Recently, I had the opportunity to take my first ever inaugural flight. Condor inaugurated twice-weekly service nonstop from Frankfurt to San Diego and they were kind enough to allow me to tag along. This was a special trip for me, as I rarely get the opportunity to fly internationally in anything but economy class, as more opulent flying is typically not in my budget.
Not only was this a big deal for me, but this new connection to Europe is a big deal for the city of San Diego and the 3 million plus people in the metropolitan area. With the new flight, Condor becomes just the second nonstop connection to Europe, and first by a leisure airline.
Lindbergh Field, aka San Diego International Airport, is the busiest single-runway airport in the U.S., and the sixth-busiest single-runway airport in the world. As the primary airport for the seventh-biggest city in the country, KSAN served 20.7 million passengers in 2016, a slight increase over the 20.0 million in 2015. These totals have slowly increased over the last few years as the airport has expanded and modernized its facilities, and airlines such as Southwest and Alaska have increased service. However, only 762,000 (less than 4%) of those 20.7 million 2016 passengers were international passengers. A majority of those travelers can be attributed to Canada, Mexico, and Central America.
I could write a book on the reasons for the lack of international service out of San Diego, but I will spare you that here. Regardless, it does appear as though the tide is changing. Condor saw the lack of international service as an opportunity, and on May 1, became the third long-haul international operator to serve San Diego after British Airways from London Heathrow and Japan Airlines from Tokyo Narita. The twice-weekly service to Frankfurt is SAN’s first nonstop service to continental Europe.
After a seamless check-in at the counter and a quick transit through security, it wasn’t hard to find the assigned gate. Besides the fact that the departure gate was the first one after passing through security, I only had to follow my ears to the sounds of an accordionist sporting lederhosen playing traditional German music. Condor and the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority went all out to celebrate the new service. Passengers in the Gate 22 area were treated to iconic German foods including bratwurst and sauerkraut. Outside the windows of the gate was our waiting Boeing 767-300ER, registration D-ABUI. I doubt many of the passengers even noticed the airplane, as directly in front of the window was a spread of cupcakes, beverages, and a cake celebrating the inaugural flight.
The gate area itself feels a bit too small for a wide-body flight, and it felt even more cramped when the waiting Condor passengers were joined by the departing British Airways passengers at the gate directly next door. Both of these flights depart near the same time (around 9pm) for the Monday night Condor flight. The Thursday flight to Frankfurt departs earlier in the day, around 4pm, so it should not have this gate crowding issue. San Diego County Regional Airport Authority has also just announced the beginning of construction on a new FIS location at the west end of Terminal 2. The new location, which will open in 2018, will be much larger and allow the airlines to utilize the more spacious end of the terminal, alleviating the space issue.
That being said, both the Condor Frankfurt and British London passengers seemed to get a kick out of the accordion entertainment. The preflight festivities prior to actual boarding concluded with short speeches by representatives from the airport authority, the airline, and the Honorary Consul of the Federal Republic of Germany, Stephan Hollmann.
Kim Becker, President and CEO for the San Diego County Regional Airport Authority, said this flight “will takeoff and fly nonstop to Germany for the first time in our airport’s nearly 90-year history,” and “we could not be more proud or more thrilled to welcome Condor Airlines to San Diego.”
While the airport authority has been working diligently behind the scenes, credit must also be given to Condor for being willing to inaugurate the new service. “We are very pleased to introduce this new link between San Diego and Frankfurt, giving Southern California a unique choice for their travels to Germany,” stated Jens Boyd, Director Long Haul & Revenue Management Condor. “We have been growing our U.S. network for the last 4-5 years, and San Diego has always been top of the list. Now, we are finally here.”
After the speeches, a ribbon cutting ceremony officially opened the service. Champagne was passed for a toast, the ribbon was cut, and then it was time to get down to business. For a new flight, there were few glitches or issues with the service.
Among the minor problems I saw was that the check-in counter did not have bag tags for customers to attach to their bags. The only other issue I found in San Diego was that the boarding process was disorganized. The gate agents did not make it clear who could board during the priority boarding time, and they seemed to rush through the boarding groups. Having missed the priority boarding time, I joined in with regular boarding, but the groupings were announced so close together that effectively the whole plane boarded in one large group. I expect these minor issues will easily be ironed out with more Condor flights under their belts.
For the SAN-FRA flight, I was booked into Condor’s Premium Class, seat 8K. Basically a premium economy product, the seats are the regular economy seats but with extra legroom and headrests, upgraded meal services, and free IFE included. Premium class seats have 36” of pitch, as opposed to the 30” of regular economy. As an individual of above average height, I found the seats and legroom to be decently comfortable. The seat eventually made my posterior a bit sore, but most seats tend to do that on 11+ hour flights. I was very lucky to have an empty aisle seat next to me, which made it easier to adjust positions periodically to avoid soreness.
The 767-300ER that Condor operates on long-haul flights is not a new aircraft. This one in particular first flew in 1994, but it was not showing its age. The interior felt clean and modern, and was well appointed. Best of all, my window seat had an excellent view of the obscenely large 767 winglets painted with the stylish Condor logo.
The flight was a smooth one, and did not seem to last as long as 12 hours sounds like it would. The large IFE screen in each seat provided a nice selection of current movies, tv shows, and music.
The food and beverage service was effective at keeping me from feeling hungry or thirsty on the flight. We were served a tasty dinner shortly after takeoff and a snack a couple hours before arriving in Frankfurt.
In between the meals, I was able to take a few short naps and watch two movies and a few tv shows. Although not a big issue to me, it is important to note that the Condor 767s do not have WiFi installed.
Once in Germany, I felt it was relatively easy to adjust to the nine-hour time change. Frankfurt Airport was not busy at our arrival time and the transit through the border check and baggage claim was quick and painless. I was soon on the train to the city center.
After a little over one full day exploring Frankfurt, I woke up early to head to the airport for my return flight. Arriving to the airport on the train from the city, I proceeded to the check in desk for Condor. My reservation listed Premium Class for the return flight, which has its own check in line segregated from regular economy ticket holders. The representative checked me in, took my bag, and gave me my boarding pass. The final thing she told me was that I would need to go over to the Business Class desk to get my access ticket to the business class lounge. I had been upgraded! I can count on two fingers how many times I’ve had that happen on an international flight.
Lufthansa lounge pass acquired, I asked the Business Class desk representative where the lounge was located. She waved her hand generally to her left and halfheartedly said “over there.” Having absolutely no idea what that meant, I decided to go to the Condor customer service desk to ask the same question again. There they looked at my boarding pass and told me that the lounge at C14 was the closest to my gate.
I made the long walk through passport control and security, both of which were largely deserted, and finally to the Lufthansa lounge upstairs at gate C14. The attendant there said I could not use that lounge, and that the one at gate C16 was closest to my gate. Starting to feel like I was getting the runaround, I walked farther down the terminal and climbed the stairs up to the C16 lounge. This is definitely a feature that Condor needs to fix, as finding a lounge should not be this difficult, especially in a mostly empty terminal.
Once I finally found it, the Lufthansa lounge on the upper level of gate C16 was comfortable and well appointed. With plenty of snacks and beverages to hold me over to until the flight, I enjoyed the view from the upper levels of the terminal. Even though the weather did not cooperate my entire time in Frankfurt, it was still fun seeing all the airline variety that we normally don’t get in Southern California.
Since my gate was not actually C16 but C17, I made my way downstairs just prior to our scheduled boarding time. Unfortunately, gate C17 is a bus gate. At boarding time we proceeded downstairs to the waiting bus to the remote stand. Ten minutes of later, I was mostly certain that we were driving to San Diego, not flying. This was the longest bus ride to a remote gate I have ever experienced.
Finally onboard another Condor 767-300ER, this time registered D-ABUD, I settled into Business Class seat 2A. While I do not fly business or first class very often, the seat felt like a somewhat dated product. There was no privacy between seats, and very little storage around the seat. However, the seat was very comfortable, more so than the Premium Class seat, and reclined to fully lie-flat at almost level to the floor. The IFE screen was considerably larger than the classes in the back of the plane, and the seat had AC power available.
Besides the larger and more comfortable seat, the biggest difference between Business Class and Premium Class is the catering. While the Premium Class meals were tasty and filling, the Business Class food was excellent and memorable. The main course of veal medallion, fresh white asparagus, potatoes, and béarnaise sauce was a meal I would gladly pay good money for in a fancy restaurant. The fresh pretzels and pretzel rolls were a bonus, and the black forest gateau was a perfect finish to an outstanding meal (it looked so delicious I forgot to take a photo of it before I made it disappear).
I tried hard to find any faults in the service on the return to San Diego, and the only thing I noted was a nitpicky critique of the landmarks pointed out by the pilot. I can’t fault the pilot much for this because this was undoubtedly his first time flying to San Diego, but he announced that we were passing Salt Lake and Colorado Springs, when in fact we were over the Salton Sea and passing south of Palm Springs. Minor details.
On both legs of this trip, in Premium Class and Business Class, the crew was extremely pleasant and helpful. I cannot think of anytime where I found myself wanting or needing anything and not getting it. I found the level of personal service of the Condor crews to be at the same level as the legacy European carriers in all facets.
By entering the market in San Diego, it allows San Diegans to avoid having to transit to LAX, or connect through London Heathrow in order to get to most areas of central and western Europe. For those of us who typically travel on a smaller budget, Condor’s pricing allows a cheaper upgrade to Business and Premium Classes than the competition. Hopefully the demand for the flight is high, and Condor sees fit to increase the flight frequency up from twice weekly. This service would only be enhanced by a future potential upgrade to either the fleet type or the seat product, but even without those upgrades, I do not think you will be disappointed in choosing Condor. I sure wasn’t!
Note: I was a guest of Condor for this flight review. However, all opinions are my own.