Where ever you are, near of far, this is with love to all of you. Bollywood greetings from our mini crew in India!
This is the Saki Naka Pipeline in Mumbai. You won’t find it in the “what to do” section of your travel guide, but it would be right at home in the “what to feel” section.
I am standing outside the frame of the photograph with my friend Manish Gawde. Next to us is Ashley Pereira, a man who works in the area and knows the people and the neighbourhood like the back of his hand. The colourful scene comes to life in an intoxicating mix of sounds, smells and sensations. There is so much life, especially in the form of countless children. We are surrounded by colourful clothing, bare weathered feet and sun-toasted faces. With curious looks on their faces, they watch us for a moment and then boldly come closer to try out their English vocabulary. All three words of it. “Good morning, Sir!” the words come out naturally, with charming smiles. The mothers are also smiling a little further away. One of the girls wants to recite a poem for us. She has a look of intense concentration on her face. Her light dress gleams in the burning sun and she looks almost as if in a trance. I don’t understand the words, but I’m sure it’s a beautiful poem. For a moment, we are frozen in time by the girl’s recital. Finishing the poem, she runs off in a cloud of dust. Perhaps it’s magic dust.
I quickly wipe the corner of my eye. Manish shifts his weight from one foot to the other. And then back again. Back and forth. He looks at me with determination and says: “We could do something for these children. Something that would make them feel very special. I’m sure we can find a way. We should create a special day for them, something to keep in the treasure trunk of emotions we carry with us on this journey of life.” I nodded with excitement. I didn’t nod the way the locals do, with a sideways bobble, but rather in clear affirmation. My nod was more akin to a Finnhorse as I neighed and nodded up and down.
For a moment, our thoughts galloped wildly here and there, until they descended back on the dusty field. They were now flavoured with a pinch of history, a smidgen of the future and a big spoonful of exhilaration. Their colours were blue and white. Manish’s background as a Bollywood dance instructor was naturally an important resource in our plan, but we wanted to do something more special for these children than to just teach them a dance. We wanted to do something unforgettable. We decided we would teach them a dance and fly them from Mumbai to Delhi to perform in front of the cameras. It would be their greeting to the world. Our heads were in the clouds. It took everything we had to keep our feet on the ground. Our dream was in flight, and the flight number was “Flight of Fantasy”.
It didn’t take much to convince Ashley to get involved. His serious brown eyes, which have seen a lot, lit up with infectious enthusiasm. His eyes laughed as he told us that the children, or their parents for that matter, had never even seen the airport.
A dose of realism crept in, looking for its seat on our flight, when we approached Finnair with a cooperation proposal. That dose of realism reminded us that Finnair is an airline. Taking in the scene in Saki Naka, realism whispered in our ears to point out that this wasn’t exactly a prime market for business travellers. The hard numbers brushed against our soft dream, adding a few sharp corners but not making the idea impossible. It turns out that Finnair’s marketing and communications department is home to a curious, gently beating heart that eagerly adopted the Flight of Fantasy idea. When we found out that our dream could come true, the F-shaped Finnair logo morphed into a pink heart-shaped cloudlet.
There are over 400 children living in the Saki Naka Pipeline neighbourhood. The Flight of Fantasy would only have seats for 20. We needed to hold an open audition, sort of like a round of Saki Naka’s Got Talent. Many of the children in the neighbourhood can’t be reached by mobile phone, let alone contacted via the Internet. Fortunately, with Ashley’s contacts and word-of-mouth marketing, we had a total of 68 children show up. The boys and girls were full of dance moves and enthusiasm despite not even knowing what they were auditioning for. A long day filled with music and moves was turning into night by the time Manish had finally selected 10 girls and 10 boys, all aged between 9 and 16, to go on the adventure of a lifetime. If you listen very quietly, you can still hear the screams of joy and surprise of the children after it was explained to them what the Flight of Fantasy was all about.
It was time to start the engines. The fuel for these motors was elation and enthusiasm. They are alternative green fuels that, when recycled, are highly contagious. The infectious enthusiasm spread to the seamstress who began working on the uniforms, and the bus driver who drove the children to rehearsals. The bus was big enough for all 20 children and their 4 substitutes.
In one long line, the effervescent group stepped into the rehearsal room. As always, they greeted Manish with a jolly: “Good afternoon, Sir!”, and Sir responded with a big smile. Sir remained energetic, but the children lost a bit of their vigour when they were faced with a difficult task. In turn, everyone had to face the group and say a little something about themselves. Voices turned to whispers, or even complete silence. Sentences trailed off while hands fidgeted with the hem of a shirt, fingers twiddled and faces turned down towards the floor. All the energy was suddenly gone, hidden behind a wall of silence. This only lasted a moment, and soon the energy was back and higher than ever when the actual dance rehearsal began. Feet beat on the floor, little arms flailed in the air and there was not a square metre of space for worries or concerns in the room. I watched them as they worked, eager to follow instructions. I watched them as they hung on every word of feedback from Sir. I watched them enjoy every minute of it. All of them. Both Manish and the kids. I saw how our little dream had caught on, the entire team feeling it like a butterfly coated in sugary nectar.
The rehearsal period lasted for two weeks. Nobody missed a single day, even when one or two of the children had a fever or stomach flu and we hoped that they would stay home and rest. Each passing day and each dance step increased their confidence and mutual trust. The group came together, their attitude and shared goal turning them into a veritable dream team.
The children invited us to visit their homes. Skipping lightly along narrow alleys, they pointed out which street dogs should be given a wide berth and where each path led. They politely reminded us that shoes must be left outside the home. Behind every door and curtain lives a different family, each with its own unique history. Regardless of the size of the dwelling, the spirit of “sharing is caring” could be felt in every home. Shared love in small spaces, from small cups and bowls with a lot of emotion. The parents were thrilled that their children would have the chance to fly in an airplane. Unbelievable! So unbelievable, in fact, that one father admitted he was worried it was all a devious plan to kidnap the children. When the children escorted us out of the neighbourhood afterwards in a large group, a police car pulled up next to us. They asked us if we knew we were being followed by a group of children. We looked at our kids and smiled. Things aren’t always the way they might seem to an outsider.
As we approached the end of the rehearsal period, the uniforms were ready. The children looked at themselves. They looked at each other. They must have grown at least five centimetres each. You could sense all kinds of emotions in the air. We had reached a stopover on the Flight of Fantasy. Manish invited each of the children in turn to stand in front of the team to talk about their experiences thus far. This time it was I who was fidgeting with the hem of my shirt. The children were done fidgeting. Matured by trust in each other and a shared dream, they could now talk much more easily. They talked about their feelings and of the new dreams they had. Innocent words. Words of children. Truths. One of the girls burst into tears. I had a hard time holding back mine. One of the boys said: “Who would be crazy enough to take us for a trip on an airplane?” At that point, the weather report on the news could have said “Premature monsoon hits Mumbai,” for there was no holding back the stream of tears then. The emotion was just too much.
I and Manish looked at each other. We looked at our crew. We were so incredibly proud of them. Then Manish used the fine-tuning capacity of humour to swing the emotion back to exhilaration. After all, we had invited the parents to watch the dress rehearsal and they were waiting behind the doors. Manish took charge of the situation, using teacher-like determination mixed with a great deal of warmth and approval. I looked at the parents. My eyes were burning. You could sense the strangeness of the situation just by looking at them. They were so present in the moment, that when the dance finally ended, the room was completely quiet. Later, one of the mothers said, through her tears while touching her son in his uniform, that she had never seen the boy look like this. She never even imagined that he could look like this. I nodded. I couldn’t get any words out of my mouth, but the crew was clearly “fit to fly”.
Departure day, or night actually, was full of excitement. The Flight of Fantasy crew quietly made its way to Mumbai airport. They stood lined up, shortest to tallest, looking like a Finnair crew shrunk to doll size. In the background, you can see family and friends from Saki Naka Pipeline, who took another bus to send the kids off, to see their little stars take flight. There it was. That leaving feeling. The first time you show your ID card to a security guard to be allowed in the airport terminal. You could feel it in the air. You could feel it in the small hands we held as we entered the terminal building.
Silence sat with our crew in the waiting area. However, there was also a sense of a strong desire to proudly represent Saki Naka Pipeline. Or Mumbai. Or, for that matter, all of India.
When it was finally time to board the aircraft, the crew lined up neatly once more. They must have checked their seat numbers a hundred times to make sure they would make it to their seats without making a scene. The girls seated next to Manish asked him questions non-stop, wanting to know what every button did and why. When the aircraft took off, I heard a sound from behind me that reminded me of people on a roller coaster: whoooaaaaa. One of the girls kept looking out of the window. She was up among the stars. The sky was so beautiful. She gave her friend a little shove and asked: “Isn’t it amazing to be so close to the stars?” It was 2.20 in the morning, but curiosity overcame tiredness.
After a two-hour flight, we landed in Delhi. Finnair’s ground crew was there to meet us and the line started moving along. What? The line stopped abruptly. What is it? An escalator! How do you use this? A short pause to watch the more experienced escalator users and find out how it’s done. Then, hop onto the moving step and ride down smiling like the winner you are.
From the airport, the crew was taken by bus to Hotel Parkland. Someone said the bus was cold. It was meant as a positive observation. It was 5.10 in the morning and the sun was only just waking up for the day, although the temperature was already a balmy 32 degrees Celsius.
The hotel welcomed the Flight of Fantasy crew with appropriate dignity and a morning coffee. The wall-to-wall carpet was soft. Some of the girls had to take extra steps just to feel that softness a few more times. The sofas were large and comfortable. Sitting on the oversized sofas with coffee cups in hand, our mini-sized crew looked like a fairytale come true.
It was time to straighten out the shirt collar and check the parting in the hair. Time to put loose strands of hair back in their places in the plaits.
The camera crew was getting ready. The DJ was all set behind his table. Volunteers made sure there were enough water bottles and tissues to go around. Manish was busy giving last-minute instructions and playing imaginative games that had the effect of an energy drink. Everyone had their role to play. The common denominators were a shared goal and the incredible heat. The stars of Flight of Fantasy assumed their starting poses, ready to dance their hearts out, shining bright like the sun to enchant the world with the choreography of their shared journey.
Welcome to the Flight of Fantasy. Today, we offer you magic dust made from the seeds of dreams.
Ah! Summer in Finland. The sizzling of barbecues, the long light evenings, the smell of burning birch wood warming the sauna… and the construction sites messing up all Helsinki’s prime tourist spots.
As a keen cyclist I spend much of my Finnish summers on two wheels. I know some of the routes around Helsinki like the back of my hand but I wouldn’t risk trying them blindfolded – there’s too big a risk of pedalling into a freshly excavated hole. This spring they chose my own street for a massive sewer pipe renovation, employing an impressive “no-dig technology solution”. No holes to cycle into, then, just a huge black pipe running down the middle of the street.
Of course, I know that much of the street renovations have to be done when the ground is not covered by snow and frozen hard. I also know that all this frantic construction and renewal that has hardly paused since I first moved to Finland 30 years ago is a symptom of comparative economic health. I dare say the citizens of Spain and Greece would welcome more holes in the road if it meant that their utility companies and governments had the funds for renewal.
Moreover, when the projects in Helsinki are complete, there are usually conspicuously positive results. The seemingly endless building that went on around the site of the new Music Centre was a blot on the landscape for many months, but the landmark that sits there now already feels agreeably irreplaceable. Likewise the pedestrian street of Keskuskatu, one half of which is covered by a vast ugly tent this summer but which will be a welcome addition to the traffic-free zones of the capital in future summers (and winters) when complete.
Helsinki Airport has also been the site of some high-profile construction projects recently. The long-overdue new rail link between central Helsinki and the airport has caused some disruption and a lot of ground-shaking but nobody will complain when the trains start running in 2014. And soon, this summer Finnair will be moving to a smart new high-tech Head Office near the airport.
The new building, known as HOTT, or House of Travel and Transportation, has a total floor space of 70,000 square metres and is located next to the current Finnair head office building in Tietotie. The big move about to take place is also nicely timed to coincide with this year’s 90th anniversary of Finnair’s founding in 1923, when the airport was not much more than a shoreline quay. Most of Finnair’s functions will be in the same location, a move intended to increase cooperation and communication between different units.
The new office building also includes all kinds of eco-friendly features, so in terms of temperature, it will probably not live up to its HOTT label. For Finnair staff it should represent a big improvement in terms of working environment and facilities. Next time I start to curse as my cycle route takes a detour round a new building site this summer, I must remind myself of the benefits of this annual construction activity.
Standards, discipline and routines. Technique and physics. But, at the same time, flying is all about feeling. I recognised that feeling the moment I took off on my first training flight in a Cessna 152. To rise off the surface of the earth, controlling the aircraft with your own two hands. To ascend, to descend and to roll. To carve the edge of a cloud with the tip of the wing. Today’s pilots on their first flights are as enchanted by these sensations as the pioneers of manned flight in the early 20th century. It is love at first touch for those with aviator’s blood coursing through their veins.
The sky and the landscape it illuminates are different every day. It is a marvellous play of colours: vivid crimson and deep blue on some days, tranquil pastel shades on others. My favourite moment has always been when the aircraft I’m flying rises above the thick grey cloud layer, flooding the cockpit and my eyes with brilliant sunlight. When you see the white tops of the clouds rush by, you feel the velocity of 800 kilometres per hour in your every cell. Sensations as the pioneers of manned flight in the early 20th century. It is love at first touch for those with aviator’s blood coursing through their veins.
Nature can be blissful, gorgeous and colourful for a pilot, but there are also days when it shows its harsh and merciless side. As a pilot, you feel a mixture of pride and humility at work. We all fly on nature’s terms. Nature does not negotiate. All you can do is adapt to its framework. This framework can manifest itself as a storm front rising in front of you, or a weather report indicating the destination airport’s runway friction coefficient. When the winds are too strong or the runway is too slippery, the pilot makes changes to the flight plan.
It’s difficult to say whether the feeling you have up there is one of greatness or smallness. In a way, you look at the world through the eyes of an outsider. Landscapes change as you pass countless villages, cities, fields, oceans and mountain ranges. You see things from a broader perspective and allow your thoughts to drift beyond the horizon. All across the earth, there are people living around the little dots of light you see from far above. In that village, and the next, and the next one after that.
The passengers in the cabin behind me are also from some small village, or perhaps a large city. Perhaps I have the privilege of flying them to meet distant friends or relatives. I take people to make important decisions, to sign important deals and agreements. I fly families out to well-deserved vacations. It feels good to represent and be part of the world’s safest mode of transport. You get to contribute to maintaining a high level of safety, day after day. You do this for people who trust in your professionalism.
A pilot also knows his or her aircraft in a physical sense. Rough air, rolling and the force of acceleration. When you disengage the autopilot, the aircraft becomes a part of you through your arms. All of your senses are focused on flying and the rest of the world is closed out. The interplay between your eyes and arms sends signals to the brain on changes in the trajectory. You control the aircraft gently, making small adjustments. A gust of wind pushes the aircraft sideways. With a small movement of your hand, you adjust for the side force. There is a faint sense of rolling, and then the aircraft is back on the beacon course.
Flying is universal. Air traffic controllers speak the same language, whether you are flying to one of the world’s largest hubs or a small airport in Lapland. Work takes the pilot to the edges of the earth. There are bitingly cold stopovers and balmy, hot ones. Different nationalities, languages and cultures flash by at airports, in hotels and on streets. You feel like an observer, always something of an outsider. You rarely have the opportunity to get to know people very well. Your stay in any one destination tends to be short.
The pilot returns home, and the circle is complete. There are hotels everywhere, but only one place you can call home. “Daddy, did you go to Japan or China?” the children ask. They don’t always remember, and why would they? There is no tone of glamour in their question. Over the years, any job becomes routine. Long sleepless nights. Days when nothing seems to go according to plan. It is wonderful to have the opportunity to see the world, but ultimately you must love flying for other reasons. I do. I love the variation, eventfulness and challenges. I love its many different dimensions and how rewarding it is. And, of course, I love having fantastic workmates.
Over the past 10 years, our home airport in Helsinki has grown into an international hub where tens of thousands of passengers catch connecting flights every day. The airport has an excellent location: flying from Asia to Europe, for example, Helsinki is right along the shortest route due to the Earth’s curvature. A convenient connection at a modern, functional and – dare I say – exceptionally stylish airport is a superior choice for many passengers. At Finnair, we work very hard on a daily basis to ensure that we offer the highest quality concept for connecting flights in Europe. This is absolutely essential as, on average, well over half of our passengers catch connecting flights in Helsinki.
Pilots are provided with the first list of our passengers’ official Finnair and oneworld connecting flights and connection times with our flight preparation materials. Combined with information on the flight time and the flying conditions on the day, this list allows us to form a general understanding of the flight’s urgency. If headwind is expected and the situation seems tight to begin with, we can take measures to expedite the flight right from the beginning. There are many ways to do this, but naturally no compromises are made when it comes to flight safety. I’ve discussed the management of flights that are considerably late in a previous blog entry.
The pilot and first officer alone can’t work magic. The real magicians are far from the view of passengers at Finnair’s two operations centres. One of these centres is called the HCC (Hub Control Center). The HCC is a room full of battle-hardened professionals dedicated to monitoring the operations of the Helsinki Hub. This includes monitoring passenger flows from the airport entrance all the way to the aircraft, ensuring the effective movement of transit passengers to their connecting flights, monitoring all outdoor activity around aircraft, security and border control formalities as well as countless other duties. All this involves a great deal of work aimed at ensuring that passengers have a pleasant and smooth travel experience.
I’ll illustrate the process with an example. When the wheels of a Finnair Airbus 330 lift off the tarmac at Incheon Airport in Seoul, real-time information on take-off is automatically transmitted to Finnair’s information systems. As the total flying time is also known, the systems calculate the first estimate of the flight’s arrival time and display it on Finnair’s computer terminals. The pilots then transmit a new, more accurate estimate during the early stages of the flight. New information is also transmitted whenever the estimates change for one reason or another. For example, air traffic control can sometimes direct the aircraft to fly at an altitude that is suboptimal in terms of wind conditions, which may result in total flying time changing by a few minutes. It is also worth mentioning that the estimated arrival time sent from the cockpit is also transmitted to the arrivals column on the Finavia website (www.finavia.fi) and the information screens at Helsinki Airport. This means that those information sources are quite accurate unless something unexpected happens.
There is also a lot of communication from the ground to the aircraft. Well before the flight reaches Helsinki, HCC sends a message to the pilots informing them of their expected arrival gate, updated information on connecting flights and the departure gates of the connecting flights. This often makes a long list. For instance, a flight from Seoul can have transit passengers for 20-30 different connecting flights to various destinations across Europe.
If any connection appears particularly critical, the HCC can send a request through the cockpit to have the passengers in question exit the plane first in Helsinki. This information is forwarded from the cockpit to the passengers via the purser. If a connection is missed in spite of all efforts, rerouting decisions are made in Helsinki as early as possible. The aim is to inform passengers of their new flight routing before arriving in Helsinki. Of course, rerouting is only used as a last resort. Sometimes it is a question of minutes.
Finnair’s flight scheduling is such that afternoons are a very busy time. A number of long-haul flights from Asia and India arrive in the afternoon almost all at the same time. The airline makes a few special arrangements to manage this ”Asian wave” as effectively as possible. If a number of long-haul flights, with hundreds or even thousands of transit passengers, were to park at the gates of Helsinki Airport at the same time, border control and security checks could get congested and baggage handling could be slowed down. Finnair prevents congestion by spacing out the arrivals of the Asian flights in a coordinated manner. This is usually achieved by slight adjustments to airspeed, which can begin several hours before landing.
Our example flight from Seoul would receive a message with information on the planned arrival sequence of the afternoon’s Asian flights, probably when it’s flying over the Chinese highlands. The same message is sent to all aircraft heading from Asia to Helsinki. The message includes target times for each flight’s arrival at the boundary of the Helsinki air control area. Hitting the target time may require maintaining current speed, picking up speed to gain a few minutes, or slowing down slightly to delay arrival by a few minutes. It is generally easy for the pilots to hit the target as long as they receive the information early enough. As a result, the flights arrive in Helsinki in intervals of 6-10 minutes. Congestion at checkpoints and passenger corridors is avoided and baggage is moved swiftly from aircraft to aircraft.
It takes good coordination and teamwork, but that is something we have been practising for years. Of course, there are times when things don’t go according to plan. Occasional surprises are part of the nature of aviation, with the weather being the usual culprit. Many factors outside the influence of Helsinki can also pose challenges to the network’s punctuality. This requires a great deal of competence from the personnel on duty as well as effective coordination by the airline. I mentioned above that we have two operations centres; the other one is responsible for cooperation with our entire global network. Instead of reading about it, you can learn more about the work of that operations centre by watching the new Finnair video below. Have a pleasant and punctual journey!