By David Armstrong
It takes 11 hours to fly nonstop from Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) to Berlin’s Tegel Airport, and about 11 and a half hours to return to LAX against prevailing winds. That’s a long time to be airborne, so of course being comfortable counts.
Airberlin (IATA code AB) proved to be just the ticket when I flew in Business Class from Los Angeles to Berlin and back on a business trip in the first week of October.
It was my first trip on Airberlin. Founded in 1979 with hubs in Berlin and Dusseldorf, it is the second-largest airline in Germany.
Airberlin – the airline styles its name as airberlin – made a very good first impression on this frequent flier in spite of the inconveniences of using woefully overcrowded Berlin-Tegel Airport (IATA code TXL).
Tegel is scheduled for demolition when the oft-delayed Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt (IATA code BER) finally opens next to Schönefeld Airport, which will be shut down. The fourth and latest opening date is October 27, 2013.
Until then, Airberlin will have to make do with Tegel, in circumstances beyond its control. Among them are sharing a small, nondescript passenger lounge in Terminal B with oneworld partner British Airways, and using functional but no-frills Terminal C for some flights.
Airberlin will have a major presence at Berlin Brandenburg when it opens next year. In the meantime, some travelers might be tempted to book away from Airberlin, but that would be a mistake.
It is a well-run, passenger-friendly, forward-looking airline, known in Europe for affordable fares, though it does not bill itself as a low-cost carrier.
Airberlin flies to seven U.S. destinations: New York JFK, Chicago O’Hare (from March 2013), Fort Myers in Florida, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, and, in summer, San Francisco.
Like everyone, I like creature comforts while flying on long-haul routes, and Airberlin is not short of those in the areas it controls directly: passenger seats, food and drink, in-flight entertainment, the quality of its fleet, interior cabin design.
Most important, though, is the caliber of staff, and here Airberlin excels. It showcased witty, personable and smart cabin crews on both my transatlantic flights.
Thanks mainly to the engaging, can-do attitude of staff, Airberlin plays a role vis-à-vis its major rival, Lufthansa, roughly analogous to the role Virgin Atlantic Airways plays vis-à-vis BA: that of a smaller, younger, rising airline taking on a much-larger, long-established – and high-quality – flag carrier.
(Editor’s note: Airberlin is, however, a much larger airline than is Virgin Atlantic Airways. In addition to Airberlin’s long-haul network, it has a major short-to-medium-haul network and a large fleet of single-aisle aircraft, whereas Virgin Atlantic has virtually no short-haul operations.)
I wasn’t able to use Web check-in, as www.airberlin.com doesn’t allow online check-in for flights to and from the United States, but my airport check-in at LAX went smoothly. Business Class passengers can check-in two bags, each weighing up to 32 kilograms (70.5 pounds), free of charge.
My departing flight began in the Business Class lounge that Airberlin shares in LAX’s Tom Bradley International Terminal with oneworld partner Qantas Airways. The Aussie carrier operates one of the best passenger departure lounges I’ve seen in a U.S. airport.
Located past security and up several levels, the lounge is spacious, nicely lit and well-laid out in a linear fashion with each defined area dedicated to a different activity: eating, drinking, beavering away on a laptop, reading, watching TV, or sitting in a silent zone.
I was not traveling with a personal electronic device, so I especially appreciated that the Qantas/oneworld lounge offered no fewer than 19 free desktop PCs for the use of travelers.
Airberlin flight AB 7023 took off on time. Glasses of complimentary champagne helped make take-off a jolly experience.
The two-class Airbus A330-200 had 20 Business Class seats in a 2-2-2 configuration, giving the cabin a cozy feel. Four flight attendants worked the space, imparting a cared-for quality. There were an additional 279 seats in Economy Class.
Airberlin does not rank among the industry’s innovators in seat technology but my Business Class seat proved more than adequate. The leather seats are 50 centimeters (19.7 inches) wide, 181 centimeters (72 inches) long and recline 170 degrees, backed with a hard shell. Seat pitch is 137 centimeters (53.9 inches).
A wide metal arm separates passengers in window and aisle seats. A personal, high-resolution, 8.9-inch touch screen offering games, movies, TV, music and a map showing progress of the aircraft pops out of the armrest and slides back. The meal table folds out of the top of the armrest. There is also a power socket for laptops.
Dinner was served shortly after takeoff on my 5:45 p.m. flight. In addition to its regular wine list, Air Berlin offers a small selection of wines from the restaurant Sansibar on the German island of Sylt in the North Sea.
I sipped one, a 2011 Kaapzicht Anna White, a refreshing South African blend of Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc, from the Stellenbosch wine region in the Cape Winelands. The young wine went well with my green salad with grilled potatoes, mixed vegetables and wedges of hardboiled egg.
For an entrée, I had well-done – but not over-done – beef brisket in peppercorn sauce, with potato noodles and roasted carrots. I matched that with a 2006 Vincola Requense Polacio Crianza, a robust red wine from Spain, adroitly blended from Bobal, Tempranillo, Garnacha and Cabernet Sauvignon.
After dining, I read for a time, then slipped on high-quality Air Berlin headphones and listened to a mix of old favorites – Dylan, Springsteen, the Who, the Kinks’ “Village Green Preservation Society” – and new favorites Lady Gaga and the powerhouse British soul-singer Joss Stone.
There are some 200 hours of entertainment programming on board in Business Class. The monitor includes a USB port. I snoozed for an hour or so, though legroom when the seat reclined was not abundant, until our on-time arrival.
Eight days later, on my return flight, AB 7022, I noticed the little things, nearly all of them done right. I dug into the amenity kit for ear plugs and an eyeshade and dabbed on the L’Occitane lip balm and face cream. I slipped on the black, Asian-style slippers, so much more comfortable than thin airplane socks worn by themselves.
I admired the smart flight attendant uniforms – black, with red belts for the men and red scarves for the women. I was asked four times on the long return journey if I wanted to nosh or imbibe. I didn’t but I appreciated the non-intrusive solicitude of the staff.
Just before touch-down, a flight attendant asked, “Mr. Armstrong, do you have a connecting flight?”
“I do,” I said.
“Here is a bottle of water for the flight,” he said.
Little things mean a lot.
David Armstrong is a San Francisco Bay Area journalist specializing in features, news and reviews about travel destinations, airports, airlines, hotels and resorts. He is the former tourism, aviation and international trade reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle and covered tourism, movies, media and theater for the Hearst-owned San Francisco Examiner. He is the author of five books and numerous travel articles for TheStreet.com, Travel + Leisure, Global Traveler, Napa Sonoma Magazine, The Globe and Mail (Toronto), Toronto Star, Chicago Sun-Times, Aviation.com and many others. He blogs at http://davidarmstrongontravel.blogspot.com.