In the first of our new ‘Executive Spotlight’ series, AeroTime Editor in Chief, Richard Stephenson, meets the Finnair President & CEO, Topi Manner, who tells us about his role guiding the airline back to growth, aided by the resilience and adaptability of the team, his love of the A350, and the superpowers of blueberry juice.
WATCH THE INTERVIEW HERE:
You can’t help but warm to Topi Manner, the calm, friendly and naturally engaging President & CEO of Finnair. He is happy to be asked about anything and you feel a genuine desire to be transparent about the challenges he (and his airline) has faced and the opportunity and potential that exists in the future.
We meet in the spacious surroundings of the Platinum Wing Lounge at Helsinki Airport. The Nordic design, soft furnishings, trendy bar, and plethora of fancy food and beverage options tell their own story about what Finnair has become as it marks its 100th anniversary in 2023. As one of the oldest airlines in the world, Finnair has survived while many others have failed. Today, as it continues to manage the hangover from the pandemic and the impact of the war in Ukraine (specifically the closure of Russian airspace), this resilient airline continues to prosper, despite the continued adversity it faces.
“Not every airline makes it to 100,” a proud Manner tells me. And he is right. Few make it to their centenary year. But there is no sense of mission accomplished, with Manner later explaining: “We want to be the leading airline in the Nordics.”
Although he admits that he was not an aviation geek prior to joining Finnair, he was a frequent flyer who was fascinated by the industry. “To me the industry is, on one hand, a service industry and as such, it’s a people business,” Manner explains. “On the other hand, it’s a complex web of logistics, and safety driven operations. And the combination pretty much is unique, and the industry gets under your skin in a very positive way.”
Manner joined Finnair in January 2019 as the airline was enjoying record growth in profitability and passenger numbers and looking ahead to further fleet expansion. He was the man to lead the airline into its next phase of development. But after less than a year, Topi Manner was leading a crisis management operation ‘of biblical proportions’ and fighting for his airline’s survival as the COVID pandemic struck.
“It has been three years of crisis not only with the pandemic, but also with the consequences of the war, the Russian Airspace closure hitting us badly forcing us to change our strategy. So, during these four years I have been really meeting the highs and lows of the history.
“We are probably the airline in Europe that is most impacted [by the war in Ukraine]. Our strategy was connecting Europe and Asia via the short northern route utilizing the Russian airspace. So, we have needed to adapt. And that is what we are doing. When you meet not only one black swan, but several black swans, like we have been meeting over the past three years, then it all boils down to the resilience, the resourcefulness, the innovativeness of your people.”
“And I think that is what we as a big Finnair team have been demonstrating over the past three years,” Manner continues. “So, we are clearly creating a path through the crisis for ourselves. And this is something that I’m proud of. We are emerging as a culturally stronger airline, as a culturally stronger team.”
So, what is different about Finnair? It’s an easy question for the CEO who speaks so passionately and enthusiastically about his team.
“Well, I think that it boils down to adaptability. We have been able to adapt to changing business environments, changing circumstances like we are doing right now with the consequences of the pandemic and consequences of the war in Ukraine. It all boils down to evolution theory in a sense that it is not the biggest or the strongest who survive. It is those who actually can adapt. And adaptability really boils down to our own people, our employees. So, while we are grateful for all of those people who are currently part of our story, we are also grateful for all of those people who have been part of our story in the past.”
Anyone who has flown with the airline will be aware of the traditional cup of blueberry juice that is served onboard. It’s refreshing and a great thirst quencher, but what is the secret to this Finnair tradition? “Blueberry is a superfood,” Manner explains. “And it simply tastes Nordic. It’s pure, it’s authentic, it’s distinctive, and it’s a big part of our customer experience. Our customers love it. Blueberries are a big part of Nordic cuisine, and those are the kinds of items that we want to bring to our customers for them to have a truly Nordic experience on board of our flights.”
But you can’t always rely on customers to love your traditions or your innovations. For example, the new business class cabin design launched in 2022. There is no doubt it received a mixed reaction at the time of launch, but it seems to be working now and the airline’s passenger survey data shows that the customers approve. I admit that I was one of the sceptics. Manner smiles in a way that tells me he has heard this before – and was expecting it. But I go on to explain that I was fortunate enough to try out the new ‘AirLounge’ and I enjoyed the experience. So, is the company happy with the reaction?
“We are very happy with the introduction, and we are very happy with the reception that we have been having from our customers,” Manner says. “The journey with the elevated long-haul experience as we call it started more than four years ago and our designers, our engineers, together with our partners have been doing a tremendous job in putting all of these things together.
“What we’re doing is that we’re using in the business class seat, the AirLounge it is called, a 3D contour shell to basically create more space for the passengers and with pillows you can adjust your position in the seat. You can find a comfortable lounging position and then you can get the 180 degrees sleeping experience with mattresses and all – and that really is second to none, I must say. So, it’s beautifully designed. And something that we are very proud about.”
Manner goes on to explain that the new cabins have already won awards. “We got the best airline seat nomination in 2022,” he reveals. “And for the whole campaign, with the new Premium Economy travel class and the beautifully refreshed economy class, we also got the best cabin innovation award last year. So, the customers are happy, the reception has been good. If we compare the customer satisfaction on those routes where we have the new cabin versus the routes where we have the old cabin, the customer satisfaction is clearly higher.”
Today, the airline flies around 260 legs per day. Its most recent new route was introduced between Helsinki and Doha in November 2022 and the frequency of some eastern routes (China, Japan, and India) has been increasing. Manner explains that the airline had to rethink its strategy and ensure it was competitive on the routes that remain open, balancing the operation between the east, new routes from the south, increasing Atlantic traffic to the west and maintaining the network in Europe.
Along with new routes and increasing frequencies comes a focus on load factors, but these seem to be holding up well with yields up and the longer journey times (flying around Russian airspace) not having much impact on customer demand.
“I think that during the past six months especially, there have been also positives and positive surprises. And you know, that is a nice change after three years of crisis,” Manner says. “And to me, the most important thing is that the demand is there. Even in the recessionary environment, people clearly want to fly and even though consumer confidence by many measurements is low these days, consumers prioritize travel experience. So, the hierarchy of consumer spend, seems to have changed. And that gives me a lot of hope.”
There are only so many aircraft you can use on these routes and Finnair is operating a growing fleet of A350s (currently 17 with two more on order). So how important is this aircraft to the Finnair strategy?
“So, we really like the A350 aircraft, fantastic customer experience. It’s a good, good aircraft, you know, safe, operationally, of quality and we have been having good experiences, and especially right now, for us with the increased flight times to Asia, it also gives us the range that that we need,” Manner explains. “So, therefore, we are happy with the Airbus 350 fleet. And we have still two coming up and that means that that part of the long-haul fleet will stay as it is for many, many years to come.”
The ATR fleet has also been recently renewed. The “reliable and efficient” aircraft is well suited to the shorter Finnair routes and there are no plans to change this workhorse.
Sustainability is also a major focus for Finnair. The CEO tells me that it is at the “core” of the airline’s strategy.
“During the past three years, we have been keeping our sustainability goals. So, in terms of environmental pillar of sustainability, we aim to be carbon neutral by 2045. And we aim to reduce our carbon footprint by 50% by the end of 2025,” Manner says. “So those targets are intact. Increasing the usage of biofuels, synthetic electric, electro fuels going forward is a big part of the agenda with many, many other items. But then again, we also use sustainability as a wider concept. So environmental sustainability certainly is one pillar, but social sustainability and financial sustainability are important pillars as well.”
As we look to the future, Topi Manner is clear about the next steps he will take. “Well, first and foremost, we need to implement our strategy. And we need to restore our profitability, come back to pre-pandemic levels of profitability by mid 2024. And once we have done that, then we can invest,” he says. “And the long-term goal is really to position ourselves as a modern Nordic airline. I think that we have many strengths, great customer experience, great customer satisfaction, the new long-haul cabins are part of that, blueberry juice is part of that. So, we can still develop that customer experience, and use that as a source of growth over the long run. And then with that, we truly can position ourselves as the best and the leading airline in this region.”
Having spent time with this ambitious, calm, and dedicated aviation professional (and wannabe geek in waiting), there is no doubt that Finnair is in safe hands. It is a bold, Nordic airline, with a bold, friendly CEO at the helm. Not afraid to face multiple black swans head-on, while maintaining high levels of customer service and innovation (and with plenty more to come), this is an airline that will face the worst and embrace the best that is thrown at it. Maybe it could be partially down to the superfood status of blueberries, but it’s more likely down to the collaborative and very Finnish approach that puts team at the heart of everything. That starts at the top and Topi Manner is a clear symbol of leadership and devotion that many others could learn from.