The airline has made great strides in the Japanese market in recent years, utilizing a very successful marketing campaign featuring Japanese actor Koji Yakusho.
The campaign was the brainchild of Sakari Romu, the sales director (and general manager) of Finnair in Japan. Romu, who grew up in the Kansai area, has been with Finnair for 30 years. He has been in his current position since June 2009.
Japan Today editor Chris Betros visits Romu to hear more.
What made you join Finnair?
I wasn’t interested in the airline business. Actually, I wanted to be an architect. But I traveled for a year and got interested in the travel trade and gave up on my architect studies. I wrote to Finnair because they were planning to start a service to Tokyo in 1981. I told them about my background in Japan – I’d spent 10 years here as a boy — and I thought I could be a help. I got the job and was heavily involved in building up the Tokyo route.
How many flights a week to and from Japan does Finnair operate?
Currently, we operate 21 flights a week – one each from Narita, Osaka and Nagoya.
How did the March 11 disaster affect business?
We only had to cancel one flight after March 11 and that was March 12, from Narita. The originating flight from Helsinki couldn’t leave because Narita’s status was uncertain. We were the only carrier not to make any changes to our schedules.
In the weeks that followed, we did see a big rush of Europeans leaving Japan and not many coming to Japan. However, outbound Japanese traffic continued. About 75% of our passengers are Japanese and there were not many cancellations from them. I think Japanese just wanted to get out of the country for a little while.
Our load factor now is about 90%. On the Japan routes, we use the Airbus 330 with 274 seats in business and economy class.
Is Finnair interested in Haneda airport?
Under the current slots available to long-haul European carriers, flying from Haneda is not possible because it would not be convenient for making connections from Helsinki and our business is based on our network to other European destinations. If they open the slots up and permit day flights, then we would be interested. But maintaining operations at two airports requires a major investment.
What is Finnair’s image in Japan?
One of our major challenges is that for a long time, we were relatively unknown as a carrier to Europe. One thing in our favor is that we are selling a destination – Finland offers the aurora borealis, the midnight sun, Santa Claus’ home and so on. It’s a big advantage for us that kind of phenomenon.
Tell us about the marketing campaign featuring Koji Yakusho.
We started that campaign two years ago to raise awareness of our network throughout Europe. It has been very successful. However, if we had only been trying to fill seats by taking passengers to Finland or Scandinavia, it would not have worked because we didn’t have a daily flight at that time. We were flying to and from Narita only four times a week. Then we got the OK for a daily flight. If we had not, I would have never launched this campaign because we were moving our focus on the business sector and without a daily product, it would be nonsense to have this kind of campaign and marketing budget.
What are Finnair’s strong points?
We offer the fastest flights to Europe — only 9 1/2 hours to Helsinki. Our European network is another advantage. We are concentrating on secondary cities. Take Germany, for example. If your final destination is a German city other than Frankfurt from Narita, then it is better to take Finnair because it is faster via Helsinki.
What are some unique characteristics of the Japanese market?
Travel agencies are still important in Japan, while the role of online travel agencies is extremely low. Online bookings are increasing but the difference is that in Europe, online bookings are made mainly by online travel agencies, not directly from the airlines. For customers, it is easier to get a good picture on airfares. If you use only the Finnair site, you see only our prices. But if you use online travel agencies, you see the fares from 10 carriers, departure times, etc. In Japan, that kind of online travel agency is almost non-existent.
Are there any plans to include the fuel surcharge in the advertised fare?
I think Japan is one of the few markets where the fuel surcharge is not included in the advertised fare. Maybe Hong Kong and South Korea are the same. In other markets, we do advertise the final fare.
Do you see more low-cost carriers changing the industry?
I’m amazed that in a country like Japan, the role of low-cost carriers is so small. When it comes to short-haul domestic traffic and nearby destinations, I’m sure we will see low-cost carriers growing fast. But with long-haul business, that’s different. You need a European network to fill up your long-haul planes. That’s difficult for low-cost carriers to do.
How many Japanese flight attendants do you have on each flight?
There are usually two or three on each flight. We get hundreds of applications and hire about 10-12 each year. I am amazed at high the quality is.
When you travel, what class do you travel in?
I travel in both business and economy classes. It’s important to do that because you should know your product.
When you are not working, how do you like to relax?
I play golf and ride motorbikes.