An interview with Ulla Lettijeff, Director, Helsinki Airport, SVP of Finavia Corporation. By Ross Falconer
Finland is an intriguing mix of urban and rural – from the Northern Lights, to beautiful national parks and lakes, and the vibrant seaside city of Helsinki.
Robust air transport infrastructure is vital to the country’s economic prosperity. Its relative remoteness means international connectivity is a key factor, not only in tourism, but also in the growth of the electronics, engineering, manufacturing and biotechnology industries on which Finland’s economy thrives, as well as enabling these businesses to sustain their competitiveness in the global marketplace.
Finavia’s network of 21 airports experienced 4.2% growth in 2019, handling 26 million passengers, with its major, Helsinki Airport, serving 21.9 million (+4.9%).
This year, like all airports, Helsinki has been significantly impacted by the global COVID-19 pandemic. The latest available figures show that between January and May 2020, passenger traffic fell by -54.4% year-on-year to 3.9 million. Traffic was at an almost complete standstill in April and May – down by -98% in both months. Finavia is, nevertheless, planning for the future and recently made the decision to continue with the €1 billion Helsinki Airport Development Programme, including a new Terminal 2, which is scheduled for completion in 2023.
Leading the airport’s recovery and continued development is Ulla Lettijeff, who took the helm as Helsinki Airport Director in February 2020, while also becoming a member of Finavia’s Executive Group. She previously had a long career at Fiskars Group, a leading consumer goods company with globally recognised brands including Fiskars, Iittala, Gerber, Royal Copenhagen, Wedgwood and Waterford, most recently leading the ‘Living’ business unit. Before Fiskars Group, Lettijeff worked in several positions at Nokia, including as Director of Nokia Networks’ Espoo plant.
“The airport industry is very appealing as it is a mixture of different elements like technology, commercial aspects, safety and security, customer experience, processes, and so on,” Lettijeff begins. “It sounded like a nice combination that would inspire me professionally.”
It was certainly a challenging time to enter the industry, just as COVID-19 was starting to spread in Europe. “My initial priorities were getting familiar with the airport community and its culture. I wanted to meet and work with as many people as I can,” says Lettijeff. “To manage the crisis and survive its dramatic effects has been my first job this spring. I’m overwhelmingly proud of the whole Helsinki Airport community and how it has shown its dedication, support and flexibility to take care of the health and safety of staff and passengers, and together cope with the crisis.”
Naturally, Lettijeff’s previous experiences are informing her current approach, and she articulates that a big part of leadership is managing people through different situations. “I feel that during my career, I have gained experience about how people act in unusual situations and how good leadership can support employees. Before starting at Finavia, I found myself enjoying things like improving customer experience and operative processes, as well as working in a constantly-changing environment. An airport, which is a multi-dimensional ecosystem, is a great collection of these things.”
Ulla Lettijeff curriculum vitae
Ulla Lettijeff (53) became the new Director of Helsinki Airport and a member of Finavia’s Executive Group in February 2020, following a long career at Fiskars Group, a leading consumer goods company with globally recognised brands including Fiskars, Iittala, Gerber, Royal Copenhagen, Wedgwood and Waterford. Before Fiskars Group, Lettijeff worked in several positions at Nokia, including as Director of Nokia Networks’ Espoo plant.
COVID-19 safety: ensuring travellers have all necessary information
Restrictions on travel within the Schengen area were eased on 14 May, while since 15 June travel to Baltic and Nordic countries has been free. Remaining travel restrictions are valid until 14 July.
Finavia has worked extensively to secure the safety of passengers and staff at Helsinki Airport. “In addition to the things we do at the airport – cleaning, reorganising passenger paths, and offering ways to secure good hand hygiene – one of the most important things is to make sure that people have all the necessary information they need,” Lettijeff explains. “We have a large variety of guidance concerning good hand hygiene, how to keep a safe distance, and the latest government instructions concerning quarantine. We also advise passengers to check-in at home, use face masks at the airport, and travel with as little baggage as possible. All the instructions are collected on a passenger checklist, which is available on our website.”
Despite the current situation, a decision was made to continue the Helsinki Airport Development Programme. It is a long-term investment for the future and Finavia believes that travel will recover. “It is important to be ready when it does, as smooth traffic flow, attractive services and short transfer times are significant then,” says Lettijeff. “The work has progressed as planned on schedule and on budget. Now, about 70% of the entire development programme is completed.”
In 2020, a new parking garage will be opened with space for 1,800 vehicles and a whole floor dedicated to electric cars. The walls of the parking garage are covered with solar panels. “These sustainable achievements are important as Helsinki Airport is carbon neutral since 2017 and we want to reduce the emissions even more,” says Lettijeff.
Constantly evaluating and refining procedures
Naturally, Finavia’s biggest and most important goal this year is to ensure that passengers continue to be safe at all of its airports. “This spring the restrictions made by the government, and the procedures we decided to take, forced us to change many processes and details inside the terminals,” says Lettijeff. “If you change one piece of the puzzle, it can have a major impact on the whole passenger process. These changes have required a lot from the staff, because new processes have sometimes been introduced overnight.”
Indeed, she adds that the current situation means constantly evaluating and refining procedures at Helsinki Airport. “A large part of this work is done to support air carriers and our commercial partners, so that they have the security to ramp-up operations which ultimately leads to a good customer experience for our passengers.”
Helsinki Airport factbox
2019: 21.9 million passengers
2019 passenger traffic growth: 4.9%
Jan-May 2020 passenger traffic: -54.4%
Key airline customers: Finnair, Norwegian, SAS, Lufthansa, KLM
Number of routes: 160+
Top 5 destinations: Stockholm, Oulu, London, Copenhagen, Amsterdam