Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Notes on my recent flight with Finnair

with 5 comments

My most recent visit to Sweden was open ended,* and I bought the return ticket on just a few days notice. Faced with unnecessarily high prices on the direct flights from Stockholm to Düsseldorf, as well as a poor choice of hours,** I decided to make the experiment of flying via Helsinki on the 26th—a grave mistake.

*Besides renewing my passport, as my sole means of identification, I needed to handle some bank business for which I needed some form of identification. This introduced two uncertainties: (a) when would I receive my new passport and (b) when could the bank give me an appointment after I had received the passport.

**Flights were either very early, very late, or even more expensive.

On paper, it did not look too bad: The time from first take-off to second landing was prolonged to 5 hours, but both departure and arrival were at reasonable hours, there was an hour-and-a-half stop in Helsinki during which I could take a meal, stretch my legs, and add Finland as a country that I had at least nominally visited*. In reality?

*Long ago, I did visit Åland on some type of short cruise. However, while Åland belongs to Finland, it is more Swedish than Finnish in many regards, and it is certainly not a part of mainland Finland.

For starters, I came to the gate in Stockholm shortly before the alleged boarding time of 12:25, an excessive seeming 30 minutes before the alleged take-off time.*/** For lack of available seats, I took a standing position near the gate at possibly 12:15. I remained standing or walking for likely more than half-an-hour before I was in my seat on the plane, because there was a short-term delay of the preceding flight of the same plane (cf. below). If an explanation was given, I did not hear it.

*Note that this time was not given as a “We begin boarding at” but as “Please report […] at the latest”, effectively making it a “final boarding call”. (Notwithstanding that this is unrealistic, as boarding an entire plane takes a while. Likely, the airline deliberately lied in order to increase its own comfort on the expense of the customers.)

**Keep in mind, although not the airlines fault, that the various delays were made worse by my father badgering me into appearing early at the airport, at around 11, and that I already had a fair bit of Stockholm-internal travel behind me, having left his apartment at (probably) around 09:30.

I arrived correspondingly late in Helsinki, where another load of time was spent on busing the passengers from the plane to the terminal. I eventually arrived at the gate at around 14:30*, and was faced by another thirty-minutes boarding limit, putting the alleged time of boarding at 14:55. With a mere 25 minutes to go, I decided to forego the planned meal**. I did have a look for a bottle of water, but found them priced at an outrageous 3.50 Euro in two different stores, for what looked like at most half-a-liter. No thank you!***

*Throughout, I use CET (the Swedish and German timezone). Finland is an hour ahead and the local time was correspondingly around 15:30 (and so on, for other times mentioned).

**Note that fairly long queues and other potential delays have to be factored in, making anything beyond take-away fast-food or a sit-down sandwich and a cup of coffee risky.

***If in doubt, when realistically possible, I try to avoid such utterly excessive prices in order to not encourage this type of pricing. According to [1] the price of a liter of tap water is 0.2 cent in Germany or 0.1 cent for a bottle this size. Even a regularly priced bottle, then, has a markup of several hundred percent, while the aforementioned bottles were at a full 3500 percent. (Beware that this might vary depending on the country of comparison.)

This time, I found a seat, but was soon forced to move due to a screaming baby*. That is another twenty minutes standing, but I am reasonably young, so let us stand and be done with it. Alas, five minutes later, another baby from the other direction, and nowhere left to go.

*What type of self-centered, inconsiderate idiot travels by plane with a screaming baby?!?

Did I say twenty minutes? That is what it should have been, but again and again, there were announcements that there was a delay of another ten or so minutes. Actual boarding took place 15:42, 47 minutes after boarding should have begun, more than an hour after my arrival, and 17 minutes after the plain should have left. All this, standing, exposed to screaming babies, and fed a stream of faulty information. Of course, an even remotely correct earlier estimate would have allowed me a proper meal and even a more realistic or earlier interim claim about the delay would have allowed me to grab a sandwich somewhere.

So, after boarding, it could safely be assumed that we took off as soon as possible to lose as little further time as we could? No: The plane remained firmly on the ground. At 16:35, taxing started; at 16:40 the actual takeoff procedure commenced (with the actual lift of the ground yet a little later). About another hour lost between boarding and takeoff … And, oh, that bloody screaming baby screamed for around the first half hour after boarding too. To boot, there were some ten minutes of pre-recorded and highly artificial security announcements, very poor music, and an outright advertisement broadcast on the plane. At this point, I was so close to snapping that I downed an entire sleeping pill to calm my nerves—and while this worked, it did not suffice to let me sleep, but did leave me a little groggy for the remainder of the evening. Of course, if we had been told e.g. “we will take off in fifty minutes and will keep the gate upon until the last quarter-hour” then I could still have eaten something—but, no, it was boarding first and waiting later.

We hit the ground again at 18:48; the time until official landing was obviously longer, and likely left us still about an hour late (scheduled landing was 17:55).

Of course, the delays do not end here, because I had hardly eaten anything since breakfast, and the meal that should have taken place in Helsinki during the flight portion of the day had to take part after it in Düsseldorf. At this point, I had no eye on the time anymore, but I was likely done shortly before eight. Remained only to find a train and get to Wuppertal, where I probably arrived around nine, for a total of more than eleven hours from one apartment to the other, about two of which were direct or indirect delays.

To this I note that there was no offer of even a complimentary bag of peanuts on the plane, let alone a meal or a monetary recompense*. (Coffee and water/juice/whatnot was included in the ticket price to begin with. Meals and snacks were on sale, but buying one on the plane would amount to awarding incompetence—another thing that I try to avoid.)

*I will look into the legal situation later, but I am not optimistic, as there are aspects of force majeure (cf. below) and as travel laws tend to be customer unfriendly, working on the principle that delays are unimportant as long as the customer actually arrives. See an earlier text for why I consider force majeure a disputable argument in most circumstances, however.

Aside from the delays, there is the question of lost/delayed luggage: Finnair also managed to screw up the luggage situation, and those* unfortunate enough to have something checked-in only began to receive their luggage on the 28th (according to an email), with no upper limit stated. With coordination problems, I assume that many will have to wait a few days more.

*One of the reasons why I dared this experiment was that I had no checked-in luggage: I had flown with a stop on two prior occasions, first between Stuttgart and Stockholm, with a change of planes somewhere in Denmark, and then the reverse going back. (I do not recall the airline, as this was long ago.) My luggage was lost in both directions and only delivered with a considerable delay.

As to the underlying reason, there appears to have been an “[u]nexpected walk out of the ground handling operator Swissport” due to a strike. This implies that Finnair cannot be blamed for (at least parts of) the delay per se; and it also implies that planning is harder, because Finnair is not in control of (at least parts of) the circumstances* and might it self be victim of faulty/delayed/incomplete information. However, (a) I doubt that this mess, at least informationwise, is explainable without additional incompetence on behalf of Finnair, (b) Finnair definitely failed to paint an accurate picture, e.g. by making claims of “x to y minutes delay”, where “at least x minutes delay” would have been called for,** (c) Finnair failed to e.g. offer complimentary meals and the possibility to re-book the flight for a later day*** (d) Finnair failed to inform sufficiently in advance about the luggage situation, which might have moved some passengers to forego or re-book the flight (as might some, if the scope of the delay had been clear in time***). (e) Finnair allows babies to travel in their airplanes without having the staff ensure silence. (f) Finnair molested the passengers with advertising, pling-plong music, and unnecessarily annoying security announcements. (In contrast, I do not blame Finnair for the inadequate seating in the airports, because this is not under its control and does reflect the typical situation in airports. Of course, normally this is not much of an issue either, because waits tend to be a lot shorter.)

*As an obvious example, Finnair might not have known at the time of (actual) boarding about some constraint, e.g. available time slots, that postponed takeoff.

**Note that this is a call that Finnair must have been in a position to make, while the passengers have a lot less leeway and must assume that the claims by the airline about upper limit can be taken at face value, already containing sufficient safety margins. (In contrast, it is up to the passenger what he risks or does not risk doing in light of e.g. “at least ten minutes delay”—but here I do not rule out that Finnair deliberately set an unrealistic upper limit in order to take this choice away from him, so that the passengers remained at the gate like well-behaved little sheeple.)

***I would, myself, have been quite interested in taking the corresponding flight the following day and spending the mean time seeing something of Helsinki, because the delay hits an all-day traveler harder, the circumstances at the gate were unconscionable, and a one-day Helsinki visit would have been a productive use of my time.

Excursion on pre-flight times:
The attitude of airlines and airports towards pre-flight times (e.g. “be there two hours before the flight” recommendations) is unconscionable and severely outdated. That a traveler chooses (or chooses not) to work with a safety margin leading up to the airport is one thing—what if there is a delay of the train to the airport or a connecting train is missed? That should be entirely within his discretion, however, as different people have different trade-offs in risk and travel time. These recommendations are aimed at something very different, namely: (a) To ensure that the passenger is on time at the gate no matter how badly things go wrong in the airport, e.g. due to a security strike—which should be the sole responsibility of the airport/airline/whatnot (depending on the exact complication). (b) That inexperienced passengers do not underestimate e.g. the time needed for the security check or intra-airport travel.* The better solution here, however, is to inform people, let them make their own decisions, and for airports/whatnot. to take responsibility for their parts of the equation, e.g. that various stations are manned in proportion to the number of passengers.

*I recall a major twist in my own travels: The first time I flew from Düsseldorf Airport, to an interview in Munich, I went there a few days in advance to get some idea of travel times, layout, where I needed to go. Came travel day, I was there well ahead of time and still missed my flight due to hour-long delays caused by a security strike announced just the day before. Even well-informed and experienced passengers can become victims of problems that the airport/whatnot should handle.

Reasonable time limits might include “be at the gate no later than fifteen minutes before takeoff”, “check all non-cabin luggage at least an hour before takeoff”, and/or something similar—possibly combined with advice on how long the process in the airport normally is. Certainly, it must be more than enough, even for international travel, for someone with only cabin luggage and with a prior online check-in to be at the airport with an hour to spare. This must be enough time to get to the security check, be checked, go the gate, and beat the end of boarding, usually with a fair buffer. If not, the system is seriously flawed.

Excursion on strikes, etc.:
The topic of strikes is a horror when it comes to flights. Here small groups of people, often poorly qualified, have enormous leverage and cause enormous damage to others. To boot, they often do so at extremely short notice, as with the German “Warnstreik”*, which is allowed with next to no notice. From the extremely shallow information available to me concerning the Finnair issues, the strike might or might not have been legal, but it definitely took place and, apparently, caught both airlines and airports off-guard. Here, a radical change in thinking is needed, including the need for advance notice from strikers well ahead of time, that strikers can be held liable for damage to third-parties under some circumstances**, and that certain key groups like security personnel are exempt from the right to strike entirely.

*“Warning strike”, an ethically extremely dubious one-day (typically) strike that amounts to a “not touching; can’t get mad” way of harming or intimidating the employer during negotiations. They should by all rights be illegal. (To paraphrase a old colleague and Yoda fan: Either do or do not strike. There is no warn.”)

**Exactly what circumstances, I leave unstated for the time being, but the above is one clear case. A blanket liability will hardly work without making strikes impossible for very large groups, however.

More generally, I have long found the idea of a strike as a refusal to work without having to fear consequences an absurdity, and the entire idea might be outdated. This is a topic well beyond the scope of the current text, and not something that I thought on in detail, but I note e.g. that a right to fire strikers need not be bad, because those strikers that the employer actually is willing to fire likely are not worthy of a raise in the first place. (Raises being the most typical reason for strikes.)

Excursion on security checks:
While some security checks are almost certainly needed, the scope of them and the restrictions on passengers past 9/11 might well do more harm than good, including through the time wasted for passengers even on a regular day, the extra cost for staff and equipment, odd* restrictions on what may and may not be brought on board, etc. Then there is the creation of a group of employees with low qualifications and great leverage and the risk of strikes (and other blockages of this bottleneck). Then there is the artificial creation of an over-expensive market for e.g. water between security check and gate, as with the 3.50 Euro water bottles mentioned above. An interesting twist is that some items banned are among those an experienced traveler would like to take, e.g. a bottle with tap water, a pocketknife, …

*At least from a naive point of view. Then again, how effective will e.g. a ban on unsealed fluid containers be to an intelligent and dedicated terrorist? Especially, when there might be medical exemptions?

A particular issue is whether it makes sense to have such strict restrictions on airplanes while e.g. trains go almost unprotected in most countries. (And/or why terrorists have not jumped onto using trains to cause murder and mayhem. True, they cannot fly someone to Cuba, but killing a few hundred people and causing great property damage is very possible.)

Excursion on non-direct flights:
Based on my own experiences, I consider the risk of non-direct flights over direct flights (when available!) to be too large, even the expected increase in travel time aside. Not only do I have the three aforementioned negative experiences with non-direct flights, but my experiences with direct flights are sufficiently poor as to imply a fairly large risk that something goes wrong per flight—and flying twice in one days doubles that risk. Indeed, it is often far more than a doubling, e.g. because it seems plausible that luggage getting lost is disproportionately more likely when changing flights. Moreover, the damage done is often greater, e.g. in that a severe delay in a first flight might lose a few hours when flying direct and cause a missed connection when flying non-direct, in turn, possibly, resulting in a full day’s delay, the need for a hotel, etc.

The savings might or might not be worth the extra expected increase in travel time; it is not worth the extra risk.

In addition, environmental concerns might be added. In my case, e.g., there was a considerable detour; in all cases, there will be at least one extra takeoff, ascent, and landing.

Written by michaeleriksson

March 4, 2020 at 12:24 am

5 Responses

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  1. […] Three follow-ups to my complaints about a recent flight: […]

  2. […] returning from Sweden more than a month ago ([1], [2]), I have had continual bouts of “cold-like symptoms”, culminating in a fever and a […]

  3. […] My receipt from the post-flight meal from my Finnair fiasco: […]

  4. […] which I use mostly to control my nerves and/or temper in exceptional circumstances. I point to my Finnair experiences for what happens when I take one: I do not fall asleep, but I do feel like a zombie … (And I […]

  5. […] an older text about a Finnair flight, I spotted some very incorrect uses of “takeoff”.* I try to give more sensible-than-current […]

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