Germany’s second largest airline Air Berlin had humble beginnings as a US registered charter carrier operating an aging Boeing 707 on its first flight from Berlin (Tegal) to Palma de Mallorca in 1979. Until German reunification only airlines from the US, UK, France and USSR were permitted to fly into West Berlin, hence the US registration. During the 1980’s Air Berlin steadily expanded both its fleet and its network, focusing on package tour destinations to Mediterranean locations and beyond. In 1991 Air Berlin re-registered as a German airline. In 2004 the airline entered an alliance with Vienna’s Air Niki and in 2006 the airline listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange. Later that year Air Berlin purchased rival German carrier dba and ordered 60 Boeing 737-800’s, Boeings largest order for this variant from a single customer. Air Berlins expansion continued with the takeover of LTU in 2007 and buying 49% of Switzerland’s Belair. An equity swap deal with Thomas Cook collapsed during to soaring fuel prices in 2008 but in 2009 Air Berlin cemented deals with China’s prestigious Hainan Airlines, Turkey’s Pegasus Airlines and discount Thai carrier Bangkok Airways. In 2010 Air Berlin's rapid growth continued and OneWorld invited the carrier to join which it did in 2012. The airline has also experienced rapid growth on the ground, expanding its maintenance facilities, establishing a flying school and operating its own catering services. In 2010 Air Berlin formed a joint venture company Follow Me Entertainment which generates on-board sales from entertainment products. In December 2011 Etihad announced it owned 29% of Air Berlin, fuelling rumors of a takeover.
First time passengers expecting nothing from a discount carrier will be very surprised by the service they get on board an Air Berlin flight. The single class plane is unimaginatively decorated and the crew uniforms match. Crew wear a formal navy blue uniform and tend to be younger mutli-lingual Germans who deliver a professional and polite service, promptly. Passengers will notice that Air Berlin’s service puts them in the league of legacy airlines and they simply cannot be compared to the likes of Ryanair, easyJet or Southwest.
Air Berlin’s network has expanded rapidly with its acquisition of rival airlines and addition of larger Airbus A330 jets. Air Berlin criss-cross all of Europe comprehensively and have an excellent network to business destinations as well as holiday hotspots. Air Berlin operate long haul flights to popular tourst destinations like Cuba and numerous Caribbean locations, Kenya, Namibia, Thailand and North America. Air Berlin fly to six cities in the US and two in Canada. As well as a comprehensive scheduled network, they also operate many seasonal routes.
Air Berlin offers very competitive fares all the time. Passengers who check the website often and are prepared to travel off-peak can pick up some genuinely amazing bargains but more often will pay a reasonable fare. While many discount airlines boast about radiclously cheap fares which are then padded with surchases and fees, Air Berlin is more up-front about its prices. While better airlines exist, especially for long haul legs, on shorter routes, Air Berlin offers good value.
First time passengers are surprised that all flights include a free meal. On short distance flights Air Berlin provide complementary soft drinks, juice and a light snack, while on long distance flights passengers receive hot meals for free. Alcohol needs to be purchased, but the airline stocks excellent German beer which they sell at reasonable prices. The quality of Air Berlin’s catering is also a surprise, as sandwiches and rolls are made with crispy bread and their fillings reflect their German origin; with salami and ham very popular. So-called gourmet meals and quality wines prepared by Sansibar, a famous German restaurant on the resort island of Sylt, can be pre-ordered on line.
In terms of entertainment, Air Berlin shows its no-frills credentials as its entertainment system is rudimentary. Economy passengers can watch movies from overhead drop down screens with audio headsets while in Business Class they have small movable screens attached to their seats. Short haul passengers have six audio channels while Long haul passengers have twelve. The airline provides complementary newspapers prior to boarding and the airlines magazine has interesting articles in German and English. The airline is able to keep fares down by limiting entertainment choices.
Air Berlin strictly enforces its baggage allowance policy of 20kg for Economy and 30kg for Business Class. USA/Canada passengers are entitled to one bag of 23kg in Economy. Air Berlin promotes on-line check in however travelers will still need to visit the counters to check their luggage in. Passengers will not want to pay excess baggage, as Air Berlin charges exorbitant fees for extra kilos. Baggage handling is outside the control of the airline as third party contractors manage this area and it differs depending on the airport.
Air Berlin has a Business Class on its long haul Airbus A330 planes only. All other flights are single class; Economy. Business Class passengers enjoy roomier seats, extra entertainment choices, more flexibility with ticket changes and complementary wines with their superior meal service. The airline also operates is own Air Berlin Lounges in many airports and use other lounges elsewhere. In Thailand and Dubai Business Class passengers receive a Limousine service. Overall Air Berlin’s premium products are not particularly impressive and are more comparable to a Premium Economy offered by many airlines.
Most Air Berlin flights are a single class. While Air Berlin is described as a discount carrier the reality is that this airline’s service is often superior to many ‘full service’ airlines like British Airways or United. Passengers receive complementary meals, are entertained, receive a standard baggage allowance the Air Berlin is generally punctual and delivers adequate service. Only if passengers take excessive luggage or make last minute flight changes are they likely to regret booking Air Berlin.
Air Berlin’s topbonus frequent flyer scheme will only benefit genuinely frequent flyers who intend to make a lot of travel. Points are practically worthless and need lots to see any benefit. Austria’s Air Niki also use topbonus and now Air Berlin has been admitted to OneWorld points can be earned on hundreds of other flights globally. Despite this topbonus has not been fully developed and doesn’t come close to being compared to Lufthansa’s Miles & More.
The typical formula that discount airlines follow is about screwing as much out of staff, passengers, airports and their aircraft while delivering the lowest possible service. Fortunately Air Berlin does not subscribe to this despicable policy and believes that delivery good service and treating staff reasonably has its benefits. Air Berlin has made savings by giving fuel efficiency a high priority and economizing on real extras like entertainment. Air Berlin enthusiastically retrofitted wing tiplets on their fleet when the fuel savings were fully appreciated. While many formerly great airlines like British Airways, Alitalia and Olympic Air tetter on the brink, Air Berlin constantly expands. So their managers must be doing something right.
Air Berlin has flown for more than three decades without a significant incident. The airline buys new aircraft which they maintain themselves to some degree and they retire them at an early age before major maintenance costs come due. The airline employs competent pilots and maintains its fleet to a generally high standard.
Air Berlin should not be regarded as a no-frills carrier as it delivers good service at a competitive price.
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