Recently, airberlin commenced flights between Prague and Berlin-Tegel, and I was fortunate enough to be on-board the inaugural service.
The flights are operated by Darwin Airline/Etihad Regional using a 50-seat Saab 2000 aircraft. It was a new type for me having only previously flown on the Saab 340. The Saab 2000 is one of the fastest turboprop aircraft in commercial service, with a maximum cruising speed of 413mph.
I was curious to see what the Etihad Regional product would be like, and if it would live up to the Etihad mainline economy class experience.
airberlin has scheduled three daily return flights on the route. If we look at the route from a P2P (point-to-point) perspective, three flights is a lot, given the numerous train and bus connections linking Berlin and Prague, in about five hours. The justification from airberlin for the three flights per day is that Prague-Berlin will act primarily as a feeder service for their mainline European and long-haul international networks. All the flights are time strategically to connect, in particular with long-haul flights New York and Moscow.
As airberlin is largely a low-cost carrier, I was not expecting much fanfare at the airport on the first day of operations. However, I forgot that we are in Prague and the airport takes any new service launch seriously. I was made aware of the new route the moment I set foot in the terminal, with numerous automated announcements on the PA system celebrating the occasion.
Check-in was completed with minimal fuss, but I must point out that online check-in was not possible. At first, I suspected this was caused by first-day operations, but as I could not check-in for my return flight from Berlin, I suspect it is because the flight is operated by Etihad Regional and their aircraft seat maps are not loaded in the airline’s system yet.
Making my way to the gate area, I was greeted with a welcome drink of sparkling wine, as well as numerous sweet and savory refreshments. Following the arrival of the inbound inaugural flight from Berlin, the flight crew made an appearance and posed for some photos. I was happy to see that even Etihad Regional has adopted some of the new uniform designs from big brother Etihad.
Various speeches were given by representatives from the airberlin sales team in Czech Republic/Slovakia, as well as staff from the Prague airport. Following this and the traditional ribbon cutting ceremony to open the route, it was time to board. The load on my flight was just 16 passengers, so it felt like more of a private flight than one on a scheduled airline.
I have more recently checked the loads on the route, which has been going for a little over a month, and there has been a solid increase, with most flights operating at about 60% capacity. This is a good sign to the ongoing positive operation of the route.
Boarding the aircraft, I was pleasantly surprised that the warm tones and colors which are present on the mainline Etihad fleet have been incorporated into the cabin design on the regional aircraft.
As I was seated in a bulkhead seat, legroom was not an issue, and even in the non-bulkhead seats it was more than sufficient for the one-hour flight. I did find the headroom slightly limited, but then again, I am reasonably tall.
The cabin is in a classic Saab 1-2 layout, with overhead bins on the double-seat side only. I was impressed by the size of the overhead bins, as my camera bag fit with ease. I have had issues fitting this bag on other turbo-prop aircraft such as Dash 8s and ATRs, but not with the Saab 2000.
The flight departed on-time; service consisted of snacks, non-alcoholic soft drinks, water, and tea & coffee. Again, this type of service is more than sufficient for the flight time and more extensive than what Czech Airlines used to offer when they flew the route in the past.
Arrival into Berlin was on-time and we were given the traditional airberlin chocolate hearts as a parting gift upon disembarkation, which is a ways a welcome touch to any flight experience.
Overall, airberlin has delivered a solid product on the flight. Despite being based on a low-cost model, the level of service provided really was a step above many other regional EU carriers, and was consistent with that offered on mainline Etihad services, just scaled down to a smaller size.
Given airberlins’ extensive network and Berlin hub, I am sure that this route will continue to see an increase in feeder traffic, in particular over the summer peak travel season.