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.