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!