I flew basic economy on Finnair from New York to Helsinki and it was surprisingly great despite my initial fears — here's why

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderThe Finnair Airbus A330 I flew on.
  • 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.
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair signage at JFK Airport.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair signage at JFK Airport.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair signage at JFK Airport.

I arrived at the airport around two and a half hours from the scheduled departure time since early evenings are typically busy at JFK.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair signage at JFK Airport.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair signage at JFK Airport.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair signage at JFK Airport.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair signage at JFK Airport.

Thankfully, there was no line and I was talking to a check-in agent in seconds.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s check-in desk at JFK Airport.

First, my carry-on had to be weighed to ensure it was under the weight limit of 17.5 pounds (it was).

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s check-in desk at JFK Airport.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s check-in desk at JFK Airport.

After getting my ticket, I head to the security checkpoint where Finnair participates in the TSA PreCheck program.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderTSA PreCheck at JFK Airport.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderTSA PreCheck at JFK Airport.

Only a handful of people were ahead of me in the line and I was through in minutes.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderTSA PreCheck at JFK Airport.

Avoiding the stress of having to wait in that line really made the airport experience more enjoyable.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderTSA PreCheck at JFK Airport.

As I was flying economy and had no elite status, I headed straight to the gate.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderTerminal 8 at JFK Airport.

Our flight wasn’t the only one going to Europe that evening but it would be the only one to Scandinavia.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderTerminal 8 departures at JFK Airport.

My gate was in the concourse nearest to security, making for a short walk.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderTerminal 8 at JFK Airport.

Terminal 8 is one of the more spacious terminals at JFK, with American Airlines renovating it in the early 2000s.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderTerminal 8 at JFK Airport.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderA Finnair Airbus A330.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business Insider

Maximizing chaos at the gate, the boarding area was arranged into only two categories: priority and economy, with no set lines.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair boarding gate.

And one gate agent holding up signs when it was time for each group to board.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair boarding gate.

After pre-boarding, the process began with priority customers including business class passengers and any elite status holders.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair boarding gate.

Economy was divided into groups 3-5, though nobody seemed to pay attention to their group number and just boarded without issue.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderBoarding Finnair flight AY6 to Helsinki.

The first thing I noticed about the plane was how dark it was for boarding, giving the cabin an icy feel.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderBoarding Finnair flight AY6 to Helsinki.

The seats were blue with white headrest covers, reflecting the colours of a snowy Finnish day.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderBoarding Finnair flight AY6 to Helsinki.

My seat was 52H, an aisle seat in the centre aisle section of the aircraft.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderRow 52 onboard a Finnair Airbus A330.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderSeat 52H onboard a Finnair Airbus A330.

According to SeatGuru, the seats feature 32 inches of pitch and 18 inches of width.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderRow 52 onboard a Finnair Airbus A330.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderStandard economy seat amenities on Finnair’s long-haul flights.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderSeat 52H onboard a Finnair Airbus A330.

Coat hangars were affixed at every seatback, though my heavy winter coat was too big for to coexist with me in the same seat.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderCoat hangar.

The seats had a deep recline but nothing too invasive.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderThe standard recline of a Finnair Airbus A330 seat.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s in-flight entertainment system.

It could either be controlled via the touchscreen or the tethered remote found in the armrest.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s in-flight entertainment system.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s in-flight entertainment system.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s in-flight entertainment system.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderIn-seat power.

Despite having started boarding at 6:30 p.m., we were pushed back from the gate at 7:05 p.m. on the dot.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderOnboard a Finnair Airbus A330.

After a quick taxi to JFK’s Runway 4L, we were off to Helsinki.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s in-flight entertainment system.

Our flight path first took us north near Albany before we headed towards Europe.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s in-flight entertainment system.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s in-flight entertainment system.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderFinnair’s in-flight entertainment system.

But first, a “refreshing towel.”

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderA pre-meal 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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderDinner service.

After dinner, I decided to get some sleep using the eye mask that I brought.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderSeat 52H onboard a Finnair A330.

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.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderThe economy cabin of a Finnair Airbus A330.

Eventually, the turbulence passed and I fell asleep again, waking up just as the sun was rising over Scandinavian skies.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderApproaching sunrise over Scandinavia.

The high latitudes that our flight took us to meant sunrise wouldn’t come until an hour before landing.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderNearing sunrise over Scandinavia.

Which is when the breakfast meal service started, with a cold ham and cheese croissant being the only option.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderBreakfast onboard Finnair flight AY6

Before being capped off with a before landing chocolate from Karl Fazer.

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderBefore landing chocolate.

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!

Thomas Pallini/Business InsiderLanding in Helsinki.

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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