(Adds CEO comments, details)
By Anne Kauranen and Laurence Frost
HELSINKI/PARIS, May 18 (Reuters) - Finnair is keeping its Asia focus and sees the “green shoots” of a coronavirus recovery from which it can emerge stronger, Chief Executive Topi Manner said on Monday, as the airline prepared to re-instate more flights for July.
Finnair, which has built its business on competitive Europe-Asia services via its Helsinki transit hub, aims to restore about 30% of capacity in July with flights to China, Japan, Singapore and later Bangkok, the airline said.
“There are signs that customers’ willingness to travel is gradually increasing,” Manner said in an interview, citing company survey findings that more than half of its customers were planning to travel again soon.
“There are early green shoots that make us confident that travel will restart in a more meaningful way from the beginning of July onwards,” he said. He added that Finnair was, however, seeking to defer delivery of four Airbus A350 jets.
Reliance on Asia meant Finnair was severely impacted by the initial outbreak of the novel coronavirus, before European rivals. Analysts and economists also broadly agree that long-haul intercontinental traffic will recover last.
But Asia will remain a growth market, Manner said, and Helsinki’s geographical position remains a competitive advantage, offering some of the shortest transit routes.
“There will be a lot of natural demand for traffic between Europe and Asia,” he said. “We’re fully committed to our strategy.”
Manner said the Finnish carrier should “come out strong” from a crisis that has seen nearby rival Norwegian Air shrink dramatically after a brush with bankruptcy.
“We see the competitive dynamics changing,” Manner said. “Part of our plan is to capitalise on that opportunity.”
Finnair is operating cargo-only services with passenger jets - flying Norwegian salmon to Japan and South Korea, for example, and medical equipment back again - that will help to prepare for a full resumption of commercial flights, Manner said.
Starting with domestic and short-haul routes, airlines are tentatively rebuilding schedules to test the market as some lockdown restrictions are eased, but demand for flights is uncertain. Global capacity has increased about 6% this week, aviation data specialist OAG said on Monday.
Some early movers, such as Wizz Air, which added services from London-Luton this month, have cancelled most of the restored flights because of weak demand and ongoing restrictions, OAG said. Wizz Air did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Finnair is monitoring the travel restrictions still in place in Asia and elsewhere, CEO Manner said. “We anticipate them to be lifted during the course of next six weeks.”
In talks with Airbus, Manner said Finnair was seeking to push back delivery of the four A350s it has yet to receive from a 19-plane order, declining to elaborate on the delay it was seeking. Airbus also declined to comment. (Reporting by Anne Kauranen, Laurence Frost and Tim Hepher; editing by Jason Neely, Keith Weir and Barbara Lewis)