executive impact


By Chris Betros

If you’re planning a trip to Europe, the fastest way is certainly with Finnair. The flight from Narita to Helsinki only takes 9 1/2 hours. From there, Finnair has an extensive network across Europe.

The airline has made great strides in the Japanese market in recent years, utilizing a very successful marketing campaign featuring Japanese actor Koji Yakusho.

The campaign was the brainchild of Sakari Romu, the sales director (and general manager) of Finnair in Japan. Romu, who grew up in the Kansai area, has been with Finnair for 30 years. He has been in his current position since June 2009.

Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Romu to hear more.

What made you join Finnair?

I wasn’t interested in the airline business. Actually, I wanted to be an architect. But I traveled for a year and got interested in the travel trade and gave up on my architect studies. I wrote to Finnair because they were planning to start a service to Tokyo in 1981. I told them about my background in Japan – I’d spent 10 years here as a boy -- and I thought I could be a help. I got the job and was heavily involved in building up the Tokyo route.

How many flights a week to and from Japan does Finnair operate?

Currently, we operate 21 flights a week – one each from Narita, Osaka and Nagoya.

How did the March 11 disaster affect business?

We only had to cancel one flight after March 11 and that was March 12, from Narita. The originating flight from Helsinki couldn’t leave because Narita’s status was uncertain. We were the only carrier not to make any changes to our schedules.

In the weeks that followed, we did see a big rush of Europeans leaving Japan and not many coming to Japan. However, outbound Japanese traffic continued. About 75% of our passengers are Japanese and there were not many cancellations from them. I think Japanese just wanted to get out of the country for a little while.

Our load factor now is about 90%. On the Japan routes, we use the Airbus 330 with 274 seats in business and economy class.

Is Finnair interested in Haneda airport?

Under the current slots available to long-haul European carriers, flying from Haneda is not possible because it would not be convenient for making connections from Helsinki and our business is based on our network to other European destinations. If they open the slots up and permit day flights, then we would be interested. But maintaining operations at two airports requires a major investment.

What is Finnair’s image in Japan?

One of our major challenges is that for a long time, we were relatively unknown as a carrier to Europe. One thing in our favor is that we are selling a destination – Finland offers the aurora borealis, the midnight sun, Santa Claus’ home and so on. It’s a big advantage for us that kind of phenomenon.

Tell us about the marketing campaign featuring Koji Yakusho.

We started that campaign two years ago to raise awareness of our network throughout Europe. It has been very successful. However, if we had only been trying to fill seats by taking passengers to Finland or Scandinavia, it would not have worked because we didn’t have a daily flight at that time. We were flying to and from Narita only four times a week. Then we got the OK for a daily flight. If we had not, I would have never launched this campaign because we were moving our focus on the business sector and without a daily product, it would be nonsense to have this kind of campaign and marketing budget.

What are Finnair’s strong points?

We offer the fastest flights to Europe -- only 9 1/2 hours to Helsinki. Our European network is another advantage. We are concentrating on secondary cities. Take Germany, for example. If your final destination is a German city other than Frankfurt from Narita, then it is better to take Finnair because it is faster via Helsinki.

We also have a very modern fleet. The average age of our aircraft is about 2 1/2 years.

What are some unique characteristics of the Japanese market?

Travel agencies are still important in Japan, while the role of online travel agencies is extremely low. Online bookings are increasing but the difference is that in Europe, online bookings are made mainly by online travel agencies, not directly from the airlines. For customers, it is easier to get a good picture on airfares. If you use only the Finnair site, you see only our prices. But if you use online travel agencies, you see the fares from 10 carriers, departure times, etc. In Japan, that kind of online travel agency is almost non-existent.

Are there any plans to include the fuel surcharge in the advertised fare?

I think Japan is one of the few markets where the fuel surcharge is not included in the advertised fare. Maybe Hong Kong and South Korea are the same. In other markets, we do advertise the final fare.

Do you see more low-cost carriers changing the industry?

I’m amazed that in a country like Japan, the role of low-cost carriers is so small. When it comes to short-haul domestic traffic and nearby destinations, I’m sure we will see low-cost carriers growing fast. But with long-haul business, that’s different. You need a European network to fill up your long-haul planes. That’s difficult for low-cost carriers to do.

How many Japanese flight attendants do you have on each flight?

There are usually two or three on each flight. We get hundreds of applications and hire about 10-12 each year. I am amazed at high the quality is.

When you travel, what class do you travel in?

I travel in both business and economy classes. It’s important to do that because you should know your product.

When you are not working, how do you like to relax?

I play golf and ride motorbikes.

© Japan Today

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I’m amazed that in a country like Japan, the role of low-cost carriers is so small.

That's due to the Shinkansen. More than a trillion dollars of public and private money has been spent on it. Low-cost carriers would quickly undercut Shinkansen business, and so much of the massive investment in Shinkansen would go to waste. No wonder the regulators have been so slow in approving competitive discount carriers.

In the meantime, Japan's consumers have to put up with high prices and less choice. TIJ (this is Japan).

3 ( +6 / -3 )

It would be nice if you would fly from Sapporo too. KLM used to fly into Sapporo and then continue on to Nagoya, it was so convenient. I just fly via Korea because I don't want to put up with the mess travelling from Haneda to Narita and flights to Osaka and Nagoya are way too expensive.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Come on! How on earth did you happen to miss the single most important question passengers in Japan have.

Why are return flights originating in Japan generally 25-50% more expensive than the other way around on the same dates?

3 ( +3 / -0 )

That's due to the Shinkansen.

Only because the shinkansen is so awesome. Why deal with airports and the hassle of flying when you can zip along at a high speed by train? Much more civilized, makes much more sense for Japan.

2 ( +3 / -1 )

I went with them from London earlier this year and was shocked at how old and crappy the planes were. The Heathrow to Helsinki plane was old and cramped, the food was crap and they had no personal tv screens and limited English newspapers. In BUSINESS class! I shudder to think what the cattle car seats were like.

Helsinki airport is pretty crap - though the business lounge was nice. The rest of it was bare and nothing to do.

The flight to Japan was a bit better but I will never, never fly with them again. If you're heading to Europe and can afford it, Lufthansa all the way!

-5 ( +1 / -5 )

We offer the fastest flights to Europe—only 9 1/2 hours to Helsinki

That's not saying much, considering Finland is in the north-east of Europe. Any other carrier going to Finland will take the same time if it's a direct flight. Example of advantages would be price, comfort, service, not charging the rip-off fee known as fuel surcharge, etc. And why would someone take Finn Air to go to places like Germany or UK? Direct flights are quicker, and they're not much different in price either.

Are there any plans to include the fuel surcharge in the advertised fare?

Tip: If you don't answer the question, the readers will make up their own minds. Airline companies only advertise the full fare first if they're forced to by the authorities. What HK and other places do is irrelevant. In the UK, you're not allowed to fool the customers that way.


Only because the shinkansen is so awesome. Why deal with airports and the hassle of flying when you can zip along at a high speed by train?

I'd support Shinkansen more if it was affordable. How come countries like China, Taiwan and Korea can offer the same services at the fraction of the prices here?

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Pukey2, because the locals don't demand cheaper fares like other countries. I wish the shinkansen offered travel points. At one point I was actually flying from Osaka to Tokyo because a) I got ANA miles and b) it took about the same time c) it cost less if you book in advance

-1 ( +1 / -2 )

Low cost companies are not developed here because the heavy regulations do not make it easy for such companies to establish business. I heard that Air Asia has been trying for a while to penetrate the Japanese market but it has been difficult (mainly because of JAL).

Overall the transportation market is controlled by a very small number of semi-public or private conglomerates: JAL, ANA, JR, Tokyu, Tobu, etc... There is no competition on high-speed lines (shinkansen is only offered by JR), so they don't have any incentive to provide flexible prices on JR (even in France, one of the most socialist country among Western nations, the national carrier SNCF has flexible pricing like airplanes).

0 ( +0 / -0 )


The Heathrow to Helsinki plane was old and cramped, the food was crap and they had no personal tv screens and limited English newspapers.

I think all intra-europe airlines are like that - it is just a 3 hour flight though, right? The planes were A320's and certainly not old. The long haul section had full VOD, and the food was a sandwich, which was all I needed having gorged on the previous long haul segment. Economy was as good as any other airline (who really shines in Economy??). I did the same journey as you (but last year), and actually found the break at Helsinki quite welcome. Just 40 mins, then back on for the hop to London. Kids enjoyed it too. Coming back was a 100min break which was less fun, but had a chance to buy some funky omiyage at THE shop in the airport (yes it is small).

I did use direct flights this year, but only as I got a great deal, otherwise I'd very likely be using Finnair again.

1 ( +1 / -0 )


There is no competition on high-speed lines (shinkansen is only offered by JR), so they don't have any incentive to provide flexible prices on JR (even in France, one of the most socialist country among Western nations, the national carrier SNCF has flexible pricing like airplanes).

But having said that, two similar segments Paris-Marseille and Tokyo-Osaka cost almost the same. Japan comes up more slightly more expensive because of currency conversion, if the exchange rate was above 90Y/$ it would be cheaper (was converting via USD)

0 ( +0 / -0 )

While I like Finnair and have used them many times both on the Japan route and intra-europe, their prices are (at least a few months back) completely ridiculous. Right now KLM offers the same amenities and the price is around 40-50% lower, their network in europe is also way more extensive. I'm guessing one reason is the popularity (and codesharing with Japan Airlines) with the Japanese or simply horrible fuel hedging trades.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I traveled to Tokyo from Oslo (via Helsinki) this summer. And I am not sure if I would do it again. The in-flight entertainment (or lack of) was horrible. Food was just as bad as any other airline, but when you travel such long distances there has to be more than 5-6 movies, and a couple first episodes from less than a handful of shows.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

Gyouza, I flew over with Lufthansa (business) and was amazed at business class - on both flights. Business included flat beds, private screens, amazing food, comfort, VOD, amazing staff... Finnair, while having VOD, had none of the others I mentioned. The food for crap, the staff wasn't great, the seats didn't go down and were old, no private screens...

The flight from London to Helsinki was short but cramped in business. The plane was old. Perhaps you has a nicer one but mine was old. And rather dirty to be honest - head rests were discolored, toilets left an odor... I have flown what seems like a million times and that was my first and only flight with them. It was one of the most disappointing flights I have had - and I fee ripped off on my business classes experience! Not often I get it and honestly, cattle car with Cathay ranks higher in terms of food, video, staff...

You also must have had a different flight time as we spent at least 90 mins at the airport. Like I said though, the business lounge was nice - though again, not anyway near Lufthansa, ANA...

0 ( +1 / -1 )

@tmarie -wasn't me who did the thumbs down BTW, don't use them-

Anyway, the comparison to LH is interesting. I flew LH from LHR to NRT via FFT a few years back and was horrified at the service between LHR and FFT. I paid business, but that segment (LHR-FFT) was economy seating with no discernable difference between business and economy whatsoever (and there were a number of us complaining). Not even free newspapers. For the FFT-NRT section, LH couldn't seat my wife and I together despite booking months in advance (told we couldn't pre-reserve seats - daft!). I complained bitterly to LH HQ, and they sent two free teacups! I have flown LH again since then and the service very good (pity, was hoping to build up a good tea set!).

I think the moral of the story is that sometimes you are lucky, sometimes not. The best for me so far between Europe and Japan has been Austrian. Really great service, good seats, everything I needed to arrive fresh. But since I have only flown them once, I could have been just lucky, right?

2 ( +2 / -0 )

Sapporo - Helsinki is bound to be the shortest flight between Japan and Europe, at least if you discount Moscow. If you live in Tokyo or any other place with direct flights to your destination in Europe, fine. But if you have to zigzag across Japan and then Europe, then catching a connecting flight to Sapporo and then continuing your journey from Helsinki would guarantee as straight a path of flight as possible. I've flown with Finnair a couple of times and my experience was not any different than with any other airline, at least in economy class. BTW, I don't appreciate it being called cattle car and I think it tells more about tmarie than about the conditions in the most popular class.

1 ( +2 / -1 )

Gyouza, shocked that Luft was pretty crap . My experience with Finn was the same for the short haul - no different between the business/cattle, staff... The plane we had with Luft was sweet - one of the new ones so Finn was a HUGE let down! Given the chance, I would go with Luft - or Emirates. Have heard they are great but never flown with them.

No worries on the thumbs. I think people see the name and thumb it down as I am not all happy fluffy bunnies! ;)

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

tmarie: Finnair operates a fleet of A330/A340 on the long-haul routes, with an average age around 3-4 years. Lufthansa planes are much older, on average. Also, Lufthansa is considerably more expensive on most routes in economy class, basically uncompetitive, they survive by dominating select routes. The fact that you call it cattle class just means you need to make yourself feel better about flying business as most business classes don't justify the higher ticket prices.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

I always fly cattle class which is why I was so damn excited to fly business. However, greatly disappointed by Finn. Easy as that.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

I used Finnair on my way back to Japan, and it was much better than Alitalia, which I used on my way home.I flew with baby and honestly, this itself was inconvenient enough, but I chose Finnair mostly because their conditions for transportation of infants were best. Air France forced me to hold my baby in my lap or pay for a whole seat,other companies' crib was too small, some asked me to pay extra fee for the stroller if I wanted to take it in the cabin. Lufthansa was best, but very expensive, and we were short of money at that time.

I liked Finnair-they were very sympathetic to my distressed baby, offered spoons and other stuff for her (on Jeju air, Korean airline, her father dropped the spoon we took with us and I had to use senbei to scoop her food, Jeju didn't have anything, even coffee spoons).They put me on a bulkhead seat and kept checking on me and the baby, if everything is alright.Helsinki airport has awesome changing room, by the way-huge,all in some mild color, and shining, polished and smelled good. I had to bath my baby there, because she had poop even on her neck, but it was warm and nice and she didn't even cry.The crib was big enough for 7m.old baby, but she refused to sleep anywhere but in my arms. I couldn't eat with her, so the flight attendants were kind enough to bring me food later , when her father could hold her for a while. If we had any problems with Finnair, they were on Japanese side, when they lost one of our bags, and the procedures for retrieving it were too long, and we had to deal with two different people , repeating everything twice. I wish Finnair trained their Japanese stuff harsher.

0 ( +1 / -1 )

Not sure why you are complain about extra baggage charges of needing to pay for an extra seat if you need the space. I don't think traveling with kids is easy as all but I think you guys get huge perks - more weight for example with extra bags - that sometimes isn't all that fair.

2 ( +2 / -0 )

I often use Finnair. The only problems are the very short, nervous-making forty-minute transfer time from Helsinki to Manchester and the Finnish language. My goodness, I thought Dutch sounded ugly, but Finnish ....

-1 ( +0 / -1 )

I thought Dutch sounded ugly, but Finnish ...

Excuse me? And your lingo is? - :-)

0 ( +0 / -0 )


Yes, very rude of you. I suspect you just don't understand Finnish or Dutch, and get frustrated.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

All readers back on topic please.

0 ( +0 / -0 )

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