Long-haul with no recline: A review of Finnair’s new business class on the A350-900 from Helsinki to Singapore
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The unveiling of a new business-class seat is an exciting time for #avgeeks and long-haul travelers alike.
While many airlines choose the safe option of a mass-produced seat that has already been tried and tested by other airlines, Finnair surprised the aviation industry in February by unveiling a never-before-seen type of seat for its brand-new, business-class product.
Finnair is the launch customer for the unusual new AirLounge seat designed by award-winning seat manufacturer Collins Aerospace and is the only airline currently with this type of seat on board. What’s so unusual about it? It doesn’t recline.
Some other airlines like Singapore Airlines have minimally reclining seats in business class — but in those cases, the back of the seat flips down to create a bed so there are two seat positions, seat mode and bed mode. This new offering from Finnair has no flipping at all — the seat you are sitting on is also the bed you will sleep on, as well as a bench and just a place to hang out.
I had the chance to try out this new style of seat recently on a short hop from Helsinki-Vantaa Airport (HEL) to Heathrow Airport (LHR) in order to film a video for the TPG UK Youtube channel. With a busy filming schedule on just a two-hour flight, there was barely enough time to put my feet up, let alone see if the new seat is conducive to proper sleep. With the news that Singapore Changi Airport (SIN) would be one of the destinations for flights with the new seat beginning in May, however, I decided to try it out on a proper long-haul flight.
How would a feature-length film be watched without a comfy recline option? Would the seat’s simplicity be an asset or a hindrance? Read on to find out how I fared during my overnight long-haul from Europe to Asia.
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Even with Russian airspace routing issues due to Helsinki’s geographic location, Finnair has continued to operate a year-round daily flight to Singapore with a departure either just before, or just after, midnight. The exact schedule depends on the time of year, so double check your departure date when booking to make sure you arrive on the correct day. With a flight time of approximately 13 hours, there’s plenty of time to rest before arriving in Singapore at 6 p.m., ready to hit up a hawker market for some Hainese chicken rice before bed.
With one-way fares in business class on the direct Helsinki to Singapore route pricing at almost $3,000 and one-stop options from my home airport of London Heathrow at similar prices, I searched other departure cities for more affordable options. I’ve found carriers like Qatar Airways and Thai Airways International consistently discount premium fares from Scandinavian countries, especially when I’ve searched for flights to both Asia and Australia. Sure enough, departing from nearby Stockholm Arlanda Airport (ARN) to Singapore (via Helsinki) slashed the price by more than half, to $1,344. For that price, I was happy to add on a short hop from Stockholm to Helsinki.
There was plenty of economy award availability using points and miles on this route, though business-class availability is much harder to come by and there were no awards on the dates I was traveling. Where you can find business class availability the best way to book this is with 61,000 Asia Miles plus $17 in taxes and fees, or 60,000 Alaska Mileage Plan miles plus $30 per person one-way.
Finnair has adopted the frustrating policy of charging for seat selection, even in business class. Thankfully since the airline is a member of the Oneworld alliance, my Oneworld Sapphire elite status earned through British Airways Executive Club allowed me to select my seat at no cost when booking, so I assigned myself a window seat in the sixth row.
Despite its unfortunate three-letter airport code (HEL), Helsinki is known as one of the easiest and most pleasant transfer airports in Europe, so I was excited to try it out for myself. I landed in the Schengen zone on my flight from Stockholm in the late afternoon when the area was absolutely packed with travelers. I didn’t have to go through transit security which was a handy time saver.
Following the signs towards gate 52 for my flight to Singapore, I exited the Schengen area with my passport stamped and entered the newly refurbished area of Terminal 2. Some sections were still being finished, but it is otherwise a bright and modern space.
An avenue of duty-free shops was mostly shuttered and gave an eerie vibe — it was a reminder that, with a traditionally strong Asian network to hubs in Japan and China, long-haul travel out of this airport is still very much affected by the pandemic.
The Finnair business class lounge in Terminal 2 for non-Schengen flights is located near gate 51 and is open from 6 a.m. to midnight every day. It’s a huge space with plenty of different types of seating areas and feels very fresh, modern and clean as the lounge is only a few years old.
There was a cute kids’ play area which was very popular with younger travelers.
In the dining area of the lounge, five different hot food options were regularly replenished by the friendly and attentive kitchen staff. I especially enjoyed the cheesy game soup which was a warming and comforting bowl I hoped might also be served on board to send me off into a gentle slumber.
The centerpiece of the Finnair lounge was a spectacular freestanding cocktail bar with a wide range of beverages, including Joseph Perrier Champagne, wines, spirits and a small cocktail list featuring classics like Negronis and Moscow mules.
With few passengers in this cavernous space, the enthusiastic lounge bartender encouraged me to try a special blueberry mocktail, his own creation that wasn’t on the menu. He whipped up this work of art with a half-sphere cleverly shaped to order using crushed ice and a juice squeezer. The result was as refreshing as it was elegant. The theatre of this bar was terrific (the passenger behind me, on seeing the result of my special order immediately asked for the same).
This is one of the best airport lounge bars I’ve experienced and was a fun start to my Finnair experience.
Bathrooms in the lounge were clean, modern and stocked with L:A Bruket toiletries. I thought the shower booking process was clever — rather than asking at reception for a key you simply book a slot by pressing a button on the outside of whatever cubicles are available.
After several pleasant hours in the lounge, my flight to Singapore was scheduled to board at 11:35 p.m. from gate 52, which was only a few steps away. It was already past my bedtime, and I headed to the gate before boarding started, struggling to stifle a yawn. The gate area was spacious and well organized, with separate lines for priority and regular boarding.
Once passports were checked, and boarding passes scanned, passengers were held in two separate pens — one for priority and one for general boarding. This was quite an efficient way to ensure priority boarding was executed correctly — airlines at London Gatwick Airport (LGW) could learn a thing or two from this process.
Boarding didn’t actually begin until just before midnight, but this was only a small mark against what was an excellent ground experience at Helsinki’s very pleasant Terminal 2.
Cabin and seat
Finnair operates two configurations of its A350-900 aircraft with the new business-class seats. My flight had the larger cabin, with 43 seats spread in a 1-2-1 layout across 10 rows, including a small mini-cabin behind the boarding door and a single seat in row 9, plus just two seats in row 1.
Passengers boarded through a beautiful galley in the airline’s signature navy blue palette with a hotel-style backlit mirror. Finnair call it a new “social space,” though it wasn’t used much during this flight as passengers kept communications to a hushed whisper so as to not disturb those sleeping.
Intending to get some sleep on this long-haul overnight flight myself, I had picked a window seat in row six, in the middle of the front cabin, which I hoped would not suffer from noise from the galley or any bassinet seats.
My first impressions of the cabin were just how much space each seat takes up. The large curved shells feel oversized, making the aisle seems quite small in comparison. Had Finnair decided to install overhead bins in the center of the business class cabin, this might have created a claustrophobic feeling. Instead, the overall ambiance is airy and spacious.
As I sat down in my window seat in row 6 I immediately realized why the seats were so large — the amount of personal space and privacy provided to each passenger is immense. With no seatback taking up any real estate in the shell of the seat, the extra space is noticeable. I liked the navy blue color scheme and the soft, yet supportive padding covering the entire seat shell was very comforting. It creates a real cocoon-like feeling that invites you to sink in and relax.
I love a business-class suite with a door (Qatar Airways award-winning Qsuite business class was my favorite business-class seat coming into this review) but I was impressed with the amount of privacy Finnair’s AirLounge afforded. I couldn’t see any other passengers while seated, which is sufficient privacy for me.
Though each seat appears to face forwards, I found the seat to be at more of an angle toward the window. It measured a fairly tight 21 inches wide at the back of the shell (where your back is while seated), and this meant my torso was pushed slightly against the shell wall on the aisle while seated. At around 74 inches in length from the back shell to the top of the foot cubby, it felt like the longest business-class seat I had ever sat in with plenty of room for my feet (even with my toes pointed) when laying my 6-foot frame fully flat.
Such a simple seat design will be a benefit for both the airline and passengers. For Finnair, there are very few moving parts, which means less chance of any mechanics breaking and fewer maintenance costs. For passengers, the ease of manipulating the seat means it is very easy to operate. On my last Singapore Airlines flight, I had to ask the crew to flip over my seat to turn it into a bed as I could not work out how to do it myself. No instruction guide was needed in this new Finnair seat — there were only two mechanisms to switch from seat to bed mode.
A button on the side of the seat raised a padded leg rest, and then a lever below the television raised a thin, padded block which created a fully flat surface to lay down on.
To lounge or sleep you simply slide down and rest on the bottom of the seat you were previously sitting on. You may consider it unhygienic to rest your head on the exact same space where your (and others’) rear(s) had been, but I didn’t mind it — and I could lounge quite comfortably reading a book midflight for several hours.
A bi-fold tray table popped out at the press of a button and, while small, it easily fit either a meal tray or my 15-inch MacBook.
There was also plenty of storage in the seating area. To start there was a compartment next to the window where the remote control was stored and where devices could be charged with power plugs including USB ports. It’s also a handy spot for storing your headphones.
Below the window was another compartment where I found a bottle of water and space for the amenity kit and my Kindle. Then, below the footrest, was a space for your shoes and the slippers the airline provided.
I was shocked, however, to see the panel next to the window had already come loose and was rattling around — after all, these seats are only a few months old.
There were smart touches in the seat design. For example, along with the familiar three-point seatbelt for takeoff and landing, there was a second seatbelt just in front of the footrest in the perfect position for securing yourself during sleep without any belt digging against your body. The buckle was concealed in the floor rest with a soft, unobtrusive leather strap for you to pull the buckle out of its sheath. This meant when you weren’t using the extra seatbelt, it would not get in the way of your legs or feet as you lounged.
Hands down my favorite feature of the seat was the mobile charging dock, indicated with a lightning bolt on the panel below the window. Without the need to mess around with any cables, I placed my phone on the dock and within two seconds it started automatically charging. What a simple yet effective design.
Not winning any design awards, however, was this unfortunate metal pole near the end of the footwell. You may awaken if a nightmare causes you to jolt your feet during your sleep.
Something I realized as I slept is although the seat is long and wide in parts, it is actually narrow if lying straight on your back. I found my knees constantly bumping the gray shell on the left of the footwell. The only way I found to sleep comfortably was on my side, facing the window, with my knees bent towards the window. If you do like to sleep on your back, you may find this seat design less than ideal.
Still, I managed around six hours of solid sleep on this flight.
Two cushions by the famous Finnish design house Marimekko awaited me on my seat — one was more of a pillow, while the other was a throw cushion. They were so plush there was not enough room to sit on the seat without removing them, but they were welcome when it came to lounging and sleeping.
There were also Bose headphones of the non-canceling variety, and an amenity kit featuring the standard eye mask, foam earplugs, toothbrush and toothpaste as well as “flying essentials” face cream and lip balm from L:A Bruket, which were the same as those stocked in the Finnair lounge.
With sleep a priority on this oh-my-gosh-o’clock departure I was pleased to see a mattress pad, thick Marimekko-style comforter and even slippers, which were a nice touch.
The crisp 18-inch in-flight entertainment screen was loaded with 120 movies and 48 different TV series.
It was set at a perfect height for me while seated, but the screen did not tilt and became angled slightly too high for me when trying to watch anything while I was lounging or lying fully flat.
I liked how the service flow of the flight was displayed on the screen so you knew what was coming up, as well as the local times at both origin and destination at all times. It was handy in trying to plan your sleep on this long flight that crossed multiple timezones.
The aviation geek in me also loved the “Pilot’s HUD” option on the flight information screen which showed altitude, airspeed and heading. This was especially fun to watch as we rapidly ascended after takeoff.
Wi-Fi was available on this flight at the following prices:
- 1 hour for 7.95 euros ($8.50).
- 3 hours for 11.95 euros ($12.85).
- Whole flight for 19.95 euros ($21.45).
I found it to be unavailable for much of the flight and when I did finally connect, I only registered speeds of 1.46 Mbps download and 0.51 Mbps upload, so I would not recommend paying for this.
Three bathrooms were provided for the 43-seat business class cabin, two at the front and one just off that beautiful entrance galley. They were not spacious, but there was enough room to maneuver and change into sleepwear (your own; no pajamas were provided on this flight).
Food and beverage
Trays of Joseph Perrier Champagne, blueberry juice and water were passed around during boarding, served in Finnair’s iconic frosted Iittala Ultima Thule glassware.
Orders for both dinner and the pre-arrival meal were taken during this time. I was pleased to be given a proper printed menu to allow me to see what I could order and then refer to it later in the flight (so I knew what I had ordered).
Finnair has commenced a new dining concept which I was looking forward to trying out. There were a few hits and some misses.
Dinner was advertised as two cold plates to start (no choice), followed by a selection of three warm plates, a cheese course, and then a choice of two dessert courses. This sounded like an orgy of food to eat at around 2 a.m., and I was surprised to see most of the cabin stay up to eat it. Had I not been reviewing this flight, despite my excitement at the new dining concept, I would have likely eaten in the airport lounge and then headed straight to sleep rather than downing a multi-course meal well after my usual bedtime.
To start, I chose a glass of the Tommasi Poggio al Tufo, an Italian Sangiovese red wine that was served with smoked almonds. I appreciated that the nuts were served in a ramekin rather than a packet like my recent flight on Scandinavian Airlines, but I would have loved for these nuts to be warmed as you’ll find on the likes of Qatar Airways.
The meal was delivered on a single tray around an hour after takeoff. The presentation was solid, with dishes served on the new Kuulas line tableware by Iittala and Finnish designer Harri Koskinen.
The first cold plate was a bland corn puree with fava beans and dill oil that was somewhere between a dip and a cold soup. It might have been more palatable if some flatbread had accompanied it, but on its own, I didn’t really understand it or care for it. The second cold plate was an elegant herb tartlet with shredded chicken and mustard seeds that tasted as good as it looked. This dish was elevated dining and could have been served as a starter at an upscale wedding.
For the warm plate main course, I chose the braised beef cheek with onion puree, asparagus risotto and dark truffle sauce, which was unfortunately delivered only lukewarm even though I tried it before the cold starter dishes. I love beef cheek but this version was quite dry and didn’t have the melt-in-your-mouth texture beef cheek can usually deliver. Full marks for the onion puree and the truffle sauce though — both were decadently delicious and sent me straight off to sleep afterward.
I had to check the menu description when I saw the risotto. What arrived were two large balls I initially thought they were (green) dumplings. However, they were creamy risotto that had just been shaped in a more visually attractive way than simply pouring a pool of wet rice into the bowl.
When I had finished with these dishes (I abandoned the corn puree) I was expecting a cheese course next. Instead, I was just provided with a tiny bowl of blueberry mousse with white chocolate, which was tasty although the portion was very small. I wasn’t particularly hungry for cheese after my very heavy main course, so I didn’t follow up, but I was surprised it was on the menu but nowhere to be seen.
I ordered a jasmine tea as a nightcap and turned in for the night.
A very meager selection of snacks was available in the sleek galley mid-flight — and there didn’t appear to be anything else available between the two meal services, which seemed odd for a flight of this length.
Two and a half hours before arrival, the crew came by to set our tables with tablecloths and a pre-arrival meal was served, also on a single tray. I was really impressed with the presentation and love this “small plate” idea where you can taste a bit of everything.
There were no menu choices with this meal. It was simply listed on the menu as “game meat pie, Skagen salad with greens and fruit salad.” I devoured the delicious creamy game pie despite its pastry being a little dry and crumbly. The Skagen salad, a classic Swedish shrimp dish, was great — there was a good amount of creamy chopped shrimp hiding below the mixed greens and radish slices. The sliced meats and cheese were a bit random, with a single dried apricot (perhaps this was my missing cheese course from dinner?) but the giant blueberries in the fruit assortment were a nice way to finish off the meal.
The crew members on my flight to Singapore were all Singapore-based, which made me immediately feel more like I was flying on an Asian airline than a Northern European one. They were polite, professional and polished, if lacking in warmth. I wish they had displayed a little more excitement about working on a jet with a new business-class product.
As examples, none of them introduced themselves to me during the boarding process. I was not addressed by name once (even when they took food orders holding a sheet with passengers’ names listed), was not asked if I was familiar with the new product, nor was I thanked for my Oneworld loyalty. As passengers oohed and ahhed at the unique new seats, the crew members simply pushed past them silently to go about their business rather than taking pride in their product.
When meals were delivered I was handed a tray with a short “Here is your meal” — there was no explanation of what I was about to eat. For the whole 13-hour flight, the crew barely said more than a few sentences to me.
As a point of comparison, the Finnish crew on my 45-minute hop from Stockholm to Helsinki earlier that day had far more warmth and enthusiasm.
The dinner service was completed reasonably quickly given the post-midnight departure time, and though the bread was only offered after I had finished eating my main course, I was sympathetic as I know the Airbus A350 has tight galley spaces for the crew to deliver complex meal services.
Compared with service on the likes of Singapore Airlines and Thai Airways, I felt like I was flying on a nondescript, forgettable Asian airline. It is a shame the otherwise premium experience suffered as a result of the service.
Finnair clearly put a lot of thought into selecting its new business-class seat and it shows. I really liked the seat itself, mainly for the sheer amount of personal space each passenger receives thanks to that huge, padded shell. It’s something different and the simplicity is clever and stylish.
Unfortunately, despite a very premium hard product, a virtually flawless ground experience in Helsinki and an elevated and beautifully presented new small-plate dining concept, the experience was dimished by the lackluster crew and I wish that the experience had had a bit more Nordic flair to it.
As much as I liked the seat and am a Oneworld loyalist, I would probably choose Singapore Airlines on my next flight to Singapore. I have been flying Singapore my entire life and have never had a bad flight, thanks largely to its fantastic crew members that are in a different league to the crew on my Finnair flight. That said, I liked the personal space in Finnair’s new seats and would definitely try them out again on another long-haul flight to see how the experience compared.
Featured image by Ben Smithson/The Points Guy.
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