Started With A 4 Passenger Float Plane: The History Of Finnair

Finnair has made a name for itself from comfortable connections between cities in Europe and Asia via its Helsinki hub. After almost 100 years of operations, the airline also recently commenced long-haul services out of Stockholm Arlanda Airport. A oneworld alliance member, it operates a near-all-Airbus fleet apart from a number of ATRs and Embraer regional jets serving its domestic routes. With over 100 destinations, the Finnish flag carrier transported a record number of 14.65 million passengers in 2019.

Finnair, North America, Stockholm
Finnair has a long history dating back nearly 100 years. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Finnair was founded in September 1923 under the name of Aero. It operated Junkers F 13 aircraft equipped with floats in summer – and skis in winter. Following several years of conflict and military control, the airline received its first DC-3 in 1946. The carrier launched its first trademark ‘shorter route’ service to Asia in 1976 with direct flights to Bangkok. Now it has its sights set on conquering more of the Scandinavian long-haul market, operating A350 XWBs out of Sweden while aiming to go carbon neutral by 2045.

200 passengers in the first year

The new company’s first Junkers F 13 flight took place on March 20th, 1920, carrying mail to Tallinn in Estonia. The aircraft was then used for flights between Helsinki’s harbor and Stockholm in collaboration with Swedish airline ABA (that’s one B). During the first year of operations, Aero carried a total of 269 passengers.

Started With A 4 Passenger Float Plane: The History Of Finnair
A German Junkers F 13 seaplane operated Finnair’s first flights from next to the Helsinki harbor. Photo: Juloml via Wikimedia Commons

Wartime evacuations

Services with the seaplane continued until 1936 and the first airfield constructions in Finland. Aero later came under military control several times during both the first and second Soviet-Finnish wars. Almost half of the passengers during the former were children evacuated to Sweden via Vaasa.

When World War II came to an end, the state purchased a majority stake in the airline. The carrier acquired its first DC-3 in 1946, along with recruiting its first cabin crew. Services to Europe were also re-established in November 1947.

Finnair became a member of IATA in 1949. The code the airline received and still uses today – AY – comes from its early roots as Aero Osakeyhtiö, the latter meaning something like a corporation. Along with the Helsinki Olympics in 1952, the Finnish capital also saw the opening of its new airport – and Finnair reached over 100,000 passengers for the first time.

Started With A 4 Passenger Float Plane: The History Of Finnair
Helsinki Airport was inaugurated in time for the 1952 Summer Olympics. Photo: Finnair

The Caravelle carried Finnair into the jet era

The name Finnair became the custom in practice as well as marketing as early as 1953, although the official name change did not occur until 1968. Prior to that, however, in 1956, the airline became the first Western carrier to fly to Moscow after the war. A few years later, Finnair entered the jet age in 1960 with the arrival of five-abreast Sud Aviation SE 210 Caravelles.

The first routes served by Caravelles were Helsinki–Copenhagen–Cologne–Frankfurt, and Helsinki–Stockholm–Oslo. Meanwhile, the first transatlantic service to New York via Copenhagen and Amsterdam commenced in May 1969, one year after the airline had taken delivery of its first US-made jet – the DC-8.

The first widebody aircraft joined Finnair’s fleet in 1975, with the arrival of two DC-10s.  Expansion to Asia, which has become the airline’s signature and specialty, began in 1976 when the carrier launched direct flights to Bangkok.

Started With A 4 Passenger Float Plane: The History Of Finnair
Finnair used to operate McDonnell Douglas DC-10 aircraft equipped with extra fuel tanks over the North Pole to Tokyo. Photo: Juloml via Wikimedia Commons

Over the North Pole

In the early 1980s, Finnair was the only airline offering direct flights from Western Europe to Japan. DC-10s equipped with extra fuel tanks in the cargo space flew to Tokyo Narita over the North Pole. The route took 13 hours. It also meant that the plane crossed the international date line over the Aleutian Islands, thus flying for some time in the past. Direct flights to Beijing started in 1988. Again, Finnair was the only Western European airline to operate a non-stop service to China.

In 1983, Finnair, perhaps vying for Rudolph and the gang’s job, proclaimed itself the ‘official airline of Santa Claus’. Many of the airline’s planes have worn special Santa Claus liveries or stickers since, including MD-11s and Airbus A321s. Speaking of the MD-11, Finnair was the launch customer for the trijet, taking delivery of its first in December 1990. The inaugural commercial flight went from Helsinki to Tenerife in the Canary Islands. The airline continued to operate the type until 2010.

Santa Claus Finnair a320
Finnair became known as the official carrier of Santa Claus in the 1980s. Photo: Anna Zvereva via Wikimedia Commons

The A320 era

In 1999, the airline took delivery of the first of the Airbus A320 family, the type that now forms the backbone of the Finnair narrowbody fleet. That same year, the airline also joined the oneworld alliance. On this side of the millennium, Finnair received its first A340 in 2006, one year after it had signed an agreement for nine A350 XWB – the first European airline to put in an order for Airbus’ newest member of the widebody family. The quadjets were later replaced by the A350s, the last one leaving the Finnair fleet in January 2017.

Today, Finnair operates a fleet of 81 planes. Thirty-five are from the A320 family, whereas eight are A330s, and 16 are A350-900s. There are still three more of the latter waiting to be delivered. Rounding out the fleet for local operations are ten ATR 72-500s, and 12 ERJ-190s.

Finnair, Airbus A350, Stockholm
Finnair was the first European airline to order the A350 XWB. Photo: Vincenzo Pace – Simple Flying

Despite the turbulence over the last couple of years, the airline still intends to introduce a premium economy cabin on its aircraft in the near future. The premium leisure segment, it says, will be increasingly crucial for the airline moving forward. With a bold expansion moving into the long-haul void at Stockholm Arlanda Airport left by Norwegian’s restructuring and SAS focusing its longer routes out of Copenhagen, there is no time like the present. As the world opens back up, Europe-bound tourism from Asia will also recommence, with Finnair ideally positioned to profit from the pent-up demand.

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