Air Berlin - Flying direct
Air Berlin flies non-stop between Southwest Florida International Airport and Germany. Happy birthday, Air Berlin! Fifteen years into an experiment of sorts, a direct intercontinental flight to Southwest Florida International Airport, what started out as a curious match between Germany's second-largest airline and a medium hub airport is a success. Floridian and European travelers love its spacious planes — 8330 Airbus flight craft seating 300 and one of the youngest fleets in the industry — and traffic is up from the same period in 2008, 10.33 percent for the six months ended June 30. During a time when nationwide travel is forecast to be down by 8 percent, international even more, the increase is good news.
It was 1993 when Bob Ball, Lee County Port Authority's executive director, came to town. His first assignment was to recruit international air service. While executive director of Jacksonville International Airport, he'd begun the groundwork to convince LTU International Airlines (taken over by Air Berlin in 2008) to fly to the northern Florida airport. While that arrangement never came to fruition, he'd become acquainted with LTU's key executives.
Air Berlin flies the latest Airbus jets from Southwest Florida International Airport. After transferring to Fort Myers, Mr. Ball realized that the area contained a German population of more than 65,000, and that a high percentage of Lee and Collier residents trace their roots to Germany. A 2000 U.S. census report revealed that German is the top-reported ancestry in Lee County at 19 percent; Charlotte County, 21 percent and Collier County, 16 percent. While the official count of Germans registering with the consulate is still in the 65,000 range, the unofficial count is 250,000, according to Norma Henning, an immigration attorney and the honorary consul to the Federal Republic of Germany.
Mr. Ball took part in a trade junket to Europe shortly after starting work, at a time when European desire for travel to the Sunshine State had just suffered a major set back. In April 1993, a German tourist in a rental car had been shot and killed in the vicinity of the Miami International Airport. The unfortunate victim was the eighth foreign tourist, the fourth German tourist, killed in Florida in robberies or attempted robberies in less than 12 months. As Ball touched down on German soil, Der Spiegel, one of the country's largest news magazines, was running a story along with a graphic of Florida in the shape of a Luger pistol and the headline "Terror in Paradise." Bild, the country's largest newspaper, ran a similar story entitled, "Florida Again! German Tourist
Air Berlin took over the former LTU International Airlines in 2008. Hunted, Shot." Another paper, Die
Welt ran with the headline, "Death in a Rental Car: Fourth German this year Killed in Florida."
Back at home, Florida launched a massive crackdown on crime while beefing up tourism efforts, but the bad news put a damper on Mr. Ball's mission. There were no warm welcomes from tour guides serving the state or representatives from most major airlines.
"The sentiment was so bad, and people were just amazed that I was calling on them," he recalled.
His luck turned on his last call, which was with the managing director of LTU International, who he'd worked with while in Jacksonville.
"I asked him to consider our large German population, the fact that we're a major European destination and that the area is safe," he said. "Our region experiences a strong outbound demand with personal business travel and people that return home to visit family and so it's not simply a vacation destination. I'd known this man for a long time, and convinced him to experiment."
There was no doubt that Southwest Florida offered a calmer, more peaceful sanctuary than the international city of Miami. Air service is extremely competitive industry, but the risk of flying a direct, intercontinental air service into an unproven mid-sized airport was outweighed by the positives that a vacation destination in a rapidly growing region offered.
The experiment started out with a tag flight from Düsseldorf to Miami and on to Fort Myers before eventually morphing into a direct flight. Along the way Düsseldorf rebuilt its airport terminal, and the modern facility — an Air Berlin hub with more than 35 partner airlines connecting to non-stop markets in 16 countries — makes the popular flight even more attractive.
In the past year, while domestic tourism has seen declines, European tourism to Southwest Florida is up, one reason being a strong focus on the ground. Both Lee and Collier counties have marketing personnel on staff in Germany and the U.K. In Collier County, 187,790 guests visited from Europe in 2008, an increase of 32.8 percent over the previous year.
Norma Henning is a regular passenger. An American citizen who represents Germany as an affiliate of the Consulate General in Miami, she appreciates the contribution of the airport's only direct intercontinental air service.
"It's very convenient," she explained. "It's an important link for our German- American relations and I think a very important part of our culture in Southwest Florida. We're lucky to have this kind of connection."
Klaus Kohl, a long-standing member and former president of the German American Social Club of Cape Coral, agrees. "As far as being able to hop a plane in the morning and wake up in Germany, it's a marvelous thing," he said. "Germans invest here and it helps our economy."
The appeal of the area is natural, and eco-tourism is a strong draw.
"Germany is surrounded by land," he reasoned. "They come here for the sunshine and the water."
Mr. Kohl notes that events such as the Oktoberfest in Cape Coral on the last two weekends in October, which has drawn crowds of over 40,000 in recent years, attract Europeans.
"G.I.s and anyone who's been to Germany will come here for our events, because they can relax and enjoy the bands and dancing," he said. "Europeans are coming because it's easy to get here and much easier to get around than Munich."
Manuela Schinagl co-owns House of Mozart on Marco Island. The restaurant serves a continental menu and has drawn a European following because of beloved dishes like schnitzel and goulash. Ms. Schinagl, an Austrian, is a regular passenger, preferring to catch the connecting flight to Vienna.
"Europeans come to our restaurant for the traditional dishes, and they all fly over on Air Berlin," she reported. "People are comfortable on the planes and they save so much time with the connections."
Fort Myers resident Doretta Bree loves to travel.
"For anyone in Fort Myers who would otherwise have to go through Miami, Orlando, Atlanta or Newark, flying directly to Germany's as good a way as any to catch a connecting flight," she reasoned. "But in addition to that, Air Berlin's food, service and airplanes are top-notch. It really is a blessing." ¦