Flight Report : Air Berlin and Etihad to Europe

How It Started

Autumn is a great time to visit Europe. The crowds are gone, the students have gone back to school, and temperatures drop. I had wanted to return to Switzerland for a 3rd time after the previous 2 trips were met with bad weather. I had kept an eye on airfares over a few weeks in the summer, with Qatar initially winning with a sub-HKD 4000 price including tax - a great deal for the time of year. As I procrasinated, their prices creeped up but Etihad came to the rescue. After Air Berlin, one of their affiliates, announced bankruptcy proceedings, I thought it would be interesting to experience one of their flights before they close up for good. My trip would start in Berlin and end in Zurich. All for about HKD 4600.

Etihad offers an evening departure out of Hong Kong, arriving in Abu Dhabi before midnight. I like this flight as I didn't need to sleep along the way, and would arrive in the UAE a bit tired for the night at the airport hotel. I would wake up refreshed and continue my journey to Berlin the next morning, which should keep jet lag at a minimum. Both these flights would be on the A330, which is great for my window seat as it is only 1 person away from the aisle for the lavatory. Unfortunately, Air Berlin does not allow advanced seat slection.

So my journey begins on a rainy evening in Hong Kong. It was pouring as I headed to the airport bus. I was so soaked I ended up changing at the airport into a fresh dry set of clothes for the flight. The summer storms were still alive and well.

Luckily, I left enough time to get to the airport early to change. Air-side, spotting was decent with some interesting Dreamliners.

Hong Kong - Abu Dhabi

My bird would be in traditional colours tonight.

We boarded as another rainstorm began, and soon I heard the lightning alarm come off at the airport. I guess we would be a bit delayed tonight as the crews waited for the storm to pass. The flight deck updated us to confirm the alarm and the delay. We ended up pushing back half an hour late.

My previous Etihad flights were not particularly impressive. The IFE and food could not compare to Emirates, and that opinion still held tonight.

However, one thing about the IFE I particularly liked was the live TV option, which was available for several international networks.

The IFE menu was simple and fairly intuitive to navigate. I was surprised to find some Hong Kong TV shows.

The wifi option was well-advertised and a nice feature for these long-haul flights.

The flight map was also quite good - not as futuristic as what the latest offers out there, but still provides all the info I need.

As expected, we arrived at a bus gate. The new terminal was nowhere near completion, just as a few years ago on my last visit.

A huge crowd was exiting that late into the night. I was surprised to find China Daily being distributed here. Anyway, it wasn't a long walk to the airport hotel for a relaxing night.

As I checked my messages in my room, I found out my Air Berlin flight had been cancelled. In fact, many of their flights were suddenly cancelled for "operational reasons". Alarmed that I would be stranded in Abu Dhabi, I headed back to the terminal to find a customer service representative. T3 sent me to T1, and by this late hour, I had to wait and push a bit to get a supervisor to rebook me. I had initially been offered the same Air Berlin flight the day after on Sept. 5, but worried that could get cancelled again, I refused and asked to be rerouted to another German city, such as Frankfurt or Munich and then connect domestically to Berlin.

The agent checked a number of European ports and noted all were overbooked on Sept. 4. I was told it was due to the long weekend in the UAE. The only possible routing on their computer was through Belgrade on Air Serbia, another one of their querky affiliates, but it wasn't possible for them to book it for some reason.

Realizing my Germany portion of the trip would probably need to be abandoned, I asked to be sent to Geneva directly on Sept. 6, the next possible flight. The agent said most European ports would be available again by then after the long weekend, and moved me to that flight. I would then have 2 extra days to spend in the UAE. I guess it's not too bad to be stranded in the UAE.

By now, it was late into the night, and early morning Hong Kong time. I went back to the hotel to extend my stay and retired for the night.

Abu Dhabi for a Day

I didn't have much planned for my first full day in Abu Dhabi. I had been here before, visiting as a day trip from Dubai many years ago. What has changed since my last visit was the opening of Etihad Towers and its observation deck. Getting there would take some time by airport bus and then transferring to another bus. The first thing I needed to figure out was to buy a local transport card as drivers no longer accept cash, and the Dubai smart card doesn't work here.

After about an hour, I reached the City Terminal, where check-in counters were available, and transferred to another city bus to reach my destination. The morning heat was starting to get to me. The forecast daytime high would exceed 40C today.

However, the views were worth it.

Back to the airport after a light sightseeing day, I returned to the counter to ask about compensation for my cancelled flight and subsequent delay. I was told due to Air Berlin's insolvency procedures, they wereunlikely able to pay EU261, and since the cancelled flight was on AB, despite being an affiliate airline, I could not be taken care of by Etihad in the same way as if it was an EY cancellation. This was despite the whole ticket being on EY stock. I was given 1 days' worth of meal vouchers (since the original revised departure would be 1 day later) and I went shopping at the limited number of restaurants land-side.

Out to Dubai

I had one more full day before my revised flight. Having run out of things to do in Abu Dhabi, I headed to Dubai for a day trip. Etihad runs a shuttle service for its customers fairly regularly from the airport. The coaches are parked in another lane and not by the exit / taxi queues so they were hard to find. But they were very comfortable, an upgrade from the typical intercity buses, while an attendant handed out water and candy to each passenger for the journey.

Less than an hour and a half later, the coach pulled into the Etihad Travel Mall next to Noor Bank station.

With your reservation ID, you can pre-book the return trip from Dubai to Abu Dhabi on Etihad's website, but it only gives you several departures before your flight. Since I had the hotel booked at the airport already, I didn't want to connect using the buses shown on the booking engine. So I had to standby at the bus station for a spot on the coach in the late afternoon. It didn't matter if you arrive early well in advance of departure, the agents there check your boarding pass and those with imminent departures get on right away. Had I not been able to board the 5:30pm bus, I would have hopped onto the metro for the public bus since the next Etihad shuttle would leave 1.5 hours later. Luckily, I was able to snatch one of the last seats on the packed bus back.

You can check in right here in Dubai and get your boarding pass. Checked luggage would go in a separate van for the airport journey.

Abu Dhabi - Geneva

A long check-in line with minimal staff assistance was a welcome start to my morning in Abu Dhabi. There were no more delays today, so I was finally looking forward to leaving 40C heat for a more temperate Geneva. Terminal 3 is a much nicer and newer facility than the antique Terminal 1. As I captured a photo of the empty row on check-in desks, a security agent came to tell me that was not allowed. Strange.

Air-side, I caught a glimpse of their new A380 before finding my crowded bus gate downstairs.

So even Terminal 3 departures can be painful.

I settled into my window seat in cattle class. Before departure, they would play, and re-play the list of destinations they fly to, which was quite impressive.

Seems today's Air Berlin departure would not be cancelled.

I had hoped for a view of the skyline on departure, but the haze affected visibility somewhat, so I settled into my seat for the long journey to Switzerland.

To begin, drinks and a snack were served. Meanwhile, I was peeking out to spot Qatar, the region's pariah for terrorist financing. We then crossed into Saudi Arabia's arid landscape. I had originally expected a more northerly route through Iran and Turkey.

Then a delicious meal was served. I picked the mash potatoes with chicken option, which came with a good bean salad. The Middle East 3 do catering fairly well even for Economy.

After crossing the Red Sea, I got ready to spot Cairo from above.

Then the beautiful Nile came into sight.

The heavy urban development in the narrow fertile valley looks like Cairo.

The Mediterranean crossing did not take too long and soon, Greece's islands came into sight.

The skies clouded over a bit during our descent into Geneva, which worried me a little. The sight of the mountains was quite welcome. Seems the 7-hour flight is almost over.

But the clouds broke through and it was sunny over Lake Geneva!

This would be a bus arrival as well, so it was a bit of a wait for the passengers out back to get on a bus into the terminal, which was a fairly make-shift covered structure for immigration. Geneva is a small airport but it still took a long walk and a few turns here and there to reach the baggage belt.

Trains connect the airport to the city in less than under 10 minutes. Free tickets for the journey are available in the arrivals hall.

Service Summary

Etihad has a weird set of partners that couldn't really help them at times of need. You can buy a ticket with them but when there is a cancellation, rebookings get quite difficult. On the other hand, being stranded in the UAE wasn't very painful despite 40C weather. Nevertheless, Etihad continues to lag behind the likes of Emirates, who provide a better experience overall from airport to landing.

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