The massive 1,470-hectare site in the Schönefeld region in south-eastern Berlin aims to be the leading transport hub that the German capital has always lacked and will open up connections to longer-haul destinations.
But, having been plagued by so many setbacks, complaints and inefficiencies that many called the “damn” project, it has not been an easy journey – and the omens are not good.
Airports Europe trade body ACI warned on Tuesday that nearly 200 airports across Europe were at risk of bankruptcy within months due to the fallout from the coronavirus pandemic, with passenger traffic down 73% on a year.
Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport (BER) would have already received 300 million euros in state aid, without carrying a single passenger – and if there is no airport in the world that does not feel heat for the moment, the new Berlin airport is no stranger to the crisis.
Dream of reunification
Plans to build a central international airport in Berlin date back to the time of the city’s reunification. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, German leaders began talks about building a new airport, which they said would help turn Berlin into a new world center.
At the time, the city had three airports – Tegel Airport “Otto Lilienthal”, Schönefeld Airport and Tempelhof Airport – all of which played an important role in the turbulent history of post-Berlin. war.
Tempelhof, near the center of Berlin, has since closed and has become a major park. Tegel, a palliative that has become permanent, continued with overcrowded facilities and outdated equipment, and will close on November 8.
Schönefeld Airport – rated ‘the worst in the world’ by online travel agency eDreams in 2017 – closed on October 25, with much of its infrastructure being incorporated into the new facility as a new terminal 5.
So why has the new airport – officially called Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt – taken so long to build? How did such a bold vision for Berlin’s future end up in an exercise of national humiliation?
Complications from the start
Official construction began in 2006. Efforts to privatize the project failed, leaving the airport’s board of directors in charge, under the ownership of the German Federal Government, the state of Brandenburg and the City of Berlin. .
This venture came with a rough estimate of costs of 2.83 billion euros ($ 3.1 billion at current exchange rates) and some serious ambition. It would be an impressive installation – billed as “the most modern” in Europe.
But a series of technical issues have held back progress while inflating the price of the airport. The initial projection of costs has become a gross understatement.
The full range of architectural, structural and technical issues peaked in 2011, as an elaborate opening planned for June 2012 loomed.
At the end of 2011, aviation inspectors began to visit the job site to check alarm systems and security devices. A faulty design of the fire protection system initially cast doubt on the experts, and it soon became apparent that there were huge problems with the main structural elements, such as the size of the escalators, the design of ceilings and wickets.
The planned opening, a splendid presentation with an appearance by German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was canceled a few weeks earlier and turned into a painful embarrassment for German officials.
The opening date was postponed to 2014, then 2016. An audit of the State of Brandenburg carried out in 2016 concluded that the usability of the airport was below 57%. Eventually, officials decided to stop offering a scheduled date and put the entire project on hold until major management and construction reviews could be completed.
Finally, while spending exceeded the € 7.3 billion mark, the date was postponed to 2020.
‘Ready to take off’
“The most important thing for us is that we open the airport,” airport boss Engelbert Luetke Daldrup told CNN. “After years of very difficult construction, testing and testing, we are ready for take off. “
Terminal 1, which will welcome its first passengers on November 1, features an elegant glass facade with modern furnishings and polished check-in counters.
The “Magic Carpet”, an installation by American artist Pae White hanging from the ceiling of the recording hall, adds a touch of color.
The overall impression, however, is that of functionality. The walnut panels look like a failed attempt to add warmth and belong more to the 1990s, when plans for the airport were first born. And with no greenery to further soften the exterior, the building is dark and box-shaped.
Elevators and escalators appear very narrow, suggesting that not all of these design issues have been successfully addressed.
Daldrup defends the airport against any accusation that it is already overwhelmed.
“We have had a lot of time to implement the latest technology at this airport,” he says. “The airport in so many aspects, technical aspects, has undergone a very severe infrastructure redevelopment.
“We are probably the safest airport in the world because we are rigorously tested after the disaster of 2012.”
But thanks to Covid-19, it will be some time before the systems are challenged by heavy passenger traffic.
Operation at reduced capacity
Brandenburg Airport has a capacity of over 40 million passengers at Terminals 1, 5 and the next Terminal 2 (which will open in spring 2021).
However, thanks to the pandemic, it only plans to handle around 11,000 passengers on the first day of its operation, November 1, and only 24,000 a week later.
“Of course, Covid times are tough times, but in a year or two we will have a lot of passengers here,” Daldrup told CNN. “People will appreciate this new modern international airport. “
In May, Germany’s national carrier Lufthansa, Europe’s second-largest passenger carrier, received a $ 10 billion state bailout.
Together with the low-cost airline EasyJet, it will be the two biggest players in BER. This role will be marked on the opening day by two of the aircraft of the airlines ceremoniously making a parallel landing on the two runways.
” We need help. All the major airlines need help, ”says Daldrup. However, he says the owners of the airport have supported its funding for years to come to provide the assistance needed to deal with the crisis.
Signage and marketing were all ready for the 2012 opening.
Adam Berry / Getty Images
“Everyone knows that the German capital needs a good infrastructure for international connectivity,” he says. “We want more flights to the United States, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, all wonderful cities.
Arguing that the global economy depends on this connectivity, he adds that “the airport industry, airports, airlines are the backbone of our economic recovery”.
Daldrup says the opening of the airport is “a sign of hope”. Grand ambition has always been a part of Brandenburg Airport’s history, so it may be safer to say that this is the end of what has been a very embarrassing chapter for a nation known for its efficiency. .
In 2012 – that cataclysmic year of Mayan prophecy – the opening was to be greeted with fanfare and razzmatazz. However, in 2020, the year when disaster really hit the aviation industry, the celebrations will be very silent.
Daldrup confirms: “There will be no party. “