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With just 40 passengers to look after, Air Berlin’s professional crew offered excellent service, and always with a big smile. The Pros: Outstanding crew, private seat, excellent catering. The Cons: There’s a very good chance you won’t get to fly.
Last week, I headed to Europe for the 2017 Star Alliance MegaDo, which kicked off on Wednesday in Vienna and ended Friday night in Mallorca. Since we’ve already reviewed many of the top business and first-class products flying between the US and Europe, this was a good opportunity to think outside the box. I landed on reviews of two of the continent’s most infamous carriers: Alitalia and Air Berlin.
At the moment, the claim to fame for both of these global airlines is their current financial situations — Alitalia and Air Berlin are both bankrupt. And while the former’s hanging in there for now, Air Berlin has already begun shutting down operations, gradually eliminating long-haul flights from its namesake hub, Berlin. And even though the Berlin-New York route was scheduled to operate until September 25, my flight on September 23 ended up getting canceled, so I had to reroute through Dusseldorf instead.
My one-way trip from Palma to New York via Berlin’s Tegel Airport (TXL) totaled $1,830 — while no small sum, that was the least expensive one-way business-class flight available between the two cities. Originally, my itinerary looked like the one shown below. The timing was perfect: I’d get a full day in Mallorca and wouldn’t have to wake up super early for my flight to Berlin.
When I went to check in the day before departure, I found that my itinerary had changed — my new flight would get me into JFK nearly four hours later, which would mean missing a dinner I had planned in the city.
I covered the cancellation and rebooking process in this post, so I won’t go into detail again here. Ultimately, I ended up with the following itinerary, which required missing some of the final MegaDo events and spending the night at the Sheraton Dusseldorf Airport, instead of in my upgraded suite at the Park Hyatt Mallorca.
Still, I wasn’t too bummed — I’d be making it home in time (a few hours earlier, even) and it looked like the business-class cabin was nearly empty, with just five other seats selected.
Will I earn miles for the flight? I sure hope so, but given that it took weeks for AA to credit my most recent Qatar Airways flight and Air Berlin could be entirely out of business before October is through, I’m not counting on it.
Now, all that said, I wouldn’t at all recommend booking a flight with Air Berlin, since there’s a good chance you could end up stranded. We’ve unfortunately heard from many readers who have booked both paid and award tickets, some of which they’re unable to get refunded. While we can always hope for the best, I highly recommend reading JT Genter’s post, Practical Advice for Travelers If Air Berlin Goes Out of Business, if you find yourself in this situation.
Airport and Lounge
After an uneventful night at the Sheraton, I woke up to find that my flight had been delayed by nearly two hours, so I took my time getting ready and grabbed some breakfast at the Sheraton Club.
A bit after 9:00am, I walked the five or so minutes to Air Berlin’s USA flight check-in area. There wasn’t much of a wait for any of the passengers, and with only one group ahead of me in the premium line, I had my boarding pass and was on my way in just a couple of minutes.
As I began walking to the security area, I noticed a sign for an observation deck. Given that I’m an AvGeek, I decided to head upstairs to check it out — only to find that it was inexplicably closed.
Disappointed, I made my way back down, and walked over to the screening area for the B gates. USA flights depart from the C gates at DUS, but the lounge is located near B, so that’s where I went.
Security was a breeze, and I was in the lounge five minutes later.
Air Berlin’s own lounge closed two weeks ago, so the airline is using the Hugo Junkers Lounge for now. It’s accessible to premium passengers traveling on most airlines, in addition to Priority Pass customers, so it was understandably a bit crowded.
There was a very modest breakfast spread, including yogurt and croissants.
A small variety of fruit juices, sodas, water, wine and beer was also available.
While the lounge wasn’t all that exciting, there happened to be a great view of airport operations.
Honestly, the plane spotting was the only thing I enjoyed about this lounge, but even that didn’t keep me there for more than a couple of minutes.
After a few minutes with Hugo I began making my way to the C gates, which first required walking through a long connector.
At the end of the bridge, I walked right into the gigantic immigration line — the C gate area is for non-Schengen departures, so a passport check is required.
While the line was more than 30 minutes long for non-EU passport holders, residents and citizens were able to get through in just a minute or two.
After a frustratingly long wait at immigration, I arrived at a gigantic duty free store, though I wasn’t really in the mood to shop at that point.
Air Berlin used to operate a lounge in the international area, but it closed two weeks ago — which is “temporary” if you believe the sign below.
Just past the lounge was yet another passport check — all US-bound passengers were required to pass through, but it seemed that passengers beginning their travel at DUS (including myself) were allowed to just walk past the desk.
In total, you could easily end up waiting an hour or more in all the various lines at Dusseldorf Airport, so be sure to arrive with plenty of time.
As I mentioned, my flight was delayed just under two hours. When I inquired at the gate, the contract agent explained that the delay was due to “technical checks,” but he wouldn’t elaborate. We ended up boarding just before noon, and with a grand total of just 40 passengers on board, the boarding process wrapped up pretty quickly.
Cabin and Seat
The flight attendants were outstanding. For example, when one spotted me taking pictures of the empty economy cabin, she insisted on snapping a few of me.
While there were only 20 business-class seats on this plane, technically everyone on board had a “flat bed,” since there were enough groups of four center seats for any passenger who wanted to stretch out.
In total, there were 30 economy passengers and 10 in biz, which meant half the business-class seats and a little over 10% of the coach seats were occupied.
I ended up with 3K, which was a window-facing seat in the middle of the cabin.
Originally, I had selected 5K, which is what I would have preferred, but as you can see by the curtain below, that seat’s actually used as a crew rest, so I was moved to 3K, instead.
The seat had definitely seen better days, but it was comfortable enough in the full-upright position, where there was plenty of space to stretch out.
When reclined, the seat moves forward by nearly a foot, which meant my feet were pressed up against the forward wall — and I’m only 5-foot-9.
As with most international business products, this seat extends into a bed. Unfortunately, mine was a bit lumpy, so it wasn’t especially comfortable in bed mode. Normally, passengers receive one pillow and one blanket, but I grabbed an extra from one of the empty seats, which ended up being a big help.
The lavatory was a decent size, and while not exactly “posh,” it was always free and the crew kept it fairly clean throughout the journey.
A decent amenity kit and some serviceable headphones were waiting for me when I arrived at my seat.
The amenity kit itself wasn’t anything fancy, but it did have all the essentials, such as a toothbrush set, eye mask, earplugs and so on.
Meanwhile, as clunky as the headphones look, they sounded pretty decent. We’re not talking Bose-level sound and noise cancellation, but they were better than some other business-class sets I’ve tried.
Otherwise, there was the aforementioned pillow…
…and a comfy blanket.
When I first sat down, I was pleased to see a new(ish) HD display. And I got a laugh out of the welcome screen… “Eight leading airlines working together” — with two of them bankrupt.
Then I noticed the wired remote — it looked identical to a model I remember hating from a previous flight, and sadly, that turned out to be the case. In fact, the only way to control the system is by sliding your finger across a trackpad of sorts — of course mine was buggy as hell.
I’m not sure why Air Berlin opted to not offer a touchscreen — the wired remote didn’t work well at all and making a selection required tremendous patience. In some cases, it would take me upwards of a minute to manipulate the cursor in such a way that would let me make a selection.
As you can see, there were a total of just 27 movies to choose from, and only eight were new releases. If you fly Air Berlin frequently (or have in the past), I could see running out of content very quickly.
There were plenty more TV shows, though.
There was also a selection of short clips in a section called “simpleshow.” I didn’t watch any, since I couldn’t get the remote to work on this screen, so I’m not sure what they’re like.
There was also a duty free catalog, although the paper version had a slightly different selection.
The flight readout was fairly detailed, and seemed to be accurate.
The high-res moving map was also helpful for passing the time. Unfortunately, my system froze up a few times and didn’t work at all for the final 90 minutes of the flight so I wasn’t able to keep an eye on our position as we approached JFK.
Finally, while there was a Wi-Fi network available and I was able to connect to the local hotspot, internet connectivity never became available — not that I was expecting it to work anyway.
Food and Beverage
A flight attendant came through offering Champagne and orange juice during boarding — I opted for Champagne, at which point I started digging through the expansive menu.
Then, a few minutes after takeoff, the purser took my food and drink order. I went with the Airman on the Rocks, which he warned was a bit sweet. Boy was he right! I didn’t order a refill.
About 40 minutes after takeoff, a flight attendant came by to set up my table. I ordered the veal appetizer, which was delicious. The bread wasn’t especially fresh, though.
Rather than continue with the Airman, I ordered a glass of rosé, which ended up being a much better choice.
There were a total of five entrées, and all of them actually sounded great. I narrowed my selection down to two, and, since the flight had been catered for a full cabin, I requested both. The flight attendant laughed a bit, but she was happy to oblige.
First up, I had the seafood stew, which didn’t quite match the menu description of “tilapia filet in a fine red coconut curry sauce with Asian vegetable mix and Thai rice.” It was still outstanding, but there were far more potatoes than seafood.
For my second entree, I went with the “slow cooked beef with horseradish sauce,” which did match the description. While the meat was a bit tough, this dish was fantastic overall.
For dessert, I tried the blueberry cheesecake and cheese plate. The cake was outstanding, but the cheese was entirely forgettable. I also requested a peppermint tea.
Finally, about an hour before landing, I was presented with a cold snack. Everything was cold — even the pretzel bread, which was also a bit stale. The beef and avocado hummus were quite good, though.
Just before landing, a flight attendant came through with hot towels — they weren’t offered at any other point during the service — and a basket of heart-shaped Air Berlin chocolates.
This might sound a little crazy considering all the hours I lost and hassle I went through to actually step onboard this plane, but I don’t regret booking my flight home on Air Berlin. Ultimately, I ended up with a one-stop flight home from Mallorca, with a somewhat-decent fare and an outstanding crew. Not to mention a nearly empty plane!
The crew was incredibly professional — if I hadn’t asked about Air Berlin’s financial situation I’m certain they wouldn’t have brought it up. I’m sure they must be nervous about their own careers, but everyone went out of their way to offer fantastic service, and to make the flight as enjoyable as possible.
We’ll be following the Air Berlin situation closely — while we can always hope for a happy ending, it seems likely that there will be some major adjustments to deal with.
Regardless of where the company’s assets end up, I hope all of the airline’s fantastic employees land on their feet. If the rest of the carrier’s flight attendants are anything like the crew on my flight to JFK, any airline would be lucky to have them on the team.
Have you flown Air Berlin recently? Tell us about your experience, below.
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