I was connecting to this AirBerlin (AB) flight from a long haul business class flight on Japan Airlines from Tokyo Narita. For European flights, most EU carriers offer a business class cabin where the seats are the same as the ones in economy class but the carrier has blocked the use of the middle seat to provide additional lateral space to premium cabin passengers. This is one of the few areas where European carriers actually offer an inferior product to most American carriers, as their intra-European flights are comparable in frequency and distance to our domestic flights. AirBerlin is not one of the EU carriers that offers the blocked middle seat, but sadly instead of going the route American carriers have they’ve simply scrapped the product all together in favor of all-economy class configures on their short haul flights.
So this meant that despite traveling on a business class ticket, I was taking a voluntary downgrade to economy class to get to Berlin (TXL) from Frankfurt (FRA). I could have routed through Madrid or London or even Helsinki to have kept in a premium cabin, but at the end of the day the flight was going to be very short and I was curious to see what AB’s service was like on such a short flight.
FRA has a few oneworld alliance lounge options but the Iberia business class lounge near D26 was the only one remotely near the gate of my AirBerlin flight. I didn’t end up spending much time there due to a horrendous experience with transit security, so only ended up snapping this one picture.
It was an average lounge and was quite crowded at the time. Free snacks available on the counter space on the right hand side of this picture and a decent selection of free beer, wine, and soft drinks. I’m willing to bet the Japan Airlines lounge that is used by most oneworld carriers with flights to FRA is a nicer and more spacious option, but that’ll take me another visit to discover.
About 10 minutes prior to the boarding time listed on my boarding pass I left the lounge and ambled my way through the rather sterile environment of this section of the FRA airport. There was almost no seating available at the boarding gate for our flight today as it was simply a doorway to the buses that would take us to our remote stand for the evening, so the crowd was pretty heavy when I walked up. Luckily the gate agents started boarding almost immediately so I wasn’t left wandering around for very long. For my flight the agents did not invite AB’s elites and corresponding oneworld alliance elite tiers to board early, but instead simply turned on the scanners and started processing people.
The crowd immediately started pushing forward to get on the plane and this slow motion stampede of travelers ended up pushing me quite close to the front of the melee. I was able to board the first bus of folks heading out to the plane and soon enough we were on our way. Despite all the traveling I’ve done over the years it’s still a rare occasions for me to board at a remote stand on the tarmac, and personally I’m a big fan of the event. Sure, a jet bridge is more convenient but nothing beats the majesty of walking up to your plane and scaling the stairs to enter.
AirBerlin was boarding the plane from the front and the back so I decided to enter through the front of the aircraft as my seat was pretty much exactly in the middle of the plane. I had not been assigned an exit row seat upon check-in in Tokyo despite having requested and being confirmed as having one at booking by the AirBerlin call center, so I was a little worried it would be a cramped situation. I figured I could handle it for the less than an hour I’d be in the air though.
The flight was being operated by an Airbus A320 and my first impression of the interior was that it was dark though not exactly dreary. Dark blue leather seats with red accents filled up the plane, and while I enjoyed the color scheme I think it really made the space feel a bit more confined than desired. The cabin was quite clean though (I expect nothing less of Germans!), and the flight attendant greeting me at the door did so with a big smile.
One thing that struck me immediately was that the flight attendants on this plane were all wearing jeans. I’ve since been on other airlines/flights where this was standard, but it was my first experience with a more casual service uniform. I wondered if this was going to be the case with my upcoming long haul flight in AB’s business class cabin, but when I took that flight (review here from awhile ago, because clearly I’m not good at sequencing things correctly) the attendants were in navy slacks and dresses. Perhaps it’s only for short haul flights within Germany and/or Europe?
One of the downsides to remote stand boarding is that the process takes a bit longer as you have to wait for everyone to arrive by bus, but soon enough we were informed by the captain that we were ready to depart and the attendants closed the doors. The flight was fairly full but I somehow managed to have an entire row to myself. I have no idea whether this was purposeful as a oneworld Emerald and/or business class passenger connecting into an all economy class plane, or just a happy coincidence, but it was nice either way.
There wasn’t any wait for take off that night at FRA and within a few minutes of beginning our taxiing we were rocketing off into the nighttime sky. The flight time between FRA and TXL is quite heavily padded and our actual time in the air was going to be about 30% less than what was listed. The FAs quickly pulled out their service cart and starting from the front of the cabin began making their way through the cabin for a quick service. AirBerlin offers buy on board meals/snacks but I wasn’t particularly hungry at the time and simply took what was being offered for free.
The FAs stopped at my row and with a smile simply asked me, “Salty or sweet?” Not quite understanding the question, I replied with “…. sweet?” and was handed a packet of neapolitan wafers. The FA then asked me what I’d like to drink. I asked for a Coke Zero and she handed one over promptly though I wasn’t given the whole can, only the one cup. It didn’t really need the can though, as it wasn’t more than another 10 minutes before the captain came back on to let us know that we had started our decent into TXL.
Arriving at the unique but quite dated TXL facility was interesting. We deplaned without a jet bridge and were bussed to baggage claim. Unfortunately the arrival of the baggage wasn’t quite as efficient as one hopes when you’ve just completed a long haul plane trip, and I ended up waiting for about 20 minutes before baggage started making their way down the carousel. Mine was one of the first to appear, so no issue with AirBerlin following the priority delivery tags JL had affixed to my luggage when I departed from NRT. Or, again, this was just a happy coincidence considering how little attention many of AB’s procedures seem to pay to alliance benefits.
TXL is quite a narrow airport, so exiting the baggage claim plops you into what is essentially a rather small hallway for passengers to maneuver through as folks awaiting arriving passengers stake out real estate and clogging up said hallway. Unfortunately I neglected to exchange any of my US dollars or Japanese yen into euros, so I wasn’t able to hop right into a cab as I had originally wanted to do. I searched the entire airside-accessible area of the terminal we had arrived in (Terminal C) but found absolutely nothing of use – no currency exchange, no shops, not even a lonely ATM. I finally found an airport employee who told me in order to get any euros I’d need to walk outside (mind you this was in January) to the main terminal (A).
So there I am, groggy and tired from my long flight from NRT to BER through FRA, dragging my luggage behind me on a cold January evening in search of euros. It really wasn’t that bad of a walk, maybe 5 minutes top, but it was certainly a bit more work than I wanted to be doing at the time. AirBerlin operates quite a few flights out of Terminal C, so the lack of any reasonable airside amenities is something to be aware of if you plan on using this carrier into TXL. Hopefully the city is able to finally open the long delayed Brandenburg (BER) facility and AirBerlin is able to quickly shift its operation over to the more modern facility. Interestingly when I booked this ticket it was prior to the initial delay of the opening of BER due to the fire code violations, so I was schedule to arrive at the new facility. As that was no longer an option, my ticket was switched over to TXL when the fire code issues came to light and caused a great deal of embarrassment.
Overall AirBerlin provided a perfectly satisfactory short haul ride. The service was actually much friendlier than I had anticipated and they provided a snack and a drink despite the short flight time, albeit an abbreviated service. When combined with my experience on AB’s long haul product (which now features an even nicer hard product), I’m actually surprised by how much I liked flying with them. I’ve only had a handful of flights with them, so that’s still open to change, but my experience thus far has been on the whole quite positive. One of the major downsides to the carrier seems to be their rather lackluster adherence to listed alliance elite benefits, though to be fair many of those aren’t that important in the grand scheme of things and some benefits are left open to provision at the individual carrier’s discretion. Also, I do know that other travelers have had less than stellar experiences with the carrier, particularly in the baggage handling arena, so perhaps I’m simply lucky at this point.
Still, I wouldn’t hesitate to fly AirBerlin again given my experiences with them to date. They were a pleasure on long haul and more than adequate on the short flight in economy class I experienced.