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As part of my current trip to Europe for the Star Alliance MegaDo, I decided to fly two airlines that are notable omissions from our reviews arsenal: Alitalia and Air Berlin. As you may recall, both of these carriers also happen to be bankrupt, with Alitalia filing in May and Air Berlin most recently in August. I’m reviewing the flights — it’s a “battle of the bankrupt European airlines,” of sorts.
Of course, flying a bankrupt airline comes along with some risks — specifically, there was a decent chance that one of my flights, or routes, would end up getting canceled, leaving me stuck searching for last-minute alternatives. Of course, that’s often when points and miles become most useful, so worst case I figured I’d book a last-minute award flight to or from Europe.
That almost became necessary when I opened up the Air Berlin app this morning to check in for my flight home, which was to bring me from Palma to Berlin in economy tomorrow morning, and on from Berlin to New York-JFK in business class an hour or so later. Instead, there were two new flights on my itinerary:
Now, normally this wouldn’t be a huge deal — the new routing adds an extra stop and gets me in nearly four hours later, but I’ll arrive the same day and it’s still in business. However, I have a commitment tomorrow evening in New York that can’t be missed, so I had to search for alternatives.
Air Berlin doesn’t operate any other flights that worked with my schedule, so my first instinct was to search for an alternative and call Air Berlin to rebook me on a partner. As luck would have it, there was an absolutely perfect Iberia itinerary, that departed Palma around the same time and got me to New York more than 90 minutes earlier. Score!
I was on hold for 50 minutes, at which point a friendly (though clearly overworked) agent picked up. I explained the situation, but she wouldn’t budge — Air Berlin is absolutely unable to accommodate passengers on partner airlines. I would need to find an alternative operated by Air Berlin and Niki, or I could request a full refund. When I suggested that I search for new flights and call back, the agent warned me that I’d be in for a long wait — 50 minutes was nothing, apparently, with some customers holding for “three or four hours.”
Still, I wasn’t prepared to book an alternate flight on Air Berlin, so I searched for some more options then tried my luck with American Express, since the flight had originally been purchased through Amex Travel. Again I requested the Iberia flight, but the Amex agent explained that her hands were tied — Air Berlin would need to process any changes, and while she’d be happy to call, she was certain that the airline wouldn’t rebook me on Iberia.
At that point, my only option was to leave a day early and overnight in Dusseldorf, catching an early morning flight from DUS to New York. So I called Air Berlin back, this time selecting the phone prompt for booking a new flight. An agent picked up in just nine minutes, and three minutes later she had me rebooked. It would mean missing the final MegaDo activities, but at least I’d be getting home in time.
I’m now at Palma Airport, preparing to board my flight to Dusseldorf, where I’ll spend the night at an airport hotel. Hardly ideal, but at least I’m not out any extra money — besides a hotel room for tonight — and I’ll make it home in time, assuming there aren’t any further cancellations.
Based on my experience, I’d very highly recommend avoiding booking any travel with Air Berlin. Even though my Berlin-JFK flight was supposed to run until Monday, at which point that route is being canceled, my Saturday flight ended up getting scrapped — even though Sunday’s flight is still scheduled to operate as of now.
And while I clearly wouldn’t book a new ticket at this point, if you’re scheduled to travel within the next few days, I’d suggest keeping a very close eye on your itinerary, and adding your phone number and email address to your reservation so the airline can get in touch should you be forced to change any plans.
Unfortunately it seems like Air Berlin is not going to recover from this bankruptcy — other carriers are already discussing taking over its assets, most recently with EasyJet and Lufthansa preparing their own offers. This is clearly a tough time for Air Berlin employees, even though the representatives I spoke with on the phone today hid it fairly well. I wish the carrier — including its flight attendants, pilots, agents and support staff — all the best, and I look forward to my flight to New York tomorrow.
Do you have a flight booked with Air Berlin?
Know before you go.
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