Air Berlin has flown daily round trips between Chicago O’Hare and Berlin Tegel airports since early 2013. Unfortunately, due to Air Berlin’s insolvency situation, the airline is in the process of dismantling its long-haul network from Berlin, as well as most routes from its Düsseldorf hub, and so I was among one of the last passengers to fly on their scheduled services to Chicago O’Hare before they ended by the end of September 2017.
To learn more about the background and context of this trip, please read:
The round trip fare was slightly higher than $400 round-trip for two tickets. Notably, airberlin does not allow free seat-selections at its most restricted fares.
Day of Departure
Air Berlin leaves out of Terminal 5 at Chicago O’Hare. This has been a more recent development as the flight was previously operated out of Terminal 3 (departures) given its status as a OneWorld member carrier. However, in May, the carrier relocated to the International Terminal at ORD.
We arrived at the terminal a little more than an hour prior to scheduled departure. Thankfully, ORD wasn’t too busy at terminal five at that hour, although we were cutting it close to check-in time cutoff. We had done online check-in, but we wanted to see if we could change our seats at the ticket counter. We were informed that all the seats were taken on this flight and it was 100% full (turned out to not be the case entirely).
After security, we proceeded to the gate, where pre-boarding activities were just beginning. The ticket agent did inform me that we were able to secure two window seats and issued us new boarding passes. We waited for the lines to die down before boarding the flight.
The plane did not have anything painted on the exterior other than the airberlin logo on the front of the fuselage. This is likely due to the leasing situation with AB’s 17 long-haul A330-200s which are possibly being revoked. Today’s registration was D-ABXG, which is owned by CIT Leasing Group.
The boarding process was very straightforward and efficient. The 3rd-party staff at ORD handled the flight very well during formalities. First impressions of the cabin were very positive: the seats looked really comfortable and the color scheme of the cushions was very pleasing on the eyes. The XL seats in the front were in yellow while main cabin seat headrest wings were in red. We were seated in 41A and 40A.
The seat pitch on the airberlin A330-200 in Economy isn’t the most generous, but it is reasonable if you are average height (5’10”) or less. The seats come equipped with a pillow, blanket and amenity kit. The amenity kit has a toothbrush/toothpaste, socks, earplugs, and eyeshade.
airberlin does not offer an in-flight magazine, but there was a duty-free catalog in the seat pocket, along with a safety card.
There are in-flight screens at each seat, which comes equipped with a USB outlet. There are also coat hooks on the seats.
The IFE was unfortunately pretty buggy. Some people had screens that did not fully load all of the content or had to be reset. The crew apologized and explained that it had to do with the aircraft. It was to be expected for an airline that was not in a good place financially and did not own any of its own aircraft. There was also a decent amount of songs in the music selection, which could be used to compile playlists (a feature I love).
I was able to load a good amount of music shows on the IFE screen, but only four of the 27 films that were available.
Pushback, Take-Off, and In-Flight
We pushed back one minute early before our scheduled departure time of 15:25, which was fantastic. I was happy that we were able to get our take-off slot at ORD very early before the big afternoon rush started. The lineup of tails at T-5 was stunning.
We took off to the west, and as our IFE screens rebooted, flight attendants came by with headsets for customers. airberlin offers special meals for guests who wish to have enhanced meal service.
The first in-flight service was dinner (choice between chicken or pasta) and a drinks service. The drinks service included a fully-loaded bar, such as warsteiner beer, wine, scotch, baileys, the works. I was happy about this.
The meal service was slightly above average. The chicken portion was a bit on the scant side, but the taste was good with the rice. I also liked the cole slaw, carrot cake and bread role with spreadable cheese. The chicken and rice tasted a lot like the buy-on-board combination of meals that I got on the LCCs in Asia like Tigerair or AirAsia X.
After the meal services concluded, flight attendants came through with another round of drinks service for the cabin. Before the lights were dimmed, they came through with duty-free, and also offered a full bottle of water to each customer, which was pretty awesome! We had a beautiful sunset.
I tried to connect to the wifi on this flight. There was WiFi available for purchase for the entire flight priced at 18,90 EUR, which is very reasonable. I thought that I would be able to connect using iPass, which I had purchased, but I did not have any success. For these reasons, I worked mostly off-line for the entire flight, and every so often took a break to watch an episode of modern family or something.
As this flight leaves Chicago at 3:30 PM local time, and takes about 8 hours to go eastbound to Berlin, for all intents and purposes it does not align with my sleep cycle. I used most of the time just to get work done, relax for a bit and pass the time. We had some pretty neat views of the northern lights as we made our way directly over Iceland.
Breakfast service commenced roughly two hours prior to landing. Flight attendants performed a hot towel service to customers and I really appreciated that. The main cabin meal service was standard for everyone and included cold cuts, a muffin, a yogurt with raspberry, orange juice cups and two bread rolls, which I found a bit strange as one was served hot while the other was cold. Anyways, the hot bread was great! There was also a drinks run, and a second round of coffee and tea service.
Thanks to a tailwind, we were due to arrive in Berlin slightly early. We watched the sunrise over Denmark as we approached into Germany from the North-Central part of the country.
Arrival into Berlin had stunning views of the countryside as we made our final approach.
After the landing at Tegel, we took a taxi over to an area by Terminal C where it was clear that we would descend via staircase and be bussed to the terminal. It was neat to get to deplane from the aft door, on the left side. We got some real views of Tegel airport after we descended down, and my goodness, this airport is truly a dump and on its last legs, at least at Terminal C…
The ground experience at Tegel is a disaster. After clearing immigration and heading into the non-sterile zone of the airport, we noticed massive queues all around for check-in, with the most absurd lines I have ever seen snaking around the ticket counters. It was a disaster zone, and we realized that we had to print our boarding passes out and bring them with us the following morning before we flew out back to Chicago…
Getting an Uber out of Tegel was a mess, too, since there are so few designated areas that are well-marked for ride share. It is best to just take a cab into the city, which costs about the same anyway as an uber would have.
Return Journey to Chicago
Even though we had done our prep and printed our boarding passes early, we still succumbed to the wrath of Tegel when we headed to our boarding gates. The airport is so poorly understaffed and ill-equipped to handle even as few as two long-haul flights at one time. The Chicago and San Francisco flights were both leaving within 5 minutes of each other from the C-80 gate areas. Those who had boarding passes still had to go through a “documents check” after clearing security checkpoints, and it took over an hour-and-a-half to clear the lines. The flights didn’t get a chance to start boarding until way past the boarding start times. It was an all around cluster.
The worst part about this was that there were only TWO agents who were scanning documents and passports for 2 Airbus A330-200 flights going to the U.S. You could tell that the staff at TXL was doing their best to make it happen, but frankly, with so much uncertainty with airberlin, who truly knew what would happen to them in a weeks’ time? It was tough to feel angry or annoyed at the situation because everyone knew the end was near. Once we were processed, we went to a small holding area that had a duty free section, a dinky cafe cart and one small shop. Boarding soon commenced thereafter.
Somehow, by the grace of God, everyone appeared to clear the formalities just 35 minutes after the scheduled departure time. It was also about 80% full on the return flight, as opposed to fully booked on the outbound. We noticed that the interior of this plane was slightly different with blue seats that were a bit more worn, than those on the one we had flown on the outbound. This planes’ registration was D-ABXB.
Air Berlin charges for seat-selection, and we were not willing to fork out a lot of money for the window seats. Ultimately, however, since the plane was not very full, we moved into the bulkhead seats. However, the FA asked if we wouldn’t mind switching with a couple seated in 25 A and B since they had a baby and would like to use the basinet. We were quite happy with this.
Take-off was really smooth, and flight attendants announced that this flight would feature a drinks service, followed by lunch, duty-free, then dinner, then landing in Chicago.
Thankfully, my IFE was fully functional this time around, and as I relaxed into my seat watching TV, I had two gin-and-tonics to begin. I had initially just requested one, but the FA insisted I have two.
About an hour-and-a-half later, lunch was served. Once again, it was a choice between chicken or pasta. The chicken this time around was probably one of the best economy class meals I’ve ever had on a plane. The chicken was moist, delicious and covered in a tangy barbeque sauce. I also loved the mashed potatoes and the green beans. There were some cubes of soft cheese which paired wonderfully with the crackers, as well as a cheery and cranberry sauce compote.
After the meal service, I took a melatonin and slept for a good five hours. I woke up when we were roughly two hours outside of Chicago.
Our dinner service consisted of a very minimal helping of pasta salad (cold), chicken patties (cold) and cheese and crackers, plus apple cake. Again, this meal was delicious, and tasted really good, even though the portions were tiny.
Before long, we were over Lake Michigan and had a nice view of downtown as we approached:
Air Berlin Thoughts and Impressions
There was far more good than bad on airberlin. In fact, I would argue that the only negative on these flights was the ground experience at Tegel. I didn’t honestly get much of an emotional sentiment from any of the cabin crew on the flights. They were pleasant, reliable and efficient, like Lufthansa or SWISS. They weren’t overly expressive or anything, and certainly didn’t seem too perturbed about the situation unfolding at the company. I casually mentioned this to one of the crew members and asked how she felt, and she basically said, “it could go either way,” and just resumed her duties.
So, I suppose they are more chill about it, which is good for peace of mind, I suppose.
But, overall, I was glad that I took this trip for several reasons:
- The price was great, and I earned a nice little chunk of AAdvantage miles for it
- I got to try out a new airline
- The ride was very comfy, the food was good, the product was adequate and the time passed really quickly on these flights
- I slept and I was productive
- I got to visit a new city and spent 24 hours there (and accomplished a ton, which will be in another blog post)
- I got to do something that may be part of history
- It wasn’t overly exhausting (surprisingly) as I got the best balance of rest and activity.
- I get to share it with the rest of you.
Thanks for reading!