Dear fellow travellers
This evening an Airbus A320 in Air Berlin's distinctive red-and-white livery will be doused with water by fire engines waiting on the runway at Munich Airport. Water salutes of this kind are common in the aviation industry, but are usually reserved for the christening of a new aircraft, the launch of a new route or a VIP arrival. In this case, the ritual is more of a farewell, a parting gesture to an airline which is slipping into aviation history.
Flight AB6210 is scheduled to take off from Munich at 21.35 and fly north-east over Bohemia and Saxony to land at Tegel Airport in Berlin 70 minutes later, where no doubt there will be more festivities to mark the occasion. Flight AB6210 will be the carrier's very last scheduled flight. When it touches down in Tegel, it will mark the end of Air Berlin, which first took to the skies 38 years ago with a flight from Tegel to Mallorca. The company was initially registered in the US state of Oregon.
In its present incarnation, Air Berlin PLC is much younger. It was registered in England in 2005. The current board of directors are variously British, German, Dutch and Turkish. The company's floatation on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange was delayed amid concerns over profitability, but went ahead just prior to the 2006 World Cup hosted by Germany.
Germany was flying high, and so was Air Berlin. The carrier grew through acquisition, taking over all or part of the operations of rival carriers - and then quite often ruthlessly closing routes that didn't quite fit into the carrier's grand plan to become a major player in Europe's skies. The plan was all illusion. Air Berlin survived only through vast injections of cash from Etihad Airways, the Emirates-based carrier which was well placed to really shake up Air Berlin.
Etihad acquired Air Berlin stock to become by far the largest shareholder but its efforts to restructure Air Berlin came to nothing. This summer the flow of funds from the United Arab Emirates dried up. Air Berlin filed for insolvency in August. That flights have continued for another ten weeks is due only to a huge bailout from the German government. But all wells eventually run dry and this month has seen thousands of flights cancelled and an Air Berlin plane being impounded in Iceland for non-payment of landing fees.
The curious thing about the whole Air Berlin affair is that it shows a remarkable German capacity to represent failure as a triumph. From some of the rhetoric surrounding Berlin's new airport (which was due to open years ago, but still has not received a single commercial flight), one might think this was the finest airport in the world. An advertising campaign in Berlin this month is promoting an improved train service from Berlin to Leipzig from 10 December. The ads say that the journey will take as little as 75 minutes. That is in fact rather slower than the headline time between the two cities in recent years. Ten years ago, advertisements celebrated a one-hour journey between the two cities (though the fastest train actually took 61 minutes).
So this evening, as the prosecco glasses clink and the water salutes cascade, anyone might be forgiven for thinking that Air Berlin had just notched up some great commercial success. What is in fact being marked is the demise of an airline. The real beneficiary is national carrier Lufthansa which is picking up many of Air Berlin's routes. But not all. The disappearance of Air Berlin leaves some big network gaps. Plane spotters are rejoicing, as Lufthansa is deploying unusually large aircraft on inner-German routes to shift the crowds. Over the upcoming weeks, it will even be possible to fly on a 747 Jumbo Jet from Frankfurt to Berlin.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)
The upcoming issue of hidden europe magazine, due out on 15 November, includes our regular Flightscan column with a look at regional air services connecting remote island communities around the British Isles.