Saturday, March 7, 2009

%*$@%# Finnair! (Yet Another Airline Rant)

Plane on screen With budget airlines, like Ryanair and Wizzair, you know exactly that you get what you paid for. You don’t expect much in terms of service or quality, and that’s understandable.

They’re called “budget” for a reason. But when you fly on a standard airline that claims to be Northern Europe’s gateway to Asia, you think you can anticipate, at the very least, an appearance of service. Unfortunately, Finnair fails on all accounts. That’s the reason why I normally avoid it like a nasty virulent plague. All it can offer you are short connection times in Helsinki and luggage delivered to your home when your bags don’t make those said short connections. And that happens quite often.

But there came a time when I needed short connections, and so in January, with a heavy heart I booked us two tickets from Stockholm to Tokyo on Finnair. We were taking our cats to Japan and wanted to make the trip as short as possible. Should have known right there and then that it was going to be an utter disaster.

Since you can’t book pets as cabin luggage on the internet, I had to call. And it took three days of phone calls to get the matter resolved and confirmed. Each time we were assured that “someone will call you back.” Needless to say, nobody ever did. And since the fees for making a phone booking are substantially higher than on the internet, it wasn’t exactly a budget-friendly proposition. You’d think that if an airline is going to charge you 50 euro per ticket for a phone booking, it should provide a minimum of service. Alas, not Finnair.

I am typing this while flying back to Europe. On Finnair, unfortunately. And I’ve been thinking long and hard what sort of nice things I can say about this airline. Just to be fair, you know. Hmmm… The planes are new and clean. There’s plenty of water to drink. You get a toothbrush and toothpaste (but no socks). I like the 2-4-2 seat configuration. We’re talking about economy here, of course. The entertainment screen is big. Too bad it didn’t work when I turned it on, both on the way to Japan and back. It had to be manually reset. The flight attendant said it was a common problem. Then why nobody bothered to reset the bloody thing BEFORE the flight? She didn’t have an answer to that question.

Speaking of entertainment systems. Even though we’re already six days into March and the new film schedule is already provided in the seat pocket in front of me, the screen still shows the old stuff from January and February. The flight attendant said it normally takes “a while” to update the programming. When asked to define “a while” she didn’t have an answer. Hint – " a while" is definitely longer than six days.

Speaking of flight attendants. There was a problem with my armrest and I pushed the call button. It took a flight member 47 minutes  (yes, I was bored and I timed it) to finally get to my seat. And it wasn’t during a meal service. This, I have to say, is an all-time slow for any airline I’ve ever flown on. I shudder at the thought if my need had been an urgent one, a medical problem for example. I’d be dead in my seat by now, especially since there isn’t anyone sitting next to me to get help.

What else? The food is horrid. But by now I'm used to horrid food served in economy on European airlines. They gotta reduce costs somehow, you know?

Carryon tag And I suppose in an effort to reduce costs (and customer service) even further, Finnair’s ground service at Arlanda was sub-contracted to a handling agent – Menzies. The firm handles ground operations for all members of One World Alliance at Arlanda, and that is reason enough for me never to fly on a One World partner airline out of Stockholm. The individuals working for Menzies are so nasty that even Finnair’s very own flight attendant working the Stockholm-Helsinki route agreed they are a bunch of pricks. She also implied they get paid bonuses based on the number of extra fees they managed to collect.

That goes a long way to explaining the mystery of why our luggage, which when weighed at home and by SAS on a connecting flight to Stockholm, was 22 kgs a piece, suddenly became almost 25 kgs per bag when put on a Menzies scale at Finnair’s check-in counter. This is an old scam, a couple of years ago KLM tried it on me at Barajas in Madrid. But that time I knew my luggage wasn’t overweight and demanded  to have it re-weighed at a different airline’s scale. KLM suddenly gave up and told me I didn’t have to pay for excess weight. Sure, because I knew there wasn’t any.

This time we knew we had overweight bags. The question was by how much. I was fully prepared to pay for 4 kilos, because that’s how much the bags weighed that morning (two bags at 22 kgs each; two passengers). But the Menzies sourpuss at the check-in counter said "10 kilos." At 30 euros per kilo it was cheaper to start throwing things out than pay the fee. Note to Finnair – this is a VERY dumb way of collecting excess luggage fees, if it’s cheaper for the passengers to buy new stuff when they reach their destination, duh.

In the confusion at the check-in desk, while weighing the cat containers, we put the same container on the scale twice. Each time it registered a different weight, once 6 kilos, the second time – over 7. Very odd indeed. When we pointed this out to the woman manning the check-in desk, she became agitated and just plain rude. Whatever. We went to repack our bags.

Upon returning to the check-in counter, we found a new agent on duty. Just like his predecessor, he had all the attitude of a rabid skunk with an IQ level of a stool sample. It was time to weigh our cabin luggage. Thanks to the amazing scales, it was also overweight. We were instructed to remove the excess weight. We simply stuffed things into our pockets and when the bags came off the scales, we put all of it right back. The utter lack of logic of this exercise in futility was totally lost of the Menzies moron working there. But then again, hey, what can I say? He was Swedish, and after five years in Sweden I knew you couldn’t expect a Swede to think rationally.

His behavior was so rude, and because he wasn’t wearing a name tag (none of the Menzies check-in people was, come to think of it) I asked for his name. He grew agitated and totally belligerent. When I attempted to take his photo, he threatened us with “you put it down (while pointing at my camera) or you won’t fly today.” Because he knew it was an empty threat, and I pointed out as much to him, he responded with “at least your luggage won’t fly today.”

Standby tag The jerk (I wanted to use a stronger word here, but let’s keep this a PG blog) marked our checked-in bags as stand-by luggage. How’s that for great customer service for you? Needless to say, we were not stand-by passengers. We’d been fully paid and confirmed for a month and both our flights were not fully booked. And there was no stand-by mark on our boarding passes.

Note to Finnair – this is a perfect example of how to lose customers in a hurry.


Compare this with the experience at Narita. My bag was slightly over the 20 kg limit, but the check-in girl didn’t even bat an eye. She was more concerned with my seat preference. Out of curiosity I asked her what they do when a suitcase is significantly heavier than the limit.

She said: “a little overweight, like about 22 kilos, is normally OK, it’s hard to pack exactly, we understand that. More than 22 or so, we give a box and suggest the person to mail the excess weight to their destination, or to their home. Post office is right over there (she pointed to a window opposite check-in banks C and B) and it’s cheaper to mail a package than to pay overweight fees.”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, will never happen at Arlanda. Not in a million years. That’s the difference between Sweden and Japan. But I stopped expecting any semblance of customer service in Sweden a long time ago.

The sad part is, I really like Helsinki as an airport and I wouldn’t mind transiting through there. The saddest part is that in this harsh economy when airlines are struggling financially and when every passenger should count, Finnair doesn’t seem to care in the least bit.

I will be returning to Japan in two weeks, and then again in a couple of months. This year it looks like I might make as many as six round trips between Europe and Japan. And you betcha they won’t be on Finnair. Goodbye and good riddance!

PS. I should have known that the Menzies check-in staff was not quite all there when the woman looked through my passport and told me that I didn't have a visa. No, I didn't have a visa, because I didn't need one. Her answer? "But you have a Polish passport!"

Can somebody please tell those morons that Poles can travel to Japan (and many other countries) visa free? And that the cold war had ended years ago? Because it looks like they never got the memo.

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