In January we were on location in Doha as Qatar Airways inaugurated its first Airbus A350. In June, Vietnam Airlines received its first A350, and last wednesday it was time for Europe’s first airline to receive its first Airbus A350 – Finnair. We attended the opening ceremony in Toulouse and then boarded the official maiden flight to Helsinki.

It is clear that the Airbus A350 is something Finnair have invested heavily in. They are calling it “a new era” – a product that will lead the company into the future. Tuesday started with a specially chartered plane to take media personnel, specially invited guests and, of course, Finnair management from Helsinki to Toulouse. On Wednesday morning there was an impressive inauguration ceremony held at the Airbus Delivery Centre in Toulouse, and at 1pm the first flight to Helsinki was preparing to depart. Throughout October, the aircraft will make a promotional tour of Europe with a dozen different cities being visited. Finnair is obviously very proud to show off its new aircraft to the world. November 21 is the date of the first long-haul flight, bound for Shanghai. The aircraft will primarily be used on routes to Asia.

Finnair Business Class Airbus A350

The new cabin products have been developed by design firm dSign Vertti Kivi & Co, who, among other things, designed Finnair’s lounges. The idea is for Finnish design to not only be present on the ground in Finland, but in the air as well. It is in accordance with Finnair’s mission statement, “a unique Nordic experience”, and Finnair’s Chief Commercial Officer Juha Järvinen explained that they want to offer “the best of Nordic hospitality.”

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The new seat in business class, the Zodiac Cirrus III, is developed by the French firm Zodiac and is arranged in a 1-2-1 configuration, which means that all passengers have direct access to the aisle. The seat is completely horizontal when fully reclined (fully flat). There are twelve rows of business class on the Airbus A350, with four seats in a row, while row 9 has only two seats. This means a total of 46 seats.

In front of the seat is a 16 inch touch-screen display attached to the wall, which can be folded up or down via the press of a button. To accompany the screen, passengers will receive noise-cancelling headphones. The seat also has electrical sockets and USB ports, making it possible to work on board or play your own files through the in-flight entertainment system. On the side of the chair there is a cocktail table for plates and glasses, along with a hook for the headphones. Beside the armrest is a small storage compartment for personal belongings and the amenities bag that is provided. Also on the side of the seat, there is a storage space for a water bottle, newspapers and magazines.

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A novelty of Finnair’s business class is the ‘ladies-only toilet’, which is fairly self-explanatory. These toilets offer a greater range of cosmetics and creams for those who want to freshen up before landing, which, according to Finnair, is especially sought after by many female Asian passengers. In total, business class has four toilets, so three remain unisex.

Directly behind the galley, to the left of door two, there is a small buffet corner. During the inaugural flight this consisted of a large basket of fruit and sweets, and the offerings are expected to be similar in the future.

Business class also provides passengers with a duvet and pillow in Marimekko’s colours, white and green. There was, however, no mattress. Additionally, slippers and a brand new amenity bag are distributed, both in different Marimekko colours, blue and white. A new signature drink has also been developed in honour of the new Airbus A350 – Blue Sky, a mix of French champagne and Finnish blueberry liqueur.

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Our impression

Finnair has invested in a minimalistic Nordic design. During our first visit aboard the aircraft in Toulouse, the cabin felt slightly sterile with so much white, but when it was time to depart for Helsinki and the lighting effects had been lit in the ceiling and the seats, the whole cabin felt much more attractive and cosier. Much of the aesthetics of the design is reliant on the lighting effects. The A350 also has the advantage of having a more angular cabin ceiling compared to many other aircraft, which have a rounded ceiling. This makes the cabin feels extra spacious, and Vertti Kivi’s lighting effects work superbly in this environment.

The Zodiac Cirrus III seat model has become very popular in recent years, because it is a fine model. Finnair has chosen to keep it clean and functional without complicating matters. However, what can be confirmed is something we noted when the seat was launched a year ago – it is a good fully-flat seat, but, when fully reclined, the leg room of 183cm, which is slightly less than some competitors, can cause some difficulties, especially for the taller passenger. When lying flat on your back, the taller passenger’s feet will reach the wall. It is only a small distance, a matter of centimetres, and some will be affected while others will not.

The in-flight entertainment system worked perfectly and is well thought-out. Again, Finnair have opted to keep it quite straightforward and uncomplicated in its design and menus, but with several useful features included. The noise-cancelling headphones gave a good experience. As this was the premiere aircraft, a little fine tuning was still needed in business class – the screen was a bit too sensitive to touch, which somehow made my screen freeze. Once frozen, I could not press anything on the screen and the remote control did not work either. I had no other option than to turn the screen off and on again. This is hopefully something Finnair can rectify in the next few weeks, as, once I notified a Finnair staff member on board, it was explained to me that it is purely a settings issue with the hardware.

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Finnair Economy Class on the Airbus A350

The new seat in economy class is the Zodiac Z3000 slim-line. It offers 31-32 inches of legroom and is arranged in a 3-3-3 configuration. Nine seats in a row is quite a lot, but because the aircraft is so wide there are no differences in the width of the seat or passenger comfort compared to previous economy cabins. The aircraft is capable of fitting ten seats across, but that would cause some constriction to each passenger. In total, there are 208 seats in economy class on Finnair’s A350.

All seats in economy class have their own touch screen monitor of 11 inches. A USB port is also installed in the seat, meaning passengers can recharge their mobile phone or play their own files through the entertainment system. However, there are no power sockets in economy class.

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At the front of the economy cabin is what Finnair calls “Economy Comfort” – seats with better neck support, high-quality headphones and four inches of extra legroom (ie 35-36 inches). It is not a pure premium economy, but some of the extra benefits include priority boarding over other passengers in economy class, and a small welcome kit. In total, there are 43 seats in the Economy Comfort.

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Our impression

The economy class seat functions just fine. The cabin did not feel crowded and the design of the seat makes it feel larger and with more legroom than it really has. The touch screen display is of good quality and offers good resolution, however, the sound quality through the headphones is nothing to get excited about. The table is split in two parts, which makes it possible to have only half of the table out, meaning passengers can configure it to their own spacial needs. The USB port is very useful, but it would have been even more so with a power source for a laptop.

Economy Comfort offers basically the same seat as in regular economy class, no huge difference in functionality, however, you get a good amount legroom, especially considering the price.

New in-flight entertainment system, Internet and mood lighting

Finnair’s new in-flight entertainment system is called Nordic Sky and includes movies, TV series, and TV programmes from channels like BBC, National Geographic and the Discovery Channel. There is also an advanced flight map, two cockpit cameras and music from MixRadio. Another fun feature is an interactive page where you can follow the flight on a kind of diagram from take-off to landing. The diagram also provides the current time, departure time and arrival time in both the time zone of the departure airport and arrival airport. All this is displayed in a very clear way, and it is easy to see approximately how much of the flight is complete and how much is remaining. According to the demo we tested, it also seems that on longer flights one will be able to see what time food will be served, which can be very useful indeed.

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WiFi is also available on board. It is free in business class, and to access it passengers get a personal code via the home page of the entertainment system which they then type in on their device to log in. For passengers who are Gold or Platinum in Finnair’s frequent flyer program Finnair Plus, or Oneworld Sapphire or Emerald, it is also free, even in economy – you then must ask a member of the cabin crew for a voucher with the code. For others it costs 5 euros for an hour, or 15 euros for the entire flight.

The aircraft has a brand new mood lighting system, also from dSign Vertti Kivi & Co. During boarding and disembarking, a white-blue effect on the ceiling simulates clouds moving over a blue sky. The system has 16 million different colours, including the often used colours of the Finnish flag, and there are 24 pre-set ‘effects’. The most interesting, and one that was demonstrated on board before landing in Helsinki, is the “Northern Lights” – glowing greens and blues in shades similar to the aurora borealis, the phenomena that can be observed in the northern latitudes (including Finland) during certain times of the year.

The opening ceremony in Toulouse

Airbus has a purpose-built terminal in Toulouse solely for promotional events, inaugurations and supply flights. The terminal features everything a standard terminal building would – check-in, security control and two piers with parking spaces for aircraft. There is also a large events space, conference rooms and a full kitchen.

After check-in for those who would fly to Helsinki, the opening ceremony commenced at 09.30 with speeches from Finnair’s CEO Pekka Vauramo, Airbus’ CEO Fabrice Brégier, and Eric Schulz, President of Rolls Royce Large Engines. A number of historical and very entertaining Finnair movies were shown on a big screen, including one on Finnair’s Caravelle from 1960 that got a significant laugh from the audience. These films eventually led to the new Airbus A350 and plans for the future. There were actually several flight attendants wiping away tears when the time came for Pekka Vauramo’s opening address.

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After the exchange of gifts between Finnair, Airbus and Rolls-Royce, the curtains were opened onto the apron where the new aircraft was parked. A dance group led all guests out on the balcony and down to the apron where the CEO’s and management boarded the aircraft, followed by other guests and the media. Lunch was then served in the terminal building – a meal inspired by both the Nordic region and Asia, one of Finnair’s most important markets.

The maiden flight Toulouse – Helsinki

At 12:30, it was finally time to board for departure. An estimated 150 people were on board, which included Finnair management, project managers, a large number of people from Airbus, suppliers, media and other special guests.

Shortly after 13.30 we were all on board and it was time for captain Jari Paajanen to take to the microphone, but rather than provide a usual welcome we have all heard a thousand times, he took the opportunity to thank everyone who made the flight possible and described piloting the flight as “an honour to take her home.”

At 13.45, the aircraft finally took off from Toulouse, with the flight number AY 350 of course, towards Helsinki. A few seconds after takeoff the aircraft waved goodbye to Airbus by rocking its wings up and down. The applause on board almost refused to end.

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Flight time to the Helsinki was three hours and ten minutes. After departure, we were treated to champagne and canapes followed by a meal of grilled salmon with polenta. Everything was served in business class plates and drinks in the well-known Iittala glasses.

Helsinki provided the best possible weather with beautiful afternoon sunshine. Traffic management on the ground gave Captain Paajanen approval to make a sightseeing tour of the city and the archipelago at a height of 500 metres before landing at the airport in Vantaa. After a traditional water salute from airport fire departments, the inaugural dinner in downtown Helsinki was all that remained for the days festivities.

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The first passenger flights

In October, Finnair will make several flights within Europe with the Airbus A350. The first flight is on October 9 to Amsterdam and Oslo, followed by Barcelona, ​​London, Copenhagen, Gothenburg, Amsterdam and Brussels at later dates. A total of nearly a dozen European cities will be visited at least once during the autumn, and all flights are normal scheduled flights in which the aircraft that is usually deployed will be replaced with the A350.

The first long-haul flight departs on November 21 to Shanghai. Thereafter, the Airbus A350 will gradually enter service to Beijing, Bangkok, Hong Kong and Singapore. The dates of when these destinations are to be launched is not yet clear. A full schedule of dates and flights can be found on Finnair’s A350 webpage.

The A350 will primarily replace Finnair’s current Airbus A340. However, Finnair currently has only seven Airbus A340s, with 19 A350s on order. This means that the fleet for long-haul routes will increase by 12 aircraft.