Photo Credit: Port Authority of New York and New Jersey

JFK Takes Off, Helsinki Flies Low

The recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic differs drastically at two different airports serving as major international gateways in their respective home countries.

The constant drone of airliners’ jet engines above world’s major cities subsided suddenly in the spring 2020 when travel restrictions owing to the Covid-19 pandemic reduced air travel precipitously.

Now almost three years later the steady drone has returned to skies of New York City as traffic has recovered at its airports including its main international gateway, John F. Kennedy International Airport. In November last year the airport, colloquially known as JFK, recorded a higher total monthly passenger figure in a comparison to a corresponding monthly passenger figure in 2019 for the first time since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020.

The story is different 4,100 miles away from JFK at Helsinki airport, which is Finland’s main airport and gateway to abroad. A sustained recovery in traffic has eluded the airport.

I experienced this with all my senses when I travelled to Helsinki for a winter break from my studies in the New York City. The soundscape in Helsinki was much more quiet than in New York City since there were fewer airliners in the skies. Furthermore, I saw in the Helsinki airport’s departure halls and concourses far fewer passengers than they can comfortably accommodate.

Traffic statistics confirm how differently traffic has recovered from the Covid-19 nadir at Helsinki and JFK. Helsinki's total annual passenger figure for 2022 was 58.9 percent of the corresponding figure for 2019, the last normal year prior to Covid-19 pandemic. In comparison, the same figure for JFK was 88.2 percent.

The sluggishness of Helsinki airport's recovery is explained by Russia’s invasion to Ukraine. Shortly after the invasion in response to Western sanctions Russia closed its airspace to European carriers including Finland’s flag carrier Finnair, the main user of Helsinki airport.

Helsinki airport’s growth during past decades had been largely driven by Finnair’s expansion of its route network linking Helsinki and East Asian cities. As long as the air routes across Russia were open, Helsinki was in optimal geographic location to serve as a gateway between Northwest Europe and East Asia. This enabled Finnair to offer short travel times, and its routes proved popular among travelers.

After Russia closed its airspace, this operating model collapsed. For example, prior to the closure of the Russian airspace, the flight time between Helsinki and Tokio was ten hours. Now it takes thirteen hours as Finnair’s aircraft must take a more circuitous route.

Fewer flights to East Asia will reduce the passenger flows at Helsinki airport. The airport’s operator, Finavia, has invested roughly one billion dollars in upgrades and expansion at the airport. Now it is uncertain when if ever those investments will pay off, as described in this recent in-depth article by The New York Times.

This webpage was created by Juhana Rossi. More info about me can be found behind this link. Data and notebooks used to gather it can be found in this repository on Github.