I’ll be the first to admit that when it comes to the glamorous world of airline premium cabins, AirBerlin (AB) isn’t exactly the carrier that aviation geeks are smacking their lips over flying. Considered by many to be a glorified low cost carrier and toward the bottom of the quality barrel among its oneworld brethren, there are likely much better uses for my award miles than redeeming on this airline.
Yet I’m a bit of a strange bird. As a oneworld loyalist I’ve set some goals for myself, one of which is to fly in the premium cabins of each alliance member. When I booked my most recent oneworld explorer award I aimed not only to experience some fun destinations but also to add a few new premium cabins to my list. AirBerlin’s recent addition to the alliance made it an ideal fit for getting back to the US from Europe without incurring the dreaded British Airways (BA) fuel surcharges.
With this in mind, I added a flight with AirBerlin from Berlin Tegel (TXL) to New York’s John F. Kennedy (JFK) in business class to my itinerary. I was originally booked to depart from Berlin’s new Brandenburg facility, but as many folks now know, that airport has turned into quite a hot mess for all parties. With Brandenburg out of the picture for years to come, my flight was shift back to TXL and this is where our story begins…..
Stuck with the antiquated TXL, AB’s check-in service is a mix of a few nice features as well as a handful of glaring negatives.
My flight today was departing from Terminal A. The terminal itself is in the shape of a hexagon and features a long, winding hallway where all shops, lounges, airport facilities, and check-in desks are located. While many airports centralize their check-in desks in a single location, the shape of this facility at TXL means that airlines conducted check-in for each flight in front of the departure gate. So you enter the terminal, use the monitors to locate your departure gate, and walk down the lengthy, neverending hallway to your gate to find the desks where you will be allowed to check-in. The limited space means there is essentially no “airside” at TXL. Security is conducted at each boarding gate (similar to Singapore or India), as is immigration, and passengers are held in a small room until boarding commences.
For this flight I was able to locate the departure gate for my flight with little issue, and despite the crowds attempting to check-in for the flight in the narrow hallway, I was able to locate the premium cabin check-in lane and found it completely empty. The agent (who exhibited what I would consider a typical efficient yet mildly unfriendly demeanor common among service staff in Germany based on my time there) processed my check-in quickly. I offered up my suitcase to be checked, and inquired about the possiblity of putting one of my carry-on bags in some plastic for protection and checking it as well. The agent reached into her desk and came out with a very large, clear plastic bag which I placed my carry-on into. It was secured with baggage tags and sent on its way, while I was handed my boarding pass and directed to the BA Terraces Lounge to relax before my flight departed.
Unfortunately the BA lounge was quite a hike away from my departure gate.
The design of the airport means that you’ll be doing quite a bit of criss-crossing and backtracking while checking in, looking for the lounge, duty free shopping, or even looking for a restroom. A decidedly annoying experience.
The one benefit to this lay out would for those passengers are not interested in experiencing the airport or lounge and simply want to enter the airport and board their flights. The design of the airport in this regards is excellent. Realistically I could have arrived at the airport, checked in to my flight, and gone through immigration and security in approximately 10 minutes. From curb to a seat in the waiting area in no time. For the business traveler on the go, or for folks without lounge access or shopping to do, this airport is probably the best laid out offering I’ve seen in a major urban center.
My researching into AB’s lounge offerings at TXL indicated that they had a use agreement with Air France’s lounge for premium cabin customers. As I hinted at above, that seems to have changed recently as the check-in agent specifically invited me to use the BA lounge and made no mention of any option to use the AF offerings.
The BA lounge is located on the 2nd floor of the terminal across a walkway from the Starbucks. When I entered the lounge I was a little surprised to see that there was no one manning the desk to check my credentials. I waited for a few moments before stepping a little further into the lounge to see if I could flag down any staff. I was quickly noticed by a gentleman in a nice suit who rushed up to take my ticket and welcomed me into the lounge.
My first impressions of the space were very positive. It’s certainly not as spacious or luxurious as the BA offerings in London, but it seemed to fit the bill for the traffic and clientele in TXL. The lounge is located in one of the corner points of the Terminal A hexagon and is shaped a bit like a check mark, with a fairly short section along one side of the hexagon, and a slightly longer leg heading along the other wall of the terminal. Furnishings and fixtures were typical of many BA European lounges – blond-ish wood with various shades of blue and beige upholstery. There’s an oddly placed fountain in the short leg of the lounge, which was nice to look at but still seemed a bit out of place on the 2nd floor in an airport lounge.
I was entering the lounge at the very tail end of breakfast, so I quickly dropped off my coat and bag and perused the food offerings. The spread was what you’d expect – a few pastries, various fruit juices, a few types of cereal/muesli, yogurt, and a giant bowl of hard boiled eggs. I grabbed a glass of grapefruit juice, a yogurt, and a big bowl of muesli.
About 40 minutes after sitting down, the lunch time selection was brought out. It was at this point that I noticed that the same gentleman who had checked me into the lounge was also making the catering changes. It seems that BA’s TXL lounge only has one person on staff who is responsible for taking care of everything. No wonder I had to go track him down to confirm my entrance into the lounge – he’s busy bussing tables, refilling the fridge, and making sandwiches!
The lunch offerings were, again, nothing special and pretty standard for BA’s lounge offerings within Europe.
Wifi was provided for free but did require a password which was not posted anywhere in the lounge. You needed to track down the single member of staff and get them to provide it to you. Once you log on to the network, the speed was pretty fast.
Overall, a decent lounge offering, but fairly underwhelming for an airline at one of their hub airports. I understand that AirBerlin will be opening their own lounge when the much maligned Brandenburg facility opens in the future. Hopefully that lounge offers passengers a nicer facility. In terms of “getting the job done”, BA’s lounge does nicely.
I don’t normally include a section on the boarding procedure, but the experience with AirBerlin at TXL was so awkward I wanted to include a little tidbit about it.
I left the lounge at the designated time on my ticket for boarding. I never heard anyone make any announcements regarding the AirBerlin flight to JFK, though announcements were made for a BA flight as well as a Finnair flight to Helsinki. I arrive at the gate to see absolutely no one in line for immigration and security. The holding room for the gate looked packed to the gills, but boarding hadn’t commenced yet. I tried to walk up to an immigration booth but was quickly stopped by an AirBerlin staffer who asked to see my passport and boarding pass. After confirming I was at the correct gate, she gave my hand luggage a once over and told me I needed to go back to the check-in agents to get a sticker noting it was approved to be in the cabin. I walked back to the empty check-in desks and asked an agent for a sticker. I asked why it hadn’t been giving to me when I checked in, but only received a smirk and a shrug.
Walking back to the immigration desk, I was allowed passed this time once I showed that my hand baggage had been blessed with the required sticker. I was stamped out of the EU by an efficient German immigration official, and managed to get through security with only a minimal tongue lashing. My track record at German airport security checkpoints is atrocious, but that’s a story for another day.
I found myself in a fairly small holding room with an entire A330 planeful of passengers. There was no where to sit so I ended up standing next to the tiny duty free shop. The AirBerlin staff working the gate jumped on the PA system and announced that they’d start boarding in a few minutes, and that’s when things in the tiny little holding room went from mildy uncomfortable to an all out mess. Throngs of people started congregating around the boarding gate, which had little room to being with.
Needless to say, boarding became a bit of a sh!tshow. Business class passengers were asked to board and could hardly make it to the GAs with the mass of people who had developed around the doors. By the time I had gotten to the GAs through the crowd they were calling for AirBerlin and OW elites to pre-board and small fights had started to break out amongst the crowd as people bickered about whether people were cutting the queue (as if one existed?) or not.
I’m willing to bet the experience at the new Brandenburg airport will be much improved over what TXL is capable of providing with its current set-up.
Seat & IFE
Once I managed to make it down the jetbridge and onto the A330 that would be flying me to JFK, the experience was much better. I was greeted at the door by a smiling AirBerlin flight attendant (FA) and invited to turn left into the business class cabin.
My first impressions of the seat were mixed. The dark blue fabric used through the majority of the cabin worked nicely with the limited red accents. The seat appeared boxy and firm, and once I sat down this was confirmed as a situation where appearances were accurate. While the seat was boxy (the headrest in particular is stored at a weird location for most normal human beings, but is adjustable) and firm (not as much cushioning as the American Airlines angled lie flat seat I have more experience with), it was nevertheless 10x more comfortable than your average economy exit row seat. The seats had pillows placed on them and amenity kits also pre-distributed. My assigned seat was 1A and there was only one amenity kit, which indicated to me that I would not have a seat mate for this trip. Always a great thing in my book!
I sat down and started to get comfortable in my seat when an FA approached me with an apologetic smile.
“Excuse me sir? I wonder if you would be okay with a seating change? There is a little old lady who is afraid of flying, and she would like to sit by the window. She says it will make her feel better. Is this okay?”
While many frequent travelers have strick policies on not switching seats unless under duress, I’m a bit more flexible, and old ladies happen to be one of my weaknesses. I agreed to move to the aisle seat for the duration of the flight. Imagine my surprise a few minutes later when my seat mate arrived and it turns out to be a young Russian woman in her mid-20s with giant designer sunglasses and giant Gucci shopping bags. This was not the little old lady I was promised…..
Boarding continued without much fanfare. AB’s J cabin on the A330 is in a 2-2-2 layout and has a total of four rows. The cabin was about 80% full just prior to the doors being shut, with the two middle seats in Row 1 open and the two aisle seats on the side rows open in Row 4 (4C & H). After the doors were shut, the FAs brought a younger woman and her mother up from the economy cabin and placed them in the open middle seats in Row 1.
Despite being moved from the window seat and gaining a seat mate, I still liked sitting in Row 1. The legroom was noticeably nicer than Rows 2-4 with the exception of the two middle seats that were given to the upgraded women from economy. The bulkhead is closer for the middle seats in Row 1 (1D & 1G) and the leg room is not as substantial as the offerings in 1A, 1B, 1H, and 1K. Each set of seats is staggered to increase privacy for travelers, but there is absolutely no means of securing more privacy if you are a solo traveler and happen to have a seat mate.
The seat itself was a good product for relaxing. Each seat features a reading light and power outlets for your various toys and gizmos.
When fully reclined, the seat was not very comfortable for sleeping nor did it seem to be reclined as far as other angled lie-flat seats I’ve experienced. As you can see in the picture it still seems that the headrest is quite high in the air. As previously noted, the seat is firm and shifting it into “bed” mode does nothing to soften the surface. AirBerlin sadly does not provide any products on the flight such as a mattress pad to alleviate some of the stiffness. Since this was a daytime flight I was not too concerned with my ability to sleep during the flight, and the seat served nicely as a lounge chair for reading.
AirBerlin FAs handed out AB-branded headphones for the entertainment system (three pronged connectors, so it appears personal headphones cannot be used with the system). The amenity kit features L’Occitane products for skin care, a red and blue eye mask, and some blue socks. A toothbrush, toothpaste, and ear plugs were also provided. AB-branded slippers were dropped off during the boarding process.
The AirBerlin inflight entertainment offering was fairly modern in design. The monitor was hidden in the center console and needed to be released with the push of a button on the side of the seat. While the screen quality seemed quite good (better than AA’s 772) and featured both remote control and touch screen capabilities, the amount of programming was rather minimal and lackluster. I scanned through the various movie and television show offerings but ended up skipping use of the entire IFE system and instead finished a book on my Kindle.
For this daytime trans-Atlantic flight AirBerlin offered a full lunch menu and a smaller cold plate prior to landing. Interestingly, AirBerlin seems to have partnered with a well-known restaurant from the island of Sylt called Sansibar as the inspiration/design behind its catering.
While the menu makings it appear as if you have multiple choices for starters, entrees, and desserts, the reality of the situation is that you only need to select an entree since all other items on the menu are served to you along with your selected entree on a single tray. No multi-course dining like you would find on Cathay Pacific or AA. This definitely was something I noticed as less “premium” than what I am used to from flying other business and first class products within the oneworld alliance.
That being said, the quality of the food that was provided on the tray was quite high. I’m a bit of a picky eater so when it comes to airline meals I often leave much of the food on the tray. With AB’s offering, I only found myself not finishing the cheese dish (as some of you may know, I’m a notorious ‘cheese is not a dessert’ advocate).
While taking food orders, the FA noted that there was an additional entree that was not listed on the menu. She described it and it sounded quite similar to the prawn pasta dish that was listed in the menu but was coupled with a different sauce. Recovering from food poisoning and feeling less than hungry, I went with the prawn and pasta dish listed on the menu for my main meal. The FA started the service with a beverage service and dropped off a ramekin of cold mixed nuts to snack on.
The FA brought the tray out to me with all the items noted on the menu and then offered me a choice of various warm breads. Being on AirBerlin, I decided that a pretzel-style roll would be a good choice for the meal. The trout tartare with caviar was an interesting dish. Mildly flavored and very smooth. The boiled beef dish was a much heavier when compared to the trout but provided a nice balance and had bolder flavors. I enjoyed both but overall preferred the beef dish. The warm bread was outstanding, but I expect nothing less from a German airline.
After finishing my appetizers the FA removed the dishes and brought out my main entree. The prawn (which were probably what most Americans would refer to as shrimp vs. the much larger prawns served in the US) pasta was quite flavorful and really hit the spot for me on that flight. While the dish was a little heavy on the oil, that’s something I’ve come to expect from airplane pasta dishes. The serving size was a little on the small size (much like everything on AB’s food tray) but still was sufficient for making sure I felt like I had a full meal. The woman across the aisle from me ordered the unlisted prawn pasta special and ended up asking the FA if there was any of the normal pasta dish I was enjoying since she didn’t enjoy the flavor of what she’d ordered, so it seems I made a good choice.
The dessert was just okay, and I couldn’t make it through the cheese offering despite putting up a valiant effort. The fact that I left the cheese on the tray shouldn’t be a reflection on the quality of the cheese though. I’m simply not a cheese aficionado and my opinion on the subject should be taken about as seriously as Ryanair saying it’s launching all first class A380 service between Dublin and London. I did ask the FA for a cup of hot tea after the service which was delivered promptly.
During the flight an FA made frequent rounds offering water and other beverages to customers. They also frequently patrolled the cabin with a snack basket with a variety of chips, chocolates, granola bars, and fresh fruit. A noticeable difference from most flights I’ve experienced on AA where a snack area is set up and customers are allowed to serve themselves. I do know someone who took this same flight about a month before me and the FAs set up a self-serve area for snacks on his flight, so perhaps this was a crew difference rather than a policy difference on AirBerlin.
Prior to landing we were offered a small meal service with a cold chicken dish. It reminded me of the chilled chicken with pasta AA often serves on my flights to Tokyo. The flavor was nice but nothing remarkable. The same could be said for the potato salad. Serviceable, nothing memorable. Interestingly the real star of the pre-landing meal was the jalapeno pepper cream cheese. My American palate was thinking I’d be getting a jalapeno popper, so imagine my surprise when I looked at my tray and discovered AirBerlin was indeed serving me a dish full of jalapeno-flavored cream cheese. At first I didn’t know what to do with it, but the FAs started making their rounds with big baskets full of delicious German bread. For some reason the cream cheese and warm bread really hit the spot. I ended up eating three rolls and leaving the majority of the chicken and potato salad on the tray.
To wrap things up just prior to landing, the FAs stopped by to drop off little AB-branded chocolate hearts to thank us for flying with them. A nice touch, even though I have issues with chocolate (it gives me hives) and could not enjoy the offering.
For the naturally curious amongst you, I’ve included the remainder of the menu below detailing the wine, liquor, and soft beverage selection.