Continental, Delta say the time is right for Berlin

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NEW YORK - It's been feast or famine when it comes to nonstop flights to Berlin.

The German capital - once served by a plethora of major U.S. carriers, has gone without any nonstop service to or from the U.S. since Lufthansa axed its  Berlin-Washington flights after 9/11.

Passengers have since had to change planes at Frankfurt or Munich, a strange state of affairs for a European city with 3.4 million people, especially one that's also the political and cultural - if not yet the business - capital of a major U.S. ally.

But all that's set to change next year, when the city goes from zero to two U.S. nonstops per day, with Delta and Continental each launching daily service to and from Berlin's Tegel Airport.

Delta will begin flying from New York's Kennedy Airport on May 2, while Continental starts service from Newark on July 1.

German government officials and travel industry players are hailing the new flights as a long-awaited boon to Berlin's economy and tourism interests.

"We are delighted to have increased air service to ... our nation's capital," said Michaela Klare, regional manager of the Americas at the German National Tourist Office (GNTO) in New York. "There is no doubt these flights will have a positive impact on tourism to Germany and to Berlin, specifically."

While nonstop service to an increasingly popular European capital like Berlin might appear to be a no-brainer, the route had proven to be unattractive and uneconomical.

According to Bjorn Bieneck, managing director at Berlin Tourism Marketing in Fredericksburg, Va., U.S. airlines that launched nonstops after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 soon abandoned the route.

"All gave the same reasons for quitting," he said. "First, although coach-class tourist traffic was fine, first-class and business passengers were missing."

It's often said in airline circles that the front-cabin passengers, often business travelers who pay premium fares, subsidize cheaper coach seats and determine profitability.

The second reason, said Bieneck, is that Berlin lacks a large, international hub airport.

However, a decision has been made to rebuild Schoenefeld - one of three existing airports - into the Berlin Brandenburg  Airport, a larger hub facility expected to open by 2010.

New hub or not, Delta and Continental said they've detected more interest in Berlin.

"We've had our eye on Berlin forever. It was never a question of if, but when," said Buddy Ansliger, managing director of planning at Continental. "We kept watching developments in Berlin and found government offices and businesses are increasingly moving to the metropolitan area."

Delta said it tracked a jump in bookings from the U.S. via Air France code-share flights that connect through Paris.

"We felt this moment would come for years, and from our research, 2005 looks like the best moment to enter the Berlin market," said Jennifer Young, director of international network analysis at Delta.

Berlin Tourism Marketing has detected a higher interest in Berlin, too. The organization said 2004 leisure arrivals from the U.S. are up 22% over last year.

While Delta will fly 767-300 planes to Berlin, Continental - mindful of still-soft business traffic on the route - will use smaller 757s, with just 16 business-class seats.

Continental may be in a better position to exploit the route, as Newark is a major feeder hub, but Young said Delta will launch Berlin flights from New York - instead of Atlanta - in an expansion of transatlantic operations at Kennedy Airport.

Some leisure operators and suppliers in the U.S. are pleased. Ron Santangelo, president of Peter Deilmann Cruises in Alexandria, Va., said the nonstops are "long overdue."

"If fares are competitive to routes via Frankfurt, I'm sure they will have a leg up," Santangelo said.

Michael Barszap, president of ITS Tours in College Station, Texas, said that he now will "rethink" all of his 2005 programs.

Elisabeth Wilson-Schmitte, an agent with Nonstop Travel in Torrance, Calif., said she wants to see nonstops from Los Angeles. "If Lufthansa flew nonstop to Berlin from L.A., we could sell the heck out of it," she said.

Santangelo wondered if Lufthansa will meet the competitive challenge set forth by Continental and Delta.

A Lufthansa spokeswoman in New York, however, said no Berlin nonstops are planned.

To contact reporter Kenneth Kiesnoski, send e-mail to[email protected].
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