they have a half decent choice of things. They always seem to have bookshops that are better than the little ones in Helsinki. And then finally, perhaps if you fly for business you don't notice, Helsinki is an expensive airport for landing, but has a monopoly on landing within 150 kms of the capital. Hence the very low penetration of budget airlines and much fewer opportunities for Finns to travel cheaply.

    1. Yes, there are OK bookshops and electronic shop at Heathrow. But why so many premium shops? I remember once flying from T4 to somewhere hot in Asia a while back. I had packed my warm stuff into my suitcase, but the terminal was so air-conditioned that I was freezing. I wanted to buy an ordinary jumper, but the only place I could find was a Harrord's outlet selling cashmere jumpers. I had no choice but to part with serious money for something I did not really want.

    2. Because there is certain type of people (in Finland we could call them Kokoomus MPs) who clearly only shop in airports. They need to know that airports only have premium brands so that they know that whatever they buy there, be that a business suit or that horrible "I'm just off yachting" weekend casual wear, it will fit in with the dull, soulless uniform of all the other shiney, happy people they mix with. If they had Primark or Matalan there you'll see Alex Stubb turn up at his next weekend retreat in Lapland for EU foreign ministers looking slightly confused about how little money he spent and, well, like a chav. :-)

    3. BTW, you were getting on a plane for a long flight without a jumper or fleece?!? Besides the oddly fluctuating temps you sometimes get on planes, what do you roll up to use as a pillow, or to hide under to block out the lights? Galactic hitch-hikers favour towels, but a fleece works well for me. Plus you know if you have a fleece and a lightweight shell in your carry-on, if you ditch in cold sea your going to be the one person who does succumb to hypothermia in the life raft before the rescue boots find you. These are very important considerations... Book deals await lone survivors...

  4. Couldn't agree more. I too am a big fan of Helsinki-Vantaa airport. Just the other day we returned from an overseas trip; our luggage arrived in record speed, and we were in our own car driving home less than 30 minutes after our plane actually landed. When travelling with small children, speed and efficiency are things I prize beyond all else, and you're right - Helsinki airport is brilliant on these points.
    I also just love that it's airy and full of light.