Getting to Berlin in style aboard a Lufthansa 747-8
On Wednesday, I departed my sunny San Diego for the cold – Berlin, Germany. As I mentioned in my previous post, I managed to escape the hustle and bustle of daily San Diego life for under $30 in Lufthansa’s business class on a new Boeing 747-8 Intercontinental, the newest iteration of this Boeing workhorse. However, to say that I was pleased with my trip would be an understatement.
Maybe it was the haircut I got a few hours before departure – the stylist at Haircrest cut my hair a little short – but from the time I got to the commuter terminal at San Diego International Airport to the time that I boarded the aircraft (and beyond), I’ve had so many people treat me so kindly. The TSA agent checking my ID in the security line mistook me for one of our heroes, and thanked me for “my service” – of which I ensured her that I was not deserving of such a compliment; the agent manning the nudeoscope was unbelievably kind as well. Sometimes, people expect TSA agents to be rude or crass, and sometimes it happens – but I must admit I was blown away by the smiles that these government employees had on their faces.
Maybe it was because I was in a great mood – a dear friend of mine is a marketing assistant for the San Diego Regional Airport Authority, and gave me the grand tour of the airport’s business facilities, of which I was quite impressed. Then, she walked me downstairs on her lunch break to see me off. Not a bad way to begin a long flight to Europe!
The Embraer-120 turboprop plane to LAX was nothing to write home about – it was the usual experience: a tiny plane crammed with people, albeit the flight was far from full; I had taken an earlier flight (thank you, United) instead of the one I was originally booked on, and I’m glad I did. As a result (maybe?) it was a pretty empty flight.
Upon arriving at LAX, I was surprised to find we weren’t at the commuter terminal, but rather at United’s terminal (X?). I had decided at the last minute not to check my bag, so I grabbed it as it was moved from the cart, and headed down the tarmac and then up the jetway, next to at least a half-dozen other turboprops.
Finally, I was in familiar territory again – an airport, though I was slightly confused as to where to go from there. Do I find a bus to take me to Tom Bradley International Terminal (TBIT)? Yes, I discovered – after asking airport security whether or not I had to exit the sterile (secure) area – or I could walk. I opted to walk, figuring I’d spend 10 hours in an airplane sitting down, to the international terminal.
I recently got a new passport, and needed to give my new passport number and information to Customs for use in the Global Entry program, of which I’m a member.
If you’re not familiar with Global Entry, the system allows you to bypass the long lines at Customs upon your return to the United States, and use automated kiosks instead. It’s meant the difference between making and missing a connecting flight for me in the past, and well worth the $100. (American Express Platinum Cardmembers receive a fee credit as part of the card’s perks).
After waiting in line a few minutes, I gave my new passport to the Customs official who entered it into their system (although I tried to do this myself using their online system, it wouldn’t allow me to change the Issuing Authority (the office at which one’s passport is issued), so I figured it was worth stopping by their office in TBIT to ensure that Global Entry would work upon my return home.
And then I was on my way to TSA security, again.
Since the United desk in San Diego gave me a boarding pass, I didn’t need to stop at the Lufthansa desk at LAX to pick up a boarding pass for my flight to Frankfurt. Unfortunately, however, this boarding pass didn’t say “business class” on it anywhere, so the private security company who steered people into the TSA security checkpoint lines didn’t know that I was sitting in business class, and therefore entitled to their “premier access” line. After having a brief, um, "knowledge transfer" with the individual, I was able to skip the mammoth line that was the standard line.
Eventually, I found my way to the Star Alliance lounge. Again, I managed to find the friendliest people there!
The lounge itself is quite nice – modern, yet not overdone. Chic and posh, but not uptight. After spending about an hour there working – and trying to get their WiFi to work – I escaped from reality for a few minutes and grabbed a bite to eat, a penne-chicken dish which was quite good, along with a glass of wine, two mini bottles of water and a thing of cranberry juice.
Then, the next best thing happened: my friend Matt texted to me to tell me he’d join me in Berlin after all. Awesome news.
Time to go
Not too long after, I heard German spoken around me, and realized a Lufthansa agent was informing all of us en route to Frankfurt that we would begin boarding in 15 minutes. Hearing that beautiful sound, I finished up my food, poured the two water bottles into my plastic Nalgene-y bottle and made my way to Gate 130, otherwise known as The Farthest Gate From Everything Else. Boarding hadn’t commenced yet, but there was already a rather large line, and it was a little hard to tell which line was which. Was I standing in the Business line? Whoops – apparently not, I was in the Economy line, but I figured it out real quick once the line started moving.
Upon boarding the aircraft – again, a new 747-8 – you could tell it was a new plane simply by the feel of it. LED lighting, new side panels, and new overheard compartments gave it that ‘new plane feel’ that I found very similar to the 787 I flew to Japan in December.
Upon boarding, the purser looked at my boarding pass and sent me on my way upstairs. After passing through the main business class cabin, I found the staircase leading up to The Hump atop this giant beast, and began my climb. The kind-but-Lufthansa flight attendant asked if she could take my jacket, and informed me she’d be “flattered” to take it.
Eventually, I found seat 85A – a great window seat just two rows behind an emergency exit – and took a seat. There’s a great bin between the seat and the window to put your carryon items. In my case, I stowed my laptop bag, blanket and pillow in it for takeoff. Quite shortly thereafter, I was offered champagne or orange juice. Of course, I took the champagne!
Immediately, I was impressed with the cabin; many of the reviews online don’t do the Lufthansa business cabin justice, and make a lot of noise about the footrest. Indeed, it’s a shared footrest with a divider, so it’s fairly easy to play accidental footsy with your seatmate. Really, though, I haven’t had an issue with it yet.
That said, the most challenging part of this seating arrangement is having to try to get out of your seat. Like many other airlines, you end up having to step over your seatmate to get out if you have a window seat. However, I was able – without much difficulty – to step over my neighbor who, by then, had been asleep for some time in the seat’s lie-flat position.
Also, I read some people saying that Lufthansa’s seats were on the hard side; I haven’t found that at all. In fact, they’re very comfortable. Maybe it’s just a Lufthansa thing, but I’ve found that the two LH flights I’ve taken have both had very comfortable seats, and the other one was in coach from Johannesburg to Frankfurt.
But back to our story – it’s time to take off
Before long, we were taxiing to the runway, and just like that, the engines spooled up. We were rolling, and airborne seemingly just seconds later.
There was a mad dash for the lavatory when the “ding!” of the seatbelt sign being turned off finally occurred – and it seemed everyone rushed the two upstairs. I waited.
Again, just like the 787, the lavatories were very similar, and had the same “wave your hand or anything really at all to flush” switch. This time, however, it didn’t activate at an inconvenient time like it did on my JAL flight to Tokyo, while, um, sitting down.
It’s time for dinner
Not long after takeoff, we were handed menus, both in English and German, and then on another page, in Spanish. Of course, when the flight attendant handed us the menu, he handed it to us with the wine page open first. Priorities, priorities?! After the best-scented hot-towel ever, I opted for a glass of Weißburgunder – white burgundy – and stayed with it for the entire meal, consisting of:
First course: tuna Carpaccio with Sriracha aioli
Second course: Chicken Cassoulet with Portobello mushroom and mustard sauce (and when asked, I said yes to extra sauce and pepper – German food can be so…bland sometimes, the altitude factor notwithstanding). Sorry, it's a little blurry, but it was very tasty.
Dessert: New York Cheesecake with raspberry compote. Or as they say in German, “New Yorker Cheesecake”. Other options included a cheese plate or decent-looking fruit salad (cue the Come Fly With Me “fruit sal-ad” lines). Really good.
I may have also enjoyed a couple glasses of some outstanding Graham’s Late Bottled Vintage port that’s served from a real bottle – not a single-serving wine glass. Yum.
The flight attendants were quick to clear my plate after I’d finished, and before long, the lights were dimmed into “night” mode like they were on the 787 flight to Tokyo.
AVOD System – because I’ve got 10 hours to watch mindless entertainment
I vaguely remember the entertainment system onboard the A380 from Johannesburg to Frankfurt, and I remember it being superb. Clearly, nothing has changed. In fact, the system now allows you to queue TV shows and movies so you don’t have to go search for them later. So, I queued up some favorites (single episodes only):
How I Met Your Mother
Two Broke Girls
I Dream of Jeannie
Sex and the City
Queen: Days of Our Lives (a documentary on the band of which I’ve never seen)
If you can’t tell, I was excited about the choices.
After watching a few TV episodes, I decided it was time to start writing a bit, so I turned on the music, and queued up Swedish House Mafia for something to begin writing. And when that ended, I switched to Queen’s Greatest Hits. Winning.
One big disappointment so far
One of the biggest things I was looking forward to on the aircraft was onboard WiFi. Typically, transatlantic flights are my favorite time to disconnect and escape the world, but I really had things to do that could’ve used 8 hours of attention. Although marketed and advertised as having Panasonic’s new Ku-band WiFi system, Lufthansa’s 747-8 didn’t appear to have it. I thought I spotted a WiFi antenna, but apparently it isn’t, or the system just isn’t active yet.
Again, for expecting – and being excited about – transatlantic connectivity, I was really disappointed to see that it wasn’t in place. I wouldn’t have taken another aircraft (there really aren’t many other TATL options that have inflight Wifi, but certainly it’ll be high on my list next time to specifically ask whether or not the aircraft has it. Oh well – no inflight Facebook, texting (iMessage over WiFi) over northern Canada, and no emails.
As it turns out, they are indeed getting WiFi onboard the 747-8 as advertised, but not this one. As this route (and ostensibly aircraft) is new – it’s Lufthansa’s second 748 (the first being Washington Dulles – Frankfurt) – it hasn’t been equipped yet. After spending some time with our very kind and friendly flight attendant upstairs in the aft upper galley, I also learned from her that it’s not very reliable, especially over highly polar routes like ours. It would follow that the Dulles-Frankfurt route would be better suited for the technology, but I do hope they get it onboard the LAX route as well.
As it turns out, according to the Lufthansa magazine, "[t]he newly introduced Boeing 747-800 (sic) and A380 flagship fleets will be retrofitted in 2013 and 2014." Why an airline would retrofit a new aircraft is beyond me, but I'm sure there's a good reason behind it.
Again, my new flight attendant friend was very friendly. I enjoyed hearing about her trips to the United States, about her primary experiences onboard her usual aircraft, A340s. Further, this was her first time onboard a 748 – though she apparently had plenty of experience working onboard 747-400s as well. In her words, “it’s just a plane – though the -800 series is just a really nice plane”.
On an unrelated note, another odd thing I noticed: American carriers are very strict about barricading the flight deck door when the captain or another member of the flight crew needs to exit the cockpit. In this case, it seemed almost casual – I saw various members of the flight crew entering and exiting the flight deck time and time again without assistance from the rest of the crew. Still undecided how that makes me feel.
About an hour and a half before landing in Frankfurt, the cabin lights slowly began to rise. Because of the aircraft's LED lighting system, no longer is "morning" a garish event where the flourescent sun (old-school cabin lights) just turn on — they now gradually rise to allow your eyes to adjust. While not a big deal, it is one of those "nice things to have".
I thought I'd have an option for breakfast — this or that, but as it turns out, I got this, that, and that other thing too: an omelet with potatoes and spinach, a orange/grapefruit/blueberry salad, and a meat platter with smoked ham, turkey, a carrot stick and a tomato. It was all delicious (the omelet was quite good), but for some reason, a meat platter doesn't strike me as "breakfast". Of course, I scarfed it all down regardless.
At that point, there were about 45 minutes left in the flight — just enough time, I thought, to have a wander around this giant aircraft. Not so much, as I learned: there were service carts blocking both aisles downstairs in coach, and no less than a dozen passengers waiting to use the coach midsection lavs.
After playing a fun game of Find A Way To The Back Of The Plane, I made it, and made it back to the forward section where I climbed the stairs to sunlight!
It's fascinating: on the ground, the aircraft looks huge. The 747-8 IS a huge plane, and is the longest aircraft (76.3m, or about 250ft) in the skies today — but it doesn't feel that way when you're actually in the aircraft. Granted, I walked from the staircase (practically a third of the way towards the aft section) aft, skipping a lot of aircraft, but the size of this beast is a little lost when you're inside. Honestly, it feels smaller than an A340-600 — something I rode once from Cape Town to Johannesburg, and was the longest aircraft in the sky for a time being.
Soon after sitting back down, my video screen displayed a message stating that connecting flight information is now available. Wait — it would display your connecting flight's gate number before landing? WAY COOL and convenient. While I didn't see my flight on the screen, I did see an earlier flight to Berlin on the screen, which gave me an idea.
Our landing was smooth and unremarkable (unremarkable in that it was, well, smooth). After taxiing for seemingly an eternity through Frankfurt's maze of taxiways, we arrived at the jetway. As everyone always does, the second the seatbelt sign goes off, everyone stands up and heads for the (stairs or) door — but it took at least another 5-7 minutes for the ramp agents to move the two jetways in place.
That said, one of my favorite things about big airports is seeing all the different kinds of aircraft and the different airlines that you've probably never heard of (yeah, I pulled an airline hipsterism).
After deplaning, I figured there would be a huge line at German immigration, so I made haste out the jetway to find myself at a monitor full of the same connecting flight information before, but still couldn't see my 1:30pm flight to Berlin. Figuring my flight might also be out of that same gate, I headed towards a self-service ticketing kiosk and printed a new Lufthansa boarding pass (without a gate number) for the original flight and was on my way to German immigration.
Europe is weird in that they never post gate information until an hour or two before the flight, making figuring out where to go in huge airports somewhat of a challenge.
The family in front of me was causing a bit of a ruckus when they were attempting to go through. I didn't notice much until they had already gone through the process — and I was talking with the immigrations official — and decided to come back around the front of the kiosk to harass the immigrations guy!
The man who I assumed was the father started getting terse with the immigrations officer because the officer had asked the father what was bringing him and his family to Germany. It's not exactly an unusual question for an immigrations guy to ask, it seems, but the father was offended by it and he certainly let the officer know his feelings.
I smiled at the officer and said "Another day?" He smiled, stamped my passport and sent me on my way — no questions asked.
Having cleared immigration and on my way to a gate somewhere, I spotted a Lufthansa service agent to see if I could go standby on the earlier flight to Berlin I noticed. Again, with the kindness I've been experiencing all day, she was happy to help, and secured me a seat — 1F — on that earlier flight, but she said they may not have enough food for me. Having eaten a lot over the previous ten hours, I was perfectly fine with that! She directed me to security.
It was easy enough to find the business class security line, though even the economy line would've done fine — it was very empty. However, as soon as I got to what appeared to be the end of the nonexistent queue, you get dumped into this little side room. The security person was jovial — asking me if I had any liquids, if I had anything in my pockets, if I could take off my belt and…after looking at me with a smile, asked if I could take off my shirt. Yes, she asked if I could take off my shirt. She was kidding. I think.
Still slightly stunned, I exited security, and realized I had ten minutes to board. En route to the gate, I passed by the Lufthansa business lounge, used the facilities, grabbed a drink of water, and headed to the gate. Boarded, flew on an uneventful 45-minute flight, landed, found the magic money machine (ATM, or Geldautomat), grabbed a €20 taxi to the hotel and was in Berlin a few hours ahead of time.
The bottom line
Lufthansa impressed me, once again.
The seat: excellent, though the footrest is mediocre. Not really an issue, though.
The food: some of the best airline food I've had. In-line with the inaugural JAL flight in December.
The service: excellent. Friendly. Efficient. Not always interrupting you for this or that, but just the right amount.
The aircraft: excellent.
If you have the opportunity to fly Lufthansa in business — whether you're upstairs or downstairs — on a relatively-new Boeing 747-8, I'll tell you with a resounding yes: take it.
Berlin: Staying at the Westin Grand Berlin
Berlin: Coming home
(full disclosure: I do not receive any promotional consideration or compensation for any airfare, products or other items mentioned)