Finnair has become the second European flag carrier this month to announce the closure of a route into China, albeit its suspension is a temporary measure to support crew training needs for its expanding fleet of Airbus A350s.
The selection of its Helsinki – Chongqing route for four month closure will further dampen the excitement of China outbound growth and highlights the disproportionate inbound flows that make it hard for European carriers to sustainably serve these markets.
The Nordic flag carrier will temporarily suspend its flights between Helsinki and Chongqing from January 11, 2017 to May 2, 2017, as part of the airline's measures to create adequate room for pilot training for its A350 operations.
Finnair is preparing to grow its operations as the deliveries of Airbus A350 aircraft will continue in 2017, and this requires Airbus A350 training for Finnair's A330 pilots. During the trainings, the pilots are away from normal flight duties, and this puts a temporary strain on Finnair's pilot resources.
"We apologise for the disruption this is causing to our customers' travel plans, and will do our very best to find a suitable solution for each passenger, during this temporary period when we do not operate to Chongqing," says Jaakko Schildt, chief operating officer, Finnair.
Finnair will resume flights from Helsinki to Chongqing on May 3, 2017, returning to normal year-round operations. Other measures to adjust the traffic program to accommodate for the A350 trainings include a two month wet-lease of a HiFly Airbus A340 on Finnair's Helsinki - New York route and a cancellation of some of Finnair's flights to Nagoya in the spring of 2017.
The news from Finnair follows shortly after fellow oneworld alliance member British Airways announced the closure of its London Heathrow – Chengdu route after three years of operation. Although the airline has seen growing loads, it has said the route was not commercially viable and flights will end in January 2017.
John Grant, director, JG Aviation Consultants highlighted the issues relating to directional passenger flows between Europe and mainland China during a presentation at this year’s World Routes air service development forum in Chengdu noting how the strong China outbound market more favourably supports local airlines.
Speaking to Routesonline, he noted that no airline reaches a decision to withdraw from a long-haul market for a short period of time without extensive analysis. “Finnair will have studied the situation very carefully before reaching the conclusion that the short term loss of the service will provide a greater long-term resource benefit,” he said.
“This is the third winter season of operation for Finnair on the route and they have historically struggled with demand in the first few months of the year as that combination dark and damp European winters impacts the visiting outbound Chinese market,” he added.
Finnair’s decision will certainly help Chinese carrier Hainan Airlines and its sister venture Tianjin Airlines to strengthen their own positions in the Chongqing – Europe market through their Rome Fiumicino and London Gatwick operations. Hainan introduced flights on Chongqing – Rome in April 2015, while Tianjin Airlines inaugurated a Tianjin – Chongqing – London link from June 2016.
“With HNA Group’s local market presence, local connectivity and powerful local distribution channels they also have the benefit of extending the service reach to other secondary Chinese markets,” added Grant.