Trip report: BNE-SIN-HEL-AMS-HEL-HKG-BNE with Qantas and Finnair, in economy (mostly)

QF51 BNE-SIN

The doors closed on QF51 (15 minutes late), and the burly chap next to me thankfully leapt to the row in front, which was completely empty. This plane is about 85% full; the row in front was full on check-in, so I guess they’re a no-show.

This plane is the A330–200 which doesn’t have any seatback screens, and instead has iPad holders. They also have no power sockets, so you can’t charge your own device; and both USB sockets in this seat have been seemingly smashed by a gorilla. I don’t know what the seat pitch is like, but it seems smaller than other long haul flights, with a large IFE box under the seat in front (presumably empty). As I boarded, I noticed it also had the old logo on the outside — the roo with arms, and the sloping, bold typeface. It feels a bit like an old domestic plane.

Craig, the supervisor, comes round with a WP welcome, handing out Singapore landing cards. He’s a nice man, and he says that this plane *is* a domestic plane, used for some international legs. I ask him whether business is full — and he says there’s one free seat but it’s booked for staff. It turns out that they need sleeping space for six staff, but the plane only has room for five, so they book out a business seat for one of the staff too. This may have something to do with the denied points upgrade that I was hoping for.

After lunch, Craig reappears. I’m asleep, though. When I wake up, I discover, placed in front of me, “the new smoked almonds from business. We used to serve these in first, in the A380.” I know this, because he appears later in the flight to tell me. Craig’s warm and salty nuts were a delight to get my tongue round.

As we come down to land, I notice that every staff interaction I’ve had this flight (with four staff in total) has begun with them using my name. That’s quite impressive.

SIN lounges

In Singapore Airport, I decided to pop out to the Jewel and have a look. (It was amazingly busy at 6pm). Then, back into the airport — only to discover that a Qantas-issued boarding pass for a Finnair flight confuses the scanner at immigration, so I have to spend twenty minutes queuing for a new one. (If you intend to visit the Jewel, get a new boarding pass at the transit desk first, I learn later).

I visit the dnata lounge, as instructed by Finnair. It is dark, the chicken satay is quite decent, the beer selection is woeful (Asahi, Tiger and Heineken). I have a machine-made coffee. The lounge looks to be mainly used by flights to Japan, Vietnam, Cambodia and others in that direction, though the most conspicuous branding inside is for Air France. It fills up quickly.

I trip over to the British Airways lounge, which is quiet and decent. The chicken satay isn’t as good, the food looks as if it’s been under the lights for some time, and the beer selection is even more woeful (just Tiger and Heineken). They definitely did Guinness last time I came in here, and BBQ crisps.

And then, as the BA lounge gets more busy, I wander over to the Qantas lounge. Since the completion of its extension, it’s quite decent and has enough room for everyone. The food is pretty good, and the beer selection is the best of the three: two Little Creatures beers on tap. So, of the three lounges I have access to today, I think Qantas wins.

AY132 SIN-HEL

Boarding time on my ticket is 22:45. By 22:47, the gate shows “Closing soon” and by 22:49, the gate says “Last call”. I arrive at the gate puffing a bit, because I may have run. They don’t mess about.

It’s my first ever time on Finnair. Not sure what to expect. The inside of the aircraft is lit in a cold blue colour, like snow. The seats are a very light grey (one of those light grey colours that make me worried about the cleaning bill they must have). The plane is a very new-feeling A350–900. Plenty of legroom. I’m in an “Economy Comfort” seat, so presumably here because I’m a WP.

The trim of the aircraft is snow white, rather than dark black. There are seatback screens on this flight. They are showing a video of people sitting in an igloo aeroplane made entirely of snow with blue skies. They sure milk the whole snow thing. They have wifi on this flight. Proper wifi, connected to the rest of the world, unlike my previous Qantas flight. It costs EUR19.95 (AUD$30) for this twelve-hour flight.

We are given an amenities kit, but it’s in a cardboard box and not a nylon zip bag. “100% Paper”, it says on it. Good for you, Finnair. How simple. The toothbrush is made “from bio plastic with corn starch”, and is lightweight with much of the middle of the handle missing. It works fine. The headphones are large and padded, and are apparently noise cancelling (I don’t wear them). If I have one criticism of the seat, it’s a curious lack of a power socket. There must be one, I conclude, but I can’t see it.

I’m in a row of three, but alone. Yay! The flight attendant comes round and takes the head protectors off the seats that aren’t being used (I guess so they will use them again). Good for you, Finnair. I’ve never seen that before.

The safety video (in English, subtitled in Finnish) is shown. It includes copious amounts of snow.

After take off I explore the IFE (since this plane actually has one). It’s really easy to spot a company that actually cares: they use the corporate typeface throughout the interface, including in the flight map. (The only other company I’ve seen bother about this is the otherwise unremarkable British Airways). The UX is also clear throughout. Everything works, it’s speedy, and all in all a very decent experience. No, I’ll go further — it is easily the best designed and most responsive IFE system I’ve ever seen in a flight.

The wifi offers (for free) 10 English-language newspapers and magazines. Right now, it’s Saturday afternoon Europe time, and Saturday’s edition of The Times, the FT, the Daily Mail and the i are all on the system. There are also three free (English) audiobooks and ten free twenty-minute summaries of business books. (Last time I was on Malaysian, it had a reading section, entirely consisting of four inflight magazines from 2008.)

We’re shown a video about how all this works, that starts “now we’re above the clouds”. It is set in the snowy igloo again. The logo appears at the end, flecked with snow. Then an ad for Union Pay (oddly) is shown. Then we all get a hot towel to forget about the horror of the Union Pay ad.

Food comes (Singaporean catered) — of course they didn’t give out a paper menu, it says what it is on the IFE. The Singaporean crew battle with turbulence to serve it. I’m greeted by name. Red wine is not given out in miniature plastic bottles, but poured from an ordinary glass one: thus saving hundreds of plastic bottles. (We’re shortly offered a top-up: this isn’t just a cost-saving opportunity). The hot food is served in a foil container, not plastic.

I try to read The Times via the free wifi. I grit my teeth in anticipation of a crappy web app with interminable waits and poor graphics. But no — it downloads almost instantly as a 24MB PDF, which is crisp and clear, and easy to read. It slowly dawns on me that delivering newspapers this way avoids carrying the things down from Europe and back again, saving weight. Good for you, Finnair.

The armrests are surprisingly thin-looking (a weight-saving thing?), but because of this, fold up completely. Eight hours of smooth sleep later, on my EconoBed™ — sure, it isn’t long enough for me to stretch out, but lying down is a good thing — and breakfast is served: a full hot breakfast with scrambled eggs, a surprisingly fresh croissant, some fruit, some coffee.

The blue background of the IFE, on boarding, was blue sky with a cloud. It’s subtly changed through the night, and is now a darker blue sky with sunrise at the bottom of it. In the “arrivals” section, I notice that I will have 2h32m to connect to my flight, which is on time, and will leave from gate 19. It’s accompanied by a map showing where gate 19 is. There is real attention to detail here. I sense you wouldn’t get Finnair tolerating having a mishmash of new and old logos, three years after changing, still appearing on all your fleet.

Then, as we come into land, the lights in the aircraft change to mimic the Northern Lights, with soft blues, greens and pinks, imperceptibly changing. A message appears in the IFE saying you can enhance the experience with a video (which is of the Northern Lights too).

HEL

Helsinki Airport’s international terminal is being rebuilt, and great swathes of it are cordoned off behind clean-looking boards. Transiting here means immigration too, since Finland is properly in Europe’s Shengen Agreement, so this will be the last time I show my passport. Then, in Europe, a walk to the domestic lounge, trying carefully to ignore the Scandinavian design stores either side. The lounge is white and light grey, with power points at every sitting area, wooden tables and chairs, and with a decent-looking hot breakfast. It’s busy, but not so you’d notice.

AY1301 HEL-AMS

An Airbus A321. Much like any other A321 you’ve been on. We got a cup of coffee for free, and we could pay for more. I didn’t.

AMS

After three days of meetings, and a cold rainy day, I decide that I’ll go to the airport early, and get there about 13h30. This was a mistake. Finnair seems to have one flight after that time, and it leaves at 18h50. It’s a European flight, so the check-in desk only opens at 16h50, and even though I can check in on mobile, I cannot check my bag in. (There are plenty of other OneWorld airlines here: just not Finnair).

I wait in the busy airside shops, sitting in a café for two hours, then queue to check in my bag. They give me a paper BP for my first two flights, but Finnair (part of OneWorld) can’t check me in for Qantas (part of OneWorld) for some reason, so it’ll be a wander to the transit desk when I get to Hong Kong.

I get into the lounge, an “Aspire” contract lounge, in the Shengen part of the airport. I realise I’ve not been in the Shengen part before. The lounge is full to brimming with people, but I find a place to sit. The only beer is Heineken — unsurprisingly, given its brewed here.

AY1306 AMS-HEL

On another A321, which is 50 minutes late to take off, after a combination of a late arrival and, by the sounds of it, a little old lady getting lost in the airport. I’m in seat 9B, which is, said the website, a window seat. The “window” in question is round and six inches in diameter — because it’s the emergency exit, a seat’s width away from me. Odd seating arrangement.

I enjoyed a blueberry juice on the way, from a very Scandinavian flight attendant who literally wouldn’t stop smiling.

HEL

Sadly, even though the plane was able to catch up a little time, I wasn’t able to spent very long in the “Platinum Wing” lounge. In fact, I got fifteen minutes, five minutes of which was queuing behind a couple of businessmen who decided they wanted something complicated involving gin, tonic, red berries and some kind of green leaved thing, and then decided they also wanted a glass of wine.

Even so, the Platinum Wing is both spacious and huglike. The bar was impressive (I had a Finnish porter); there was a decent food selection, and a snug area with curtains separating it from the main lounge, and some lovely large warm enveloping chairs that were almost like your own small room. Everything was dark blue and grey. It was all very nice.

So nice, it was sad to leave, but leave I must, for there is a plane waiting for me. Not literally.

AY099 HEL-HKG

Beep, goes the machine in the gate scanning in my BP. It isn’t a good beep. It’s a red-lit beep, accompanied by a “PASSENGER MAY NOT BOARD” message. I look quizzically at the FA. She prods a computer. “You have a visa for Australia?” she asks, looking at my British passport. “I do,” I reply. She shrugs. “OK then,” she says, and lets me through, adding “our computers have had problems all day”. (I guess that they’re only getting me as far as HKG, and it’s Qantas who’ll be in trouble if I don’t have a visa. I do, though. Honest.)

Once more, I’m apparently upgraded to the Economy Comfort seating. This time I’m in the bulkhead seats right in the front of economy, with an empty seat next to me. Economy Comfort is almost entirely empty, but it looks to get busier behind. Looking at the bulkheads carefully, since I have not much else to look at, I notice that these have no support for bassinets, and thus no babies. (As a father, though, baby cries are not an issue. After two years of those, you tend to learn how to deal with them).

A proper WP welcome, from the boss of the Hong Kong flight crew too, keen to offer me “some champagne or a cocktail”. I asked for (guess, go on — oh, you guessed) a beer. They’ve a choice of a Carlsberg or a Karhu. I went for the Karhu, which is Finnish and comes with a picture of a big scary bear.

A bald man wearing a pair of thongs comes and sits in the middle bulkhead seats (which are unoccupied). My new friend the flight attendant man appears almost instantly and tells him to go back to his assigned seat. He sheepishly does so. I like Finnair.

The food, Finland-catered, is really nice. I had meatballs, which were very much as IKEA would have them, except better. Later, after a sleep, breakfast was also good — a fluffy and herby omelette, accompanied by a blueberry juice, and then a chocolate before we land, 30 minutes ahead of schedule.

HKG

A complicated song and dance at the transfer desk, as the lady at the Qantas desk peered at her computer, looked confused at me, and demanded my e-ticket number. My what? Who? I tried giving her my phone with the Qantas app open, showing who I was and what flight I was on. She asked for “my booking reference ticket number”. “You do know they are two different things, don’t you?” I grumbled, gesturing that if she handed me my phone back, I might be able to find one of those two things if she let me. Then all of a sudden she printed out two boarding passes for me, and told me “sometimes the computer doesn’t work”. I suspect she typed my name in wrong.

I have five hours here in HKG, and would normally pop into town for a few hours, but don’t much want to chance that at the moment. So instead, it’s the lounges where I’ll go.

I ignore the invitation to the Qantas lounge, and head for The Pier, Cathay Pacific’s fancy (and virtually hidden) first-class lounge which I’ve not done before. A lovely relaxing sitting area, all soft chairs and green shades and chilled music (they’ve even bothered with subwoofers in the ceiling); a very nice office type environment (good for recording a short podcast in); a ‘pantry’ with snacks all beautifully laid out. Really nice.

And then the a la carte food area, which was too large, very echoey, and reminded me of a works canteen with a lino floor. The food was lovely, though — I had wonton noodles, which they bring with warmed chopsticks, a fancy luxury I’ve not had before. The beer choice, in case you’re wondering, included two Hong Kong beers — one called Hong Kong Beer (an amber), and one called Betsy, which is a specific pale ale brewed for Cathay Pacific. (It’s fascinating that the only airline that doesn’t serve beer from its own country is British Airways. Boo! Sort it out, whoever’s in charge this week.)

QF128 HKG-SYD

After a quick visit to the Qantas lounge (given I wanted a walk, and wanted to be closer to the gate), it’s onto the 787–9 Dreamliner. For this flight, my points upgrade request to business was, for the third time, refused; but I do get the consolation prize of a step up to Premium Economy, and get 20D, a bulkhead, middle, aisle seat (with nobody next to me). I don’t think I’ve done Premium Economy on Qantas before. It’s fine, though the bulkhead means I can’t stretch out my feet, and I don’t sleep much.

I examine the brand new Qantas IFE with new eyes after the Finnair experience. Yes, the moving map app uses Roboto, the default Android font, rather than Qantas’s own which is used elsewhere; and an inconsistent UX (particularly, a tiny little ‘close’ button that’s smaller than your finger). The moving map display in the IFE (rather than the app) uses the default font for the application, which isn’t either Qantas’s or Roboto. The IFE as a whole is far less fluid, with a slower frame rate. The menu offers “news”, but trying to use it gives a 3 minute video that purely says “Unfortunately, news is unavailable on this flight”. The meal section — available from every page — says “Data unavailable”. At least there are no old Qantas logos on this version — though, to be fair, there are no Qantas logos at all.

There is, though, a power socket on this plane. Which is nice. So I use it.

Stupid SYD

I may play a little naïve with the Express card and may have used it to queue jump in the immigration queue. Cough. You use it for that right?

On my way through immigration, the bus, etc, I count five old Qantas logos, almost all on badly laminated pieces of paper. This would seem quite easy for someone from marketing to fix.

Then a quick lounge visit for a coffee, followed by…

QF510 SYD-BNE

This is a full 737–800, with wifi. Yay, wifi. Therefore this report is coming from it.

I see bush fires as we go, which is sobering.

And then, home.

Total time to get home: 31h01m. A quick commute.