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BER: A brief history of how not to build an airport

Approaching a decade late, Berlin’s airport debacle has given the lie to German stereotypes of efficiency and order, and become a rare embarrassment for the city. Currently scheduled for 2020, we check in on its progress…

BER stands empty….still. (Photo: © Günter Wicker | Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH)

The phone call comes just a couple of hours after I’ve sent the email. “Hallo Mr. Sullivan, this is Kathrin Westhölter, spokesperson from the BER press office, replying to your enquiry.” “Wow, that was fast,” I say, and a sense of irony immediately settles into the pause that follows. Ms. Westhölter clearly senses it too. “Yes,” she chuckles drily, “we do try to be a little faster than the airport itself…”

Berlin’s beleaguered new airport—officially named Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg Airport, after the former leader of the Social Democratic Party of Germany and Chancellor of the FDR (West Germany)—is, of course, a painfully unfunny topic in many ways. Started in 2006, it has announced an official opening almost every year since 2011, none of which has happened for a litany of reasons that read like a comedy of errors.

A decade of setbacks

Structural issues have included automatic doors lacking electricity, escalators not being long enough; a roof twice the authorised weight; and cables installed incorrectly. Others have been straight out of a satirical novel: the smoke-extraction system was not only too complex, but in 2014 it transpired that its chief planner, Alfredo di Mauro, was not a qualified engineer but an engineering draftsman. Other problems have been more serious, spanning bankruptcies, charges of corruption and bribery—even a startling (and as yet unsubstantiated) claim that a whistleblower at the airport had his morning coffee poisoned.

The slew of hirings, firings and resignations has raised comparisons to Trump’s White House, although perhaps the best global comparison is Brexit; a never-ending saga that has become the butt of daily jokes and draws regular schadenfreude. Little wonder the Willy Brandt Foundation considered requesting the politician’s name be removed from the airport, for fear of associating his legacy with such a disaster.

But now, nine years after the original opening—a landmark event that was to be attended by Angela Merkel herself, and preceded by trial runs involving thousands of volunteers—was cancelled with just ten days notice, and with its fourth boss (Engelbert Lütke Daldrup) installed, BER are insisting that the new date of 2020 is in sight, despite sceptics—including high level airline chiefs and politicians—countering that it’s a case of the airport crying wolf yet again.

“The public scepticism is well understandable and we know that we can only resolve this situation by simply opening the Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) in October 2020,” says Kathrin. “Until the BER is up and running we have to live with the lack of trust. Within the last two years many problems were solved at the BER. And within the last month, we managed to reduce the number of critical issues to only two, both of which are related to the complex technical fire protection system. There are still some milestones until the BER is up and running. But we are confident to get these things fixed too.”

Flughafen BER / BBI (Photo: © Alexander Obst / Marion Schmieding, Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH)

Rising costs

Meanwhile, the costs have continued to rise. The project is funded by the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, each with 37 percent, and the federal government with 26 percent, which means it is ostensibly funded with taxpayers’ money. Originally scheduled to cost around €3 billion, it is said to be at least €5 billion over budget by now, with various German media claiming it is costing German taxpayers €25 million a month, or around €1 million a day. 

There have also been claims that when the airport opens, it will be too small anyway: although originally designed to accommodate a few million more than the 18 million passengers annually to and from Schönefeld and Tegel in 2006, that figure has now risen to 35 million in 2018. Others point out that the airport can never be Germany’s main international hub due to well established airports like Frankfurt and Munich.

It hasn’t helped that in 2017, Air Berlin—the airport’s biggest tenant—filed for insolvency, and that Lufthansa, while taking over some Air Berlin routes, have opted to use their hubs at Frankfurt and Munich rather than building one at BER. To counter this, the Masterplan BER 2040 has been put in place, which will continually expand the airport to cope with the anticipated 55 million passengers in 2040. This obviously involves even more costs, but at least gives a clear direction for the airport, airlines, the regional economy and all other partners and service providers.

And…the future?

“Even though the entire aviation industry has changed a lot in recent years we are focused on finishing the main terminal without any adjustments,” says Kathrin. “The growth trend at the capital airports continues unabated. Berlin is the most demanded destination in Germany. The FBB has a market share of approximately 15% of all passengers flying to/from German airports. Already today we have a situation where more intercontinental travellers are interested in coming to Berlin than to Frankfurt and Munich combined.“

The current Berlin-Schönefeld airport will be part of this new airport as the future Terminal T5, while Berlin-Tegel —despite an ardent campaign by locals to keep it open—is slated to be closed no later then six months after BER is in operation.

“At the BER, we will be able to cover the current traffic as well as expected increases,“ says Kathrin. „We are already working on an additional terminal and will build up additional terminal capacity within the next years. With the successive expansion of buildings and contact positions for aircraft – according to our master plan BER 2040 – we are well prepared for the ever-increasing passenger numbers. By 2040, we will gradually increase the capacity up to a total of 55 million passengers annually. Simply put, the BER is a growing airport.“

Will the project finally take off in time for its latest deadline? Tune in again soon for the next installment of the Berlin’s most high-profile saga…

Public tours of the airport can be booked at: https://www.berlin-airport.de/de/ber/erlebnis-flughafen/flughafentouren/erlebnis-ber/index.php 

To keep up to date with developments, follow: roadmap.berlin-airport.de

Paul Sullivan is a guidebook author, travel journalist and the founder/editor of Slow Travel Berlin. His words and images have appeared in The Guardian, BBC, Sunday Times Travel, The Telegraph, Nat Geo UK and more. He has lived in Berlin for 10 years.


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