The World’s Happiest Country Brings Joy to the Skies
Do the Finns just know how to do everything right? Finnair, which is recognized as the world's most sustainable airline, even managed to make flying economy a nice experience. David Kondo, Finnair Head of Customer Experience & Design, tells us how they did it.
When I think about my happy place, an economy seat on a long-haul flight ranks close to last on the list. But leave it to the Finns, the people responsible for the happiest country in the world, to make air travel not only equitable but thoroughly enjoyable across every ticketing class.
Finnair may be a century old, but it’s one of today’s most design- and climate-forward airlines. With a brand-new business class cabin design and spiffy upgrades to premium economy and economy class, they have not compromised on a sleek Scandinavian design aesthetic in order to go green. Quite the opposite. They’re using innovation and style to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while increasing passengers’ comfort and in-flight happiness.
I recently flew from New York City to Stockholm in economy and an inbound return to New York in business. On my outbound flight, I settled into a clean and comfortable window seat, reclining on a Marimekko pillow of navy blue and cloudy grey. A brisk glass of blueberry juice arrived in a paper, not plastic, cup. Dinner was both healthy and culinarily confident; salt wasn’t even included with the dining packet of napkin, compostable cutlery, and hand wipe. The well-seasoned herb chicken with roasted red peppers, eggplant, and zucchini shared space with quinoa. A full-sized Kit Kat bar topped off the meal. (Full sized!)
Alas, there was no in-flight magazine (RIP, old pal), but a selection of world newspapers from The New York Times to the Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet were included as part of the digital seatback entertainment menu. Also gratis was a selection of audiobooks and feature films. On theme, I pawed my way down the screen to find “world cinema” and selected the Danish drama Persona Non Grata.
Returning to New York, the business class cabin was indeed better than economy, but the difference didn’t feel like a caste system in the skies, as is often the case on other carriers. The new business seat design is like a shell that you can hide inside, which felt playful and private. Once we were at 30,000 feet, a flight attendant handed a glass of Joseph Perrier Cuvée Royale Brut in a beautifully textured Iittala glass. Fun fact: The melting spring ice in northern Finland was the inspiration for the Iittala Ultima Thule line of textured glassware.
Economy dinner had been good, and this element was also amped up in business. A fresh Nordic meal of smoked rainbow trout with pea puree, summer vegetables, and creamy mussel sauce was excellent. No compostable forks up in row five: Dishes and flatware by Finnish designer Harri Koskinen and helped elevate the entire meal.
When it was time to sleep, my seat was at first confusing to figure out. There’s no button to push to make it recline flat. You do the reclining. You first unfurl a mattress pad, then cover it with a blanket to create your own bed. There is far more room by your feet than you first realize. It was different, but workable, and somehow roomy and compact once I was horizontal.
After I settled back home in New York, I had a Zoom call with David Kondo, Finnair’s Head of Customer Experience & Design. We chatted about the Nordic way of working, crafting blankets out of recycled plastic, and the trials and tribulations around his new “non-recline” design.
You oversee Finnair’s customer experience and design. How does someone get that job? Also: What is that job?
I have three passports: Japan, Canada, and Australia. I always joke that I grew up on a 747, so that’s where it started for me. I studied engineering in school and then focused on the airline industry. I’ve been in airline customer experience my whole career. I look after design across the full customer experience: airport and lounge, aircraft cabins, the soft products on board.
Finland was named the happiest country in the world for the fifth year in a row. Does this translate to your personal day-to-day work? To the design?
The opportunity to move for Finland and work for Finnair was one I couldn’t pass up. Lifestyle-wise, it is a good place to live. It’s functional. It works. And it is a pretty happy place. That [happiest country] statement is a bit skewed sometimes, but overall it’s true.
The Nordic mentality is group and group consensus. Everyone works together quite naturally. We’re an airline that punches above our weight. We can take bold moves like we’ve made with the new [business] cabin.
What were those bold moves?
Not having the recline. People are so used to having a button and the seat moving like a hospital bed. I knew that with this kind of seat, it would always be quite polarizing. What’s been pleasantly surprising is that the cabin-haters seem to be minimal. There’s a disproportionate amount of love versus hate.
The new business class seat has been likened to a 3D shell or a nest, and the cabin’s entire look and feel is meant to be distinctly Finnish. What does that mean?
One thing that struck me when I came to Finland is that — unlike in the West — the home is kind of a guarded place. There’s an almost kind of hurdle or barrier, but once you’re in, you’re in. This ties into our service. It can feel cold, but it’s not. It’s not a Disney, smiley kind of hospitality.
[Finnish design house] Marimekko has been as a partner of Finnair for quite a long time with a lot of fantastic textiles and archives we can draw on. The previous design [for the blankets and pillows] was quite loud. It’s been toned down a bit — subtler and more sophisticated. The Iittala glassware partnership started in 1969 for New York services. They have been supplying glass to us ever since.
Finnair has been praised as the world’s most sustainable airline. How does that factor into design?
Sustainability has always been at the core of everything we do. The A350, the backbone of our long-haul fleet, is a very efficient aircraft. In the cabin, we really closely scrutinize every feature, benefit, and weight.
For the business class seat, we saved weight by removing the motion and the motors. This is also reflected in the soft products. The Iittala glassware is 20 percent lighter than the stuff it replaced. The blanket is made of recycled PET bottles. In premium economy, the carpets are made from recycled plastics.
I’ve traveled on Finnair, but I’ve never been to Finland. Where should I go once I finally visit?
Helsinki is a fun little city. From the outside, it may seem like a sleepy little town, but it’s really a vibrant city. Sauvo: I go all the time. Highly encourage that. There are a gajillion spots to go for sauna.
Finnair flies from Stockholm and Helsinki to New York, Los Angeles, Miami, and Dallas Fort Worth. The new premium economy travel class and renewed long-haul cabins are available on all departures to and from New York.
This interview has been edited for clarity.