Air Berlin, Germany’s second largest airline with about 15 Million passengers in 2005, has evolved from a small charter niche carrier to Europe’s third largest low cost carrier in just a matter of three years since the inauguration of the City Shuttle flights in 2003. Nowadays, the airline is offering a highly attractive product for both leisure and business travellers alike – and one of their strongholds is the Palma Shuttle operation, which sees two daily hub banks from up to 18 airports in Germany, the UK, Austria, Switzerland and the Netherlands being connected to airports all over the Iberian peninsula via their hub in PMI.
During a recent fare sale, I scored a very nice daytrip – DUS-PMI-LIS-PMI-DUS for a very comptetitive 48 Euro incl. all takes and fees for the return trip, which permitted me to take a glimpse at the Portuguese capital. Since the Iberian flights of AB and their partner airline NIKI (HG) are not covered extensively in this forum, I would like to invite you all to join me on this short Saturday afternoon trip from the island of Mallorca to Lisbon.
Air Berlin is offering seat reservations at the time of booking, which will set you back 8 Euro per inbound or outbound travel portion (including up to two segments per portion) if you are a regular passenger. Once you have reached Silver or Gold Status in their highly attractive frequent flyer program “Top Bonus” (Silver available for 50 Euro or alternatively 15.000 accrued miles within one year, Gold being only available if you reach at least 30.000 miles within one year), seat reservations are free. Since I am a top tier member of their program due to frequent business and private travels with Air Berlin, I was able to already select my seats during booking, which saved me a lot of hassle on the day of travel.
Saturday, January 21, 2006
Palma de Mallorca Airport (PMI)
After arriving on my “feeder flight” from Dusseldorf in PMI’s spacious Terminal D, I left the aircraft and entered the long hallways made from dark brown and red limestone. A few other feeder flights from other German, Austrian and Swiss airports had already arrived, and the building was rapidly filling up with all sorts of leisure travellers ranging from young couples or families to a high percentage of senior citizens.
In order to kill some time, I travelled up and down the long escalators in the center of the terminal pier and took a stroll through the duty free and other travel gadgetry stores at the easternmost part of the terminal pier..
Not finding anything particularly interesting and becoming quickly fed up with the hustle and bustle of the other passengers in this part of the building, I returned to the very western end of the pier, where I could just see our Boeing 737-400 arrive at a remote stand.
D-ABAH was actually the only one of five –400’s in the AB fleet still missing from my logbook, so I was very lucky to finally close this gap in my records. A few minutes later, boarding calls for the outbound wave to a plethora of Spanish and Portuguese airports started. In order to effectively manage the aircraft rotations, flights for destinations further away are leaving PMI before shorter hops, meaning that our Lisbon flight was one of the first one called up for boarding.
After showing my boarding pass to the friendly Ineuropa Handling gate agent and walking down the stairway, I entered the bus. About forty or fifty more passengers trickled in, until the bus driver closed the door and drove us the short distance to our waiting aircraft under a balmy Mediterranean sun, the 12 degrees local temperature being a nice chance from the chilly German winter BTW.
The flight (PMI-LIS)
Palma de Mallorca Sont San Juan PMI – Lisbon Portela de Sacavem (LIS)
Flight number: AB 2616
Scheduled block time: 1020h – 1105h
Take-off: 1124h (RWY 06R)
Touchdown: 1057h (RWY 03)
first flight: February 08, 1995
Photo © Jörg Mundhenk
Entering the cabin through the front left door, I greeted the two friendly female flight attendants in their trademark burgundy red uniforms. Declining the offer for a welcoming candy, I instead selected a newspaper available in the galley. “Wait a moment”, I hear you shout, “Air Berlin is a low cost carrier, how come that they are offering any free inflight amenities?” Well, Air Berlin is a little bit different from the dirty Irish crap carrier and Greyhound of the European sky: they are offering all the perks “traditional” flag carriers would do and even excel in many aspects like onboard catering. All that for fares which are in average way below the standards of Lufthansa, Air France or British Airways.
After reaching my seat row, I put my backpack in the overhead bin and settled down, waiting for the other passengers do arrive.
A second bus arrived with another forty or so travellers, then the cabin door was closed and preparation for take-off commenced. Today would be a lightly loaded flight with about 80 passengers – so plenty of space for everyone.
After pushback, the engines spooled up with their trusty dry-sounding hum and while the safety video was shown, we slowly proceeded to the active runway. The Air Berlin hub was bustling with activity and while we were slowly approaching the three kilometer stretch of concrete, I watched other flights leaving the terminal stands and following our example.
Soon turning onto the active runway, thrust levers were advanced and we thundered down the centerline and reached for the skies about 2000 meters from the threshold, performing a spirited climb above the green and brown meadows and fields of the Mallorca hinterland.
After climbing about three or four thousand feet, a gentle turn towards the north was initiated, which guided us away from PMI at a 90 degrees angle…
… also passing the City of Palma and the small general aviation airport of Son Bonet (visible at the bottom of the following picture) just to the east…
… and entering a thick cloud layer just above Cap de Formentor, the very western end of the island. From here on until shortly before landing, no ground scenery was visible, the Iberian peninsula being atypically covered by a thick white blanket of clouds.
About twenty minutes after take-off, we levelled off at our cruising altitude of 35.000 feet and cruising speed slowly built up to its maximum value of Mach 0,74. Flight routing today was PMI-VLC-Toledo-Badajoz-LIS. The annunciator bell from the cockpit released the cabin crew from their seats, also signalling the start of the service program.
Again, unlike most of their low cost competitors, Air Berlin is offering a comprehensive cabin service program, starting from sale of headphones for the audio and video program (you can also plug in your own headphones, so you don’t have to buy any on board) to free snacks and beverages and the availability of duty free sales opportunities.
On our short hop this morning, a choice of cheese or ham baguettes was available free of charge. Judging from the delicious taste of the ham, the catering was obviously loaded in Palma, because the smell and aroma of the Serrano was a nice change from the often bland sandwich offerings on competing carriers, also being a nice reminiscence of our destination this morning.
Additionally, two free hot or cold drinks were also available for every passenger, with beer, whine and spirits being on offer for a nominal fee.
The remainder of the flight went by smoothly, most passengers relaxing, taking a short nap or listening to the audio program.
About twenty or thirty minutes before touchdown, thrust was noticeably pulled back and our
Boeing commenced a gentle descent across the wooded hills of central Portugal.
Crossing Estoril a few minutes before touchdown, we slowly turned above the Atlantic Ocean towards the north, lining up with the ILS of runway 03 just as we crossed the Portuguese coastline again just west of Lisbon.
While Lisbon’s Portela airport used to be somewhere in the countryside far away from the city only ten or fifteen years ago, the explosion of the city’s population has meant the urbanization is quickly encroaching the airport perimeter.
In fact, a steady flow of buildings, streets and other infrastructures unfolded below our glidepath up until the very last few seconds of your flight.
We soared gently across the airport perimeter fence…
… and touched down firmly on Portuguese soil. A quick application of thrust reverser power ensued, and we vacated the runway adjacent to the TAP maintenance hangars.
While taxiing to our arrival gate, a few aviation gems unfoled beyond our eyes. The former Zaire government Boeing 707 was still sitting on its position close to the maintenance area, being stranded here ever since the death of Zairean former dictator Mobutu left the maintenance bill for the old bird unpaid.
Lisbon is also home to another unfortunately dying species: three or four Lockheed L1011’s are still based at and actively flying from the airport, among these being Yes Air (now called “White”), Luzair (an Air Luxor subsidiary) and Euro Atlantic Airways, whose TriStar I was able to capture in a bad angle on the following photograph.
After arrival at our gate position, disembarkation started quickly, and before I set off for downtown Lisbon, I captured one last shot of our ride (with the Luzair L1011 visible in the distance).
At Lisbon Airport (LIS)
Returning to the quite modern looking and well-kept airport about two hours before departure, I quickly snapped a few pictures of the landside due to my professional interest in airport access planning and -logistics.
Next to the two check-in halls - one being an obviously older structure with a low ceiling, the other one having been constructed in recent years with the use of lots of glass and steel - a large shopping area offers a fair number of last-minute purchasing opportunities. More interesting in this part of the building however is the large artistic rendition of a “wing” right at the interface between shopping and check-in area - a feature which is probably left unnoted by many visitors.
After using the modern check-in hall for the reception of my boarding passes (LIS-PMI and PMI-DUS)…
… I passed through the security checkpoint and went airside, where a few flights to European destinations were being readied for departure.
At this tranquil time in the early afternoon on a Saturday in January, the terminal was less than crowded however – but I am not the one complaining about the lack of action!
After visiting the airside shopping mall one last time, I walked towards the gate, where our aircraft had just arrived inbound from the second hub bank in PMI.
This afternoon’s service would be operated by NIKI, the airline of the Austrian Formula 1 racing legend Niki Lauda, who is in aviation circles probably better known for the launch of Lauda Air some twenty years ago. Having sold his shares of Lauda Air to archrival Austrian a few years ago, Mr. Lauda obviously was possessed by the aviation bug and started to set up another airline in his home country as soon as the contractually agreed “cooling off period” after the Lauda Air sale was over. This time, he chose to set up a low cost/ charter carrier according to the Air Berlin model, making good use of airplanes and personal from the former German leisure carrier Aero Lloyd, which went bankrupt at about the same time Lauda set up his business.
NIKI is closely allied to AB today, the German carrier actually being a 25% shareholder of the Austrian carrier. All AB flights are also sold via NIKI’s distribution channels and vice versa, and the Top Bonus frequent flyer program is valid for both airlines.
Just as I had taken the picture of OE-LOR, the first boarding call asked passengers to get ready for boarding, so I joined the queue at the gate and entered the cabin via jetway after a short hiatus.
The flight (LIS-PMI)
Lisbon Portela de Sacavem (LIS) - Palma de Mallorca Sont San Juan PMI
Flight number: HG 2613
Scheduled block time: 1610h – 1855h
Take-off: 1617h (RWY 03)
Touchdown: 1847h (RWY 24L)
first flight: April 27, 2001
Photo © Snorre - VIP Vienna International Planespotters
Once inside the Airbus, passengers were greeted by two flight attendants waiting in the galley. Here, the usual offerings of newspapers and candy was also available, because the service program of AB and HG are closely harmonized. I settled down on the bright grey leather seat, which unfortunately does not only remind of a beg of cement due to its color, but also due to its lack of upholstery.
About 120 passengers boarded our plane this afternoon and soon after the last guest had entered the cabin, the door was closed and take-off preparations commenced. Just as we were pushed back from our stand, the safety demo informed us about our evacuation options (if you have any options in such an instance anyway), then the engines spooled up and we began our long voyage towards the threshold of RWY 03.
This ten minute apron tour offered quite a few last-minute photo opportunities of aircraft not seen frequently in the rest of the world, among them being the SATA Air Acores A310-300…
… and, much to my delight and surprise, Yes Air/ White’s L1011-500! I must have made a very weird impression to my fellow passengers, frantically snapping pictures with my digicam just as the old TriStar came into sight.
As our Airbus had reached the threshold, the panorama allowed one last view of the remote stands…
… before it was our turn for take-off. Thundering down the runway, we soon said good-bye to terra firma and climbed away from the airport…
… also leaving the eastern suburbs and one of Lisbon’s most famous landmarks, the Vasco da Gama bridge, behind.
Unfortunately, a few minutes later, the massive cloud cover over Spain greeted us again, so there were hardly any photo opportunities for the rest of the flight. The service program was an exact copy of Air Berlin’s one, with free soft drinks and a small snack being available to all passengers.
Flight routing was roughly the same like the one of the outbound trip in the morning, guiding us across the Iberian peninsula at an altitude of 36.000 feet and at a cruising speed of 530 knots.
I managed to snap one last picture of the setting sun just as we began our descent into PMI…
… and a few minutes later we were back on the ground after a scenic flight just north of the City of Palma and a long southbound turn in order to line us up with the ILS to RWY 24L.
We slowly approached our stand at Terminal D, where a plethora of Air Berlin B737 was already waiting for the return wave of flights to Germany, Austria and Switzerland.
Waiting for the Airbus to come on-block and for the jetway to connect took only a few more minutes, and then I was back at PMI, having spent a pleasurable day in LIS and enjoying both German and Austrian hospitality on board Air Berlin and NIKI.
Even if you don’t score one of AB/HG’s special offers, Germany’s second largest, the airline will almost certainly offer very good value for money for all your travel needs between Germany, Austria, Switzerland, the Netherlands or the UK and some important European business centers and/ or the most popular holiday regions around the Mediterranean and on the Canary Islands. The business model also demonstrates impressively that low fares do not necessarily equate shoddy ryanairesque “service”, grumpy staff, delays or other inefficiencies.
I have never encountered a surly or arrogant call center employee, check-in agent, flight attendant or gate personal during my almost 100 flights on AB and HG, despite the fact that most of the staff is contracted out and working the maximum allowed duty times – an achievement, a certain German flag carrier and its sometimes quite snobbish staff should appreciate. Judging from the comments I have heard from friends and family members about AB/HG and seeing, how many people are choosing to fly the airline each and every year, it seems like AB/HG is becoming the “traveller’s sweetheart”, offering a wide spreading network, good and friendly service at a fair price. Definitely recommendable for a customer’s point of view.
Thanks for reading my report! Questions, comments, or criticism are always appreciated.