AOL Mystery Flyer: Air Berlin Report

The AOL Mystery Flyer returns to the skies to put another airline to the test.

Guten Tag! I traveled to Germany recently on a low cost international carrier you may not know about -- Air Berlin. This trip involved the most unlikely city pairing I've ever flown: a nonstop flight from the retirement capital of Fort Myers, Florida, to Düsseldorf, Germany's fashion capital. Who knew? Not many Americans, apparently, as I didn't hear very many other American accents on the flight, and I was one of the few passengers in the "other nationalities" line at customs when we arrived in Germany.

Never heard of Air Berlin? The first thing to know is that while they are based in Berlin, they operate flights to cities in Africa, Asia and the Middle East and are one of Europe's biggest low cost carriers (and unlike Ryan Air, they're not thinking about charging you for the toilet). From the U.S., Air Berlin flies from Los Angeles, San Francisco, Miami, New York and Fort Myers to Düsseldorf (where you can connect to the other destinations). I was tempted to fly on Air Berlin because I was looking for the lowest fare for a one-way ticket to Germany, and Air Berlin had the U.S. carriers beat by hundreds of dollars. They also have a far friendlier cancellation and re-booking policy (changing your dates on an international Air Berlin ticket only costs around $60, versus the usual $150 on U.S. carriers.)

Wondering what the ride was like on a European low cost carrier? Not much different from what you'd experience on a U.S. legacy carrier. Read on to find out.

Checking In
Fort Myers is a small airport. I arrived about two and a half hours before my flight, and was surprised to see the line was already quite long to check in. When booking, I had opted not to pay the extra charge to secure a window or aisle seat. If you don't pay this extra fee in advance (around $20), you chance a seat assignment on the day of travel, and might well end up in a middle seat for a nine-hour flight. The horror! Still, I was being cheap, so I chanced it.

There was no self-check-in line at the Air Berlin desk, and when I got to the counter, the agent addressed me in German, then switched to English once she saw my passport. She said all the window seats were gone, but that I could have an aisle seat. I told her I'd hoped that arriving early would have helped my cause. "You think two and a half hours is early?" she replied. "If everyone arrived two hours before a flight, the flight wouldn't leave on time. So it's good many people arrive early." I've never had a problem arriving just two hours before a flight, but on Air Berlin, it's a good idea to check in as early as possible to increase your odds of getting a good seat.

Seat Comfort & Amenities
Everything looked pretty standard when I boarded the plane, and I was lucky enough to have an empty middle seat next to me. I'd been excited when the agent told me I was at the front of the plane, with only one row of seats in front of me. It hadn't occurred to me that the one row of seats in front of me faced a cabin wall outfitted with baby bassinets, and was therefore occupied by a restless infant and toddler who were showing no signs of settling in for the night. My next disappointment came in realizing that my seat's headrest did not have the customary flip-out wing things that you can rest your head on (all the more important when you're not on a window and want to avoid your head slumping onto your neighbor's shoulder). I can't remember the last time I flew on an international flight that didn't have headrest extensions in coach seats, and I wondered if that's where the low cost came into play on Air Berlin.

Air Berlin does, however, provide something that's long lost from the coach section on U.S. legacy carriers flying to Europe: everyone in coach was handed a snazzy little gray and red amenity bag with eye shades, earplugs, a toothbrush and toothpaste, and socks. Another nice touch when boarding the plane was a complimentary selection of international newspapers. The in-flight entertainment system on my flight, on the other hand, was not anything to get excited about. There was no seat-back screen -- just overhead screens showing a few movies during the nine-hour journey. A flight attendant came down the aisle offering headsets for sale for $3.50. Odd, I thought, that the amenity bags were free, but you had to buy headsets. Score: Average, 3/5

Within about 30 minutes of takeoff, the FAs came through the aisle with the beverage cart. I requested tomato juice and sparking water (yes, I'm an "Anna," as in, "I'll have a tomato juice, anna water, anna..."). The meal service followed, and we were offered barbecue chicken or pasta with tomato sauce. Airline food, let's face it, is airline food. But it is generally considered to be better on European carriers than on American airlines. I don't know why it's so, but just ask anyone who's flown on Air France or Lufthansa how the meal compares to what's generally served on an American carrier.

But the coach class meal here was no better or worse than what you'd be served on an American carrier: dry chicken bits, mealy potatoes, and newly thawed carrots and peas that tasted more like the freezer they'd just come out of than organic matter. I was excited to see a little cheese wedge called Wee Brie by Président, one of my favorite grocery store brands from France. But when I cut into it, it was nothing more than processed cheese. (In fact, that disclaimer was written in fine print on the labeling.) The bread roll served alongside the meal was cold, dense and generally unappetizing, and reminded me more of clay than dough. You would think that Germans, as savvy a baked good culture as they are, would not stand for this. There was a small dish of coleslaw that tasted fresh and crunchy, if not too flavorful. And the food item I eyed with the most suspicion -- the uniformly square desert with a typically shiny topping -- turned out to be the tastiest thing on the tray...cheesecake topped with caramel frosting. Score: Very average, 3/5

The Air Berlin agents I came into contact with at the Fort Myers airport were mostly German, although the agent that checked me in spoke English with no accent and was fluent in German, too. Most of my fellow passengers were German, and I was always spoken to first in German, then in English when the agents realized that was my language. The Air Berlin agents in the airport were all helpful and efficient, with a slightly cooler attitude than what some Americans might consider friendly, but they were friendly, nonetheless. The airline definitely had a more "'all business"' tone than a "'we're so happy you're flying with us"' feeling, but I think that's simply reflective of customer service in general in Europe, where you would never have your server at a restaurant introduce himself or herself to you by name at the start of the meal. During the flight, I made requests for an extra drink and a blanket. The reactions from the flight attendants were friendly, if direct: "The only blankets available are those that were in the seats. No extras, sorry." Score: Friendly, 4/5
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