The Trials and Tribulations with Air Berlin

For the past couple of decades Berlin has had its own rather successful airline company, Air Berlin. They would tend to mirror many of the Lufthansa routes, but at a bit more unpopular times for a bit less money. They still offered free soft drinks where the El Cheapo airlines wanted 3,50 € for a bottle of water. And you always got a chocolate heart when you deplaned :)

A couple of weeks ago the company, which had been on the brink for a while, registered that they are insolvent. The government quickly gave them a hefty loan to tide them over until November or so, in order to get all the vacationers home. The EU squealed a bit over this, but have calmed themselves down, as Air Berlin has been put up for sale, all bids to have been tendered by yesterday afternoon, decision to be announced after the election Sept. 25.

Air Berlin cut some of their long-distance routes to save a bit of money, but were servicing the rest of their routes more or less. There was a bit of a mess-up when the Tegel Airport had to close down for a few hours because of a bomb that needed to be de-fused nearby. Planes ended up having to land at the unfinished BER airport. However, there were no stairs and no unloading capacity there. A few stairs were trundled over from Schönefeld, but they refused to unload Air Berlin flights for fear of not getting paid. One plane that a reporter sat in apparently collected cash to pay the put-the-stairs-up-to-the-plane fee....

For some insane reason, the relatively well-paid pilots were afraid that they would soon be out of a job, and they were angry that the union wasn't screaming loud enough, and so they staged a wildcat strike on Tuesday. About one third of the pilots called in "sick" at short notice.

Pandemonium erupted. This hit the already weakened airline cold. They were unprepared to have to deal with rebooking so many of their passengers. They didn't even have food for distributing to those standing in long, unmoving lines. Now, not only was the company missing the revenue for these flights, passengers for the next few weeks were jumping ship. Passengers were stuck, were not told what was happening, even some that had been on busses out to planes were brought back as their pilot was pulled off for another route.

WiseMan had already booked his business trip weeks in advance for Saturday, and had chosen Air Berlin out of solidarity. We don't want Lufthansa to have a monopoly here. We were jittery on Tuesday, on Wednesday there were still some flights cancelled, but Thursday was said to be "normal" again. He prepared lists of "Plan B's", how he might alternatively reach his destination.

Okay, might be okay. His flight was for 12.45 pm, which meant we could have a nice, long Saturday breakfast, a quick drive to the airport, and he would have the afternoon and evening to relax at his destination. We still both checked this morning around 8.30 that the flight was "on time". It was! We enjoyed breakfast, and then checked online again, and now the bizarreness started. He received an email from Air Berlin saying "So sorry, we had to cancel your flight, apologize for the inconvenience, give us a call at the number on the back of your frequent flyer card." I still had the flight listed at the airport as "on time", AND I could still purchase tickets for the flight.

WiseMan dug out his card and started calling the numbers. "This number is no longer in service". We checked the web page: no telephone numbers. We found a booking telephone number in a list, that was busy. And busy. And busy. We dug deeper, found another number that cost money to call, that, too said that they were so sorry, too busy, call back another time. In desperation I got out my Swedish mobile phone and placed a long-distance call to the Swedish booking office of Air Berlin. It answered, and put me into the voicemail purgatory so common of Swedish "help" lines. We stayed on for about 10 minutes before killing this off.

Per Twitter Air Berlin admonished us to NOT go to the airport, but to use the service numbers. We decided: Nuts to this, I scrambled into my clothes, we gathered everything and everybody (WiseGrandkid had a sleep-over with us the night before) and jumped into the car.

Ahhhh, driving to Tegel mid-morning on a Saturday is a breeze, 17 minutes door-to-door! We found a parking space near the front door, and immediately saw the line when we got in. Amazingly, though, it was actually moving. We only spent about 30-40 minutes waiting, and WiseMan was rebooked to a flight later in the afternoon. WiseGrandkid was a paragon of virtue, so I offered to take her to the zoo. She declined and wanted to see the planes take off and land.

We first headed home to have some lunch, and then a few hours later drove back to the airport. The lines were now about four times as long at the re-booking counter, and people were mad and angry. I sure would not have wanted to have to work there today... Since WiseMan had managed to get a boarding card at home (the booking number would not work, but the ticket number did), we only had to stand in line for the bag drop-off and hope for the best.

WiseMan decided to go right through security, and WiseGrandkid and I headed up to the observation deck. It was sunny and pleasant, and there is really a great view from the top. I was planning on staying 30 minutes, tops, but we ended up staying for an hour and a half, as she just loved watching the planes take off and land.

Air Berlin didn't have any buses for them to get to the planes, WiseMan texted me, they walked across the tarmac. They were late starting, but they made it, and even the luggage was there! I'm afraid many others were not so lucky, there were piles and piles of luggage stacked up in wagons on the tarmac.

For the trip back, though, he booked one of the Plan B flights. It's worth the extra money to be pretty sure that you are going to make it back without extra excitement.


But what do the tourists do?

You pretty much have to have a credit card (or two) in order to stay in Sweden anymore. They are trying hard to get rid of cash, theoretically because it might get stolen, but more likely so that the government can have more control of revenue streams. So I make it a point to withdraw cash from an ATM and pay cash for everything.

Except when I can't. 

We were in Lund, planning on eating at a nice restaurant, and pulled into one of my favorite parking places near the station. Only 12 SEK (about 1,20 €) an hour, and we were parking half an hour before you didn't have to pay anymore. So I was planning on throwing six crowns into the box. Except it looked like this:

"Only cards and telephone parking"
Although the machine states that it takes coins, there is a handwritten piece of paper taped over the coin slot. "Only cards and telephone parking," it says. Sheesh. I even have exact change handy. Okay, what's this "telephone parking" bit, what number do I call?

Well, first you have to install an app, and then:

Start the app - send an SMS with the following information:
Zone Code, Register Number, Personnr

Oops - once you have the app started, you have to sent off the code for the parking zone, the code for the machine you are standing in front of, and then your personnr. All Swedes have such a number, but tourists don't. I used to have one, as I worked in Sweden, but it has been marked no longer valid in the massive Swedish databases that Sweden appears to let IBM store in Romania and elsewhere. So I can't do anything with that number, not even pay 60 cents to park my car. And since the fines for not paying the parking fee are very steep (they start at about 1000 SEK, 100 €. I can think of better things to do with that amount of money), I don't want to walk away.

So I ended up pulling out my credit card to pay 60 cents. This is considered normal in Sweden, you don't even use your PIN number. Buying milk or a newspaper is also often just paid for by waving a card at the machine. Of course, the Swedes have never been in debt as much as they are today, probably because they use credit cards so much. If there are no coins in my pocket, I can quickly determine that I don't have money for a coffee. But with a credit card, I lose that connection with my money -- and end up paying interest to the bank, which is, of course, what they want. 

Sweden is highly dependent on tourists (9,6 % of their GNP is travel and tourism!), so perhaps they need to discover that they need to organize their society so that non-Swedes can also participate.

I just had a fight with the bank about this, they didn't want to give me a little electric box to produce the number I need to transfer funds by Internet without a personnr. 1998 I wrote an article about the "holy personnr" and it is still bad and getting worse. The bank teller wouldn't give it to me, her boss said no, too. No personnr, no box, no matter that I have money in their bank. I asked for the name of someone to complain to.

I wrote this person and included links to the appropriate EU legislation. EU citizens have the same rights as locals in ALL EU countries. That's pretty much the point of the EU! A few weeks later I got a letter apologizing and saying: of course you can get a box with your German passport.

So this past week I went back. It took some hemming and hawing, but I left with my new little box. They insisted, though, that I try it out in the bank. I said I was not comfortable using a computer that was not my own. Oh, you can be sure, it's encrypted! Sigh.

But honestly, we can navigate the system, as we have vacationed here for many years. What on earth do tourists do?


Here Grandpa, let me show you!

[Okay, little time and a lot of difficulty convincing Google to let me log in here. I know, excuses, excuses!]

Wisegrandkid is now 3 1/2 and a lot of fun to play with - and hand back over to Mom & Wisekid when the day is over. We were driving her home from a handball game last week, Wiseman was sitting in the back with her. She wanted him to play something on his mobile phone. He didn't know how to do what she wanted. "Gimme that," she said, and took his mobile phone and pushed all the right buttons to get whatever it was that she wanted to work on his phone. The times, they are a-changin'!