With the Qantas-Emirates tie-up due in April, Australians who don't want to fly to Europe via Dubai, or who will be left with Emirates' uncompetitive angled lie-flat seats on the 14+ hour flight to the Gulf, are hunting for other options.
The only remaining Europe-bound non-Emirates arrangement Qantas is keeping (having dumped Cathay and Air France) is Finnair to Helsinki -- as a codeshare with QF flight numbers for your extra bonus points -- and then on to Europe.
Don't worry, the geography works, as we explain in our guide to Finnair's Reindeer Route!
With budget-pleasing combination fares including economy/premium economy to Asia and business on the longer leg to Helsinki, is the Reindeer Route worth it for Australians?
I harnessed up Rudolph and tested it out between Paris, one of the codeshare destinations cut by Qantas, and Singapore (where you'd transfer to a Qantas plane on the Reindeer Route).
Paris Charles de Gaulle Airport
I arrived at Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport three hours before my flight. That was my first mistake: since I was taking two connecting trains to the airport, I'd left myself some time for the timetable to go wrong. Unfortunately, Finnair's outsourced desks at CDG don't open until two hours before check-in, so I had to cool my heels in the miserable concrete jungle that is de Gaulle.
Check-in was about as expected from contract staffers in Paris: neither charm nor efficiency. I had to ask for a business class priority tag to be put on my bag, and the staffer didn't stick the peel-off mini-labels to my bag until I suggested it -- those are the labels that identify your bag if the tag gets ripped off by baggage machinery.
The Finnair lounge in Paris is the lackluster Salon Air France, which is before security. (Since I flew, Finnair has shifted its passengers to the Sheltair lounge, so I won't spend too much time telling you how unimpressed I was by the AF lounge.)
Salon Air France is an open-plan lounge that's also open to the wider terminal -- no quiet haven here -- with low, exposed concrete ceilings and adverts plastered across the place.
Departures are displayed on a TV which I'd swear has been there since the 1980s:
It's also not a oneworld lounge, which means you can't use your Qantas or other oneworld frequent flyer card to get in when flying in economy.
And since it's before security, you end up having to queue for ages for passport control security -- again, I was expecting an inefficient scrum in Paris and that's what I got, despite the priority lane.
Rating: two unimpressed stars out of five for the Paris experience.
Paris to Helsinki
Onboard the Finnair A321 I encountered my first smile of the day, from the very efficient cabin manager in her chic black-and-white Finnair uniform.
I was a few rows back in seat 5A, and with the middle seat unoccupied in the usual "Eurobusiness" layout and no seatmate in 5C, I stowed my small carry-on bag underneath the middle seat.
The seats are the new thinner style that you'll find in a lot of economy classes -- comfortable for economy, but disappointing in business. Finnair's (and Qantas') oneworld partner British Airways uses a convertible seat for its European business cabins that at least gives you a bit of extra seat width, and it's set further apart in legroom.
The food on board was okay for European business or international economy: a bread roll, a single lonely piece of vegetable sushi on its own rather large tray, and a Korean beef bulgogi with white rice.
Finnair's business class champagne is the same you'll find in Qantas' temporary first lounge in Singapore: Joseph Perrier. It's drinkable but nothing to write home about -- certainly not up to the Laurent-Perrier on board Qantas, or even the Taittinger that's a step below the L-P.
I absolutely adored Finnair's chic, 20s-style champagne glasses (and there are similar, shorter versions for wine) -- they're whimsical, retro and stylish. A+.
The three-hour flight was otherwise uneventful: with no entertainment (a minus) I ended up listening to some appropriately Finnish Sibelius on my iPod and enjoying the view of the Swedish islands and the Baltic Sea once I'd finished lunch.
On arrival in Helsinki, we disappointingly ended up at a remote stand and had to walk down the stairs to a bus. One of the very few reasons to fly business class within Europe is to be first off the plane, so the bus trundle around to the back of the airport (about as far as you can get from the long-haul gates used for my Singapore flight) was a pain despite a few seconds of Helsinki sunshine.
Rating: three average Eurobusiness stars out of five for the Paris-Helsinki leg
Helsinki is one of Europe's best airports for transiting. A stylish modern building, super-fast and super-simple free wifi, recharging points (and wireless charging units available), heaps of seating and friendly, English-speaking staff make it my pick for connections.
Pick up some unusual gifts too: Moomin merchandise for a small person in your life, unusual Finnish cordials, quirky cult Marimekko design house pressies and the usual range of high-tech gizmos -- with a focus on kit from local heroes Nokia.
Domestic and Schengen Zone flights are intermingled near security, while it's a couple of minutes' walk further through the terminal and through the queueless passport control to get to the Non-Schengen area, which is for flights further afield and to European countries that aren't in the Schengen Zone (like the UK or Russia).
Rating: five connected and efficient stars out of five for Helsinki Airport
Finnair Non-Schengen Lounge
If you're heading to Asia, the UK or anywhere else long-distance from Helsinki, you'll be using the Non-Schengen lounge after passport control. (The rest of Europe is treated as a domestic flight thanks to the Schengen agreement.)
Finnair business class passengers, oneworld Emerald and Sapphire frequent flyers and their Qantas Gold and Platinum cardholder equivalents are allowed in. It's also a Priority Pass lounge -- voted the Priority Pass lounge of the year 2011 -- so if you have one of those black cards then you're welcome inside.
Since the lounge has won numerous plaudits and awards, I was keen to see how it matched up to other international options you'd find on your journey, especially after the quirky Finnish spa and sauna were removed recently.
The lounge's layout is essentially one large room, with modern Nordic design influences accented with Finnair blue.
To the left as you walk in is the buffet zone, with a dining area in the centre and business desks hard to the right.
Upstairs on the far side of the lounge is the relaxed seating, with reclining chairs and a view over the tarmac, and a spillover dining area.
I was disappointed with the food and drink in the lounge, which was sparse and unimaginative compared with other oneworld airline business class lounges.
On the food side, it was salad, plus a bowl of warm chicken satays, soup and, later, a chafing dish of overcooked meat.
Drinks, too, were on the stingy side: there's no sparkling wine or champagne unless you pay through the nose for some mediocre Mumm Cordon Rouge. Given that you get a reasonable Joseph Perrier on board, it's a bizarre policy that comes across as cheap.
It's no Qantas International Business lounge in Sydney, that's for sure.
Rating: three disappointed stars out of five for the lounge
Helsinki to Singapore
I boarded relatively early to get myself settled in, and was welcomed cheerfully on board and shown to my seat, 5L in the last row on the right hand side. (Yes, L. Finnair's business class goes AC, DH, JL.)
The seats are angled lie-flat sleepers, in a deep blue surrounded by grey and white. It's a little sterile, but clean and efficient in presentation.
Legroom is fine in seat mode, and it's plenty wide enough (especially if you drop the armrest).
But when reclined the angle is pretty steep and the foot end of the slope droops slightly, which makes it a real pain in the knees if you sleep in any other position but on your back.
It's not a particularly comfortable way to sleep for eight or ten hours, but compared with Emirates' narrower Boeing 777 angled lie-flat seat Finnair wins slightly.
The entertainment screen feels no bigger than other airlines' economy offerings, which is a drawback on 12-hour flights like this one. There's a decent range of international films, but I was disappointed in the lack of decent documentaries or anything interesting about Finland. Headphones are a standard set of noise-cancellers.
Amenity kits, too, are greenwashing gone mad, with socks and an eyemask in a paper bag, with everything extra handed out by the crew or left for you in the lavatories.
Dinner was fresh, tasty and well-prepared, with a delicious sweet potato soup that came with a healthy handful of fresh herbs, mediterranean tortellini in pesto cream sauce, a light salad and a cheese plate. A small cake followed. Nothing was worldshatteringly gourmet, but it really hit the spot and was remarkably well presented and carefully reheated.
The wine, too, was solid if not special. Italian Chardonnay and German Riesling, French Médoc and Italian Valpolicella, an interesting Austrian Beerenauslese dessert wine, plus a Niepoort Colheita tawny. Try the Finnish Cloudberry liqueur if you like a nightcap — it's an unusual treat.
I was thrilled to see Finnair's fabulous glassware again, and it proved to be remarkably stable even through some turbulence.
I dozed uncomfortably throughout the night, waking up frequently to try to shift position to something better on the angled slope. Fortunately, I'd packed a pair of cotton PJs in my hand-luggage, since I knew the seats were on an angle, so I didn't slide perpetually downwards in smoother suit trousers.
Breakfast ten hours later was surprisingly good: vegetable crepes with bratwursts, fava beans in tomato sauce, fruit, muesli and yoghurt. A surprise slice of cheese and a perfectly flaky croissant (amazingly so — I've never had such a good one in the air) rounded out the meal.
On arrival in Singapore, it was a long humid hike through the old T1 (also used by Qantas and British Airways) to the baggage claim, and a frustrating wait for my priority-tagged luggage.
Rating: two tired stars out of five for the Helsinki to Singapore leg
Finnair's concept is great, but the execution isn't yet there.
It's a big plus if you prefer connecting through Asia than Dubai, you don't like Emirates' 777 beds, you fancy a split-fare ticket and you want to still earn your Qantas points.
But the angled lie-flat seats from Singapore, the Eurobusiness seating, and the nickel-and-diming at the Helsinki long-haul lounge are all fairly significant minuses.
The Hong Kong and Bangkok to Helsinki legs use significantly better seats in Finnair's Airbus A330, though — and flying via HKG also means you get to lay over in Cathay's fantastic lounges.
I'd consider the Reindeer Route again via Hong Kong or Bangkok, but you can do better than the Singapore leg.
Rating: three must-try-harder stars out of five.
John Walton was a guest of Finnair.