- Finnair flies between New York and Helsinki with daily service on an Airbus A330-300. I recently flew on it during a trip to Copenhagen for $US280 roundtrip in basic economy.
- Basic economy is known for being the most restrictive fare with strict rules limiting what passengers are entitled to including seat assignments and baggage allowance.
- Despite flying in basic economy, Finnair’s customer service agents didn’t treat me like a steerage class flyer and I was able to get extra amenities just by asking.
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Finnair is one of the many airlines that connects New York with Europe, offering daily service between the Big Apple and the airline’s hub in Helsinki.
The Finnish flag carrier has been faithfully flying the route for over half a century, celebrating its 50-year anniversary in 2019, while operating the only current nonstop link between the US and Finland with connections into Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.
Clicking through Google Flights one day, I noticed an unbeatable flight deal to Copenhagen from New York for Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend that involved two legs on Finnair with a return on British Airways for only $US280 in economy.
The catch: the ticket was a basic economy fare.
Finnair joined the growing list of airlines adopting a basic economy fare for transatlantic flights in 2018 when it introduced an economy “light” fare. The fare has allowed full-service carriers such as Finnair to fight back against the low-cost carriers that entered the transatlantic market in recent years, selling deconstructed tickets where passengers could select what add-ons they wanted.
With this ticket, according to the American Airlines website where I booked the ticket, I would have to pay to select a seat, pay to check my bags, and board the aircraft in the last group. While I was getting a great deal, it seemed I was being intimidated to pay more for the standard economy fare, which had a difference of a few hundred dollars.
As it would only be a quick weekend trip with no reason to check bags, I decided to book it and flew my first transatlantic flight in basic economy from New York to Helsinki on Finnair.
Here’s what it was like.
Finnair operates a once-daily flight between New York and Helsinki, departing from John F. Kennedy International Airport at 7:05 p.m. as Finnair flight AY6.
The airline uses Terminal 8 at John F. Kennedy International Airport, a stronghold for American Airlines and the Oneworld airline alliance of which Finnair is a member.
American Airlines is the main tenant in the building, which regards the airport as a gateway rather than a hub but still offers a mix of transatlantic, international, domestic, and regional services.
I arrived at the airport around two and a half hours from the scheduled departure time since early evenings are typically busy at JFK.
Having already checked in on the Finnair mobile app and received my boarding pass, I could skip the check-in desk and head straight to the gate.
Despite not being able to select a seat in advance with the basic economy fare, I was able to select one at check-in free of charge, which is why you should always check-in exactly 24 hours in advance.
I selected a window seat towards the front of the aircraft — not bad for basic economy. I wanted to test my luck and see if there were any rows open so I went up to the counter to ask the check-in agents.
Thankfully, there was no line and I was talking to a check-in agent in seconds.
First, my carry-on had to be weighed to ensure it was under the weight limit of 17.5 pounds (it was).
While there were no rows open to lie down in, the check-in agent offered to put me in an aisle seat and block the seat next to me so I’d have more room. Again, not bad for a $US280 basic economy ticket.
After getting my ticket, I head to the security checkpoint where Finnair participates in the TSA PreCheck program.
Being a part of the program, which I get as a perk of being a Global Entry member costing $US100 for five years, saved me 32 minutes compared to the normal line.
Only a handful of people were ahead of me in the line and I was through in minutes.
Avoiding the stress of having to wait in that line really made the airport experience more enjoyable.
As I was flying economy and had no elite status, I headed straight to the gate.
Our flight wasn’t the only one going to Europe that evening but it would be the only one to Scandinavia.
My gate was in the concourse nearest to security, making for a short walk.
Terminal 8 is one of the more spacious terminals at JFK, with American Airlines renovating it in the early 2000s.
Finnair operates the New York to Helsinki flight with its Airbus A330-300s, formerly the largest aircraft in its modern-day fleet before the arrival of the Airbus A350-900 XWB.
I arrived at the gate two hours early but despite our fight being on a widebody aircraft, boarding wouldn’t begin until 35 minutes before departure.
Maximizing chaos at the gate, the boarding area was arranged into only two categories: priority and economy, with no set lines.
And one gate agent holding up signs when it was time for each group to board.
After pre-boarding, the process began with priority customers including business class passengers and any elite status holders.
Economy was divided into groups 3-5, though nobody seemed to pay attention to their group number and just boarded without issue.
The first thing I noticed about the plane was how dark it was for boarding, giving the cabin an icy feel.
The seats were blue with white headrest covers, reflecting the colours of a snowy Finnish day.
My seat was 52H, an aisle seat in the centre aisle section of the aircraft.
While it appeared to be cushy just like an older airline, the seat was quite firm and featured a quasi-moveable armrest that didn’t really do much for comfort.
According to SeatGuru, the seats feature 32 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width.
A pillow and blanket, headphones, and a bottle of water were left on the seat for passengers to use in lieu of an amenity kit.
Much to my disappointment, the armrests between the seats were only semi-moveable and the aisle armrest was fully immoveable, making the seat seem much smaller. I likely wouldn’t have been able to comfortably lie down had the row been open.
Coat hangars were affixed at every seatback, though my heavy winter coat was too big for to coexist with me in the same seat.
The seats had a deep recline but nothing too invasive.
Each seat also had its own in-flight entertainment system that, though weren’t the high definition screens found on modern airliners, were loaded with content.
It could either be controlled via the touchscreen or the tethered remote found in the armrest.
The system featured movies, television series, playlists, and games, but required the use of the headphones provided by Finnair as the input was two-prong only.
The highlight, however, was the two exterior cameras that could be viewed from the system, one from the landing gear and the other looking down from the belly.
The seats did have power outlets for 110v AC plugs, but mine didn’t work when I plugged in my iPhone charger. Thankfully I packed my portable charger.
Despite having started boarding at 6:30 p.m., we were pushed back from the gate at 7:05 p.m. on the dot.
After a quick taxi to JFK’s Runway 4L, we were off to Helsinki.
Our flight path first took us north near Albany before we headed towards Europe.
After takeoff, I started a short movie to pass the time until the meal service, after which I’d head straight to sleep for the overnight crossing.
The flight attendants began the meal service for economy passengers around one hour after departure, announcing the menu would be either chicken with rice or beef stroganoff with complimentary beer and wine.
But first, a “refreshing towel.”
I chose the chicken dish consisting of chicken teriyaki, rice, broccoli that came with a small salad, cheese and crackers, and a chocolate crumb cake. As my only meal for the night, I found it very filling and tasty for aeroplane food.
After dinner, I decided to get some sleep using the eye mask that I brought.
I was able to catch a few hours of sleep before being abruptly awoken by the terrifying, prayer-inducing turbulence that the North Atlantic is known for and wasn’t able to fall back asleep for a while.
Eventually, the turbulence passed and I fell asleep again, waking up just as the sun was rising over Scandinavian skies.
The high latitudes that our flight took us to meant sunrise wouldn’t come until an hour before landing.
Which is when the breakfast meal service started, with a cold ham and cheese croissant being the only option.
Before being capped off with a before landing chocolate from Karl Fazer.
Finally, after just over seven hours of flight, Helsinki Airport came into view on the camera and our journey had come to an end. Welcome to HEL!
While the Finnair in-flight experience was normal for a transatlantic hop to Europe, the customer service was what stood out. Although I was in basic economy, I wasn’t treated as a sub-par passenger who was trying to skirt the system to get a good deal and instead, was given every courtesy.
When I checked-in for the flight on the app, I had free reign to choose any available seat while other airlines charge for seat changes at check-in for basic economy. Additionally, I was also offered the opportunity to check my bag for free at the airport counter, as well as having the seat next to me blocked off so I could have it to myself.
This shocked me as my other basic economy experiences have paled in comparison to Finnair and I was glad to be treated as a passenger rather than punished for being a basic economy flyer. Though it wasn’t initially my airline of choice for heading to Europe, I certainly would take it again – if the price was right.
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