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How Finnair is keeping cargo moving with passenger planes

On a regular day, Finnair’s Airbus A350 aircraft are full of customers making the journey from Helsinki to major cities across Asia. While they read, sleep or watch a movie, their bags are stashed away beneath them in the hold.

Airbus A350 loaded with cargo

A Finnair A350 is loaded with cargo to take to Incheon from Helsinki

Joe Minihane

However, with hundreds of planes now grounded due to the coronavirus pandemic, Finnair Cargo has found a new way to keep these cutting-edge passenger aircraft in the sky. The cabins are empty, but the plane’s belly is full of cargo.
On Saturday March 28th, an Airbus A350 loaded with close to 40 tons of seafood and perishables took off from Helsinki for Incheon Airport, South Korea’s main hub, serving the country’s capital, Seoul.

No luggage, more space for cargo

For Fredrik Wildtgrube, Finnair Cargo’s Head of Sales, it was an emotional moment.
“It was wonderful when I went to watch the plane take off on its way to Incheon,” he says. “We have been shrinking our capacity, because we are a passenger driven airline. But at the same time, as cargo people we’ve been acting as salmon and swimming upstream against the current. We’re really proud that we could do this.”
Wildtgrube explains that using the A350 to carry cargo was a no brainer. While the cabin remained empty, the lack of luggage in the hold meant the aircraft had excellent uplift capacity, allowing staff at Helsinki’s cutting-edge COOL cargo terminal to maximize the amount the plane could carry.
What’s more, the A350’s impressive sustainability, using on average 25 per cent less emissions than previous generation aircraft, meant that getting goods to South Korea and back was as fuel efficient as possible.

Continuing demand for cargo in Asia and Europe

A350 loaded with cargo at Helsinki

Finnair A350 is loaded with cargo before heading to South Korea

Customers in South Korea, especially, are looking to access food products, especially seafood. Those in Europe are in need of medical supplies related to coronavirus, as well as general cargo and electronics made across Asia.
“South Korea has always been a strong location for us, especially given the frequency we have provided in the past and our geographical position,” explains Wildtgrube. That meant heading to Seoul for this first cargo flight using passenger aircraft was an easy decision to make. “We followed the demand, we followed the market and we followed our customers,” he adds.
This is echoed by Pasi Nopanen, Finnair Cargo’s Sales Director, Asia. “During this extremely exceptional time we have been busier than ever in cargo sales,” he says.
“We are working relentlessly on these cargo-only flights and we are expecting to see more of them in the coming weeks,” adds Nopanen. “Japan and South Korea seem to be interesting destinations due to high demand in both directions. China is also an important destination due to a lot of medical equipment manufacturing that is in extremely high demand in Europe at the moment.”
That all means more passenger aircraft being used to transport cargo. There are already plans for two flights to Narita airport in Tokyo, with more in the pipeline.
“We hope to find some sort of continuous pattern, but since the market is changing so rapidly, we need to monitor our performance. At the end of the day, we’re in the reliability business, which means we need to keep our promises,” explains Wildtgrube.
“But we definitely want to work on something long term, rather than just doing it on an ad hoc basis.”

Joining the coronavirus fight in Finland

Finnair cargo staff get ready for take off

Finnair cargo staff prepare for the departure of the A350 to South Korea

These flights also have a key role to play in the wider fight against coronavirus. With South Korea heralded for its rate of testing, Finnair has teamed up with healthcare company Mehiläinen and ten major Finnish companies to send Covid–19 samples from Helsinki to Incheon for testing.
The aim is to double the number of tests done in Finland, analyzing 18,000 samples over the next two weeks. The first flight left Helsinki on April 1. Finnair has also been carrying supplies for the National Emergency Supply Agencies in Finland and Estonia.
“We’re really happy to be able to carry on this path and do some work for humanitarian purposes,” says Wildtgrube. “It’s not only work on the commercial side. When I talk to my family at home, I can say I’ve done something for the humanitarian purpose. That feels pretty good.”
There are, of course, aircraft available if needed, whether for general cargo, medical supplies or in sending coronavirus samples for testing in South Korea.
But with cargo customers keen to try and keep goods flowing in these straitened times, that availability is going to come in useful in the coming weeks. Finnair Cargo is ready and waiting.

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