"Finnair flight attendants had a key role in building Finland's country image" says long-time employee Arja Torkkomäki
Arja Torkkomäki worked at Finnair as a flight attendant, instructor, and purser between 1973 and 2004, and feels that the years left only good memories. Some of the highlights for her include the opening of the world with new routes, state visits, and many heart-warming brief moments with passengers.
Arja Torkkomäki started at Finnair with the 1973 training course, as the company celebrated its 50th anniversary. In the following years Finnair grew, brought in new airplane types, and opened new routes rapidly.
- The first year we were flying with smaller planes, domestically and in Europe. When we got to New York in the 70's and then to Tokyo in the 80's it was all very exotic. I remember every single workday being different as our colleagues, planes and destinations changed constantly, she says.
The work was made even more interesting by Torkkomäki's role as an instructor, training supervisor, and in recruitment. When Torkkomäki started there was only one training course for flight attendants per year, on the busiest years up to eight courses.
Torkkomäki sees that in her first years at Finnair a major part of her work was to contribute to a positive country image for Finland. The First-Class flight attendants were called Finn Hostesses. Their long work uniform dresses were designed by top-tier Finnish designers, and they even wore brooches designed by the jewellery giant Björn Weckström.
- I remember having very interesting conversations with our customers about Finland. The work required good knowledge of politics and history. Also, a major part of the international breakthrough for Finnish design were Finnair flights to North America. We had Tapio Wirkkala's Ultima Thule glassware and Marjatta Metsovaara textiles onboard, she describes.
You can't forget the state visits of President Urho Kekkonen
Torkkomäki has worked onboard on many state visit flights and met notable people.
The legendary and controversial Finnish President Urho Kekkonen has a permanent place in Torkkomäki's memories, and she remembers him as always acting like a gentleman when he was onboard.
- On our flight to a state visit in Budapest we had the president’s chinaware with us, and his butler was extremely worried it might break. On our flight back we had rather different cargo as we had to store hunting bounty, birds, and other animals, from the state visit behind a curtain in the cabin kitchen. Kekkonen also received enormous flower arrangements on his visit and gifted them to us.
The head of states last visit onboard was a shock to Torkkomäki. Kekkonen was very sick and in poor shape, and this was not in common knowledge yet.
- This was something that could not be discussed at all, and we of course took professional confidentiality very seriously.
A visit from Dutch royalty was also very memorable for Torkkomäki
- Queen Juliana was very charismatic and approachable. She was also a passionate smoker and one of my duties was to bring her a smoking tray first thing. I didn't however get to her fast enough and she had already lit up. We also made the mistake of curtsying to her. Later, one of her ladies-in-waiting hissed at us that curtsying was in fact forbidden in the Dutch court, Torkkomäki laughs.
Suspense, duty, and chance meetings
One of Torkkomäki's most tense experiences include her first flight to Beijing, as the huge student protests were ongoing on the Tiananmen Square. The city quickly introduced curfews, military vehicles patrolled the streets, and telephone communications to Finland became unreliable. For cabin crew staying in a hotel the situation started to feel very uncertain.
- More and more foreigners left on evacuation flights, but the Finnish Foreign Minister wanted to sleep on it. We finally got the orders to come out on an evacuation flight one day before our scheduled flight. Even though Finnair's blue and white wings have always meant a lot to me, but that was by far the happiest I have ever been to see them.
One of the most touching moments for Torkkomäki was meeting an American couple and their two adopted Siberian children, both of whom had cleft lips and palates. The parents and children had just met each other, and the parents were overjoyed and happy to be able to offer the children better care and treatment.
- When you spend eight hours insulated in a metal tube, memorable meetings are bound to happen. I always think that every passenger is somehow special. You would also not be able to do this work for tens of years were you not interested in people.
These days Torkkomäki works as a travel entrepreneur, and she feels that her work at Finnair gave her the great resources to meet new people and tackle different situations. Leaving Finnair was the result of long consideration and felt quite wistful.
- On my last trip I even said goodbye to the beautiful curtains in my hotel room in Bangkok and thought to myself, I am never seeing you again. I really did have my dream job.