Nearly a decade late, Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport finally opens (during a pandemic)

Berlin (CNN) – It’s almost a decade behind schedule, $ 4 billion over budget, and there’s a global pandemic crippling the aviation industry.

Happy Halloween to the beleaguered Brandenburg Airport in Berlin, which will finally open its doors this Saturday.

The 1,470 hectare site in the Schönefeld region south-east of Berlin is intended to be the ultra-modern transport hub that the German capital has always lacked and to provide connections to long-haul destinations.

However, with so many setbacks, complaints, and inefficiencies that many referred to the project as “cursed,” it was not an easy journey – and the omens are not good either. Airport trade organization Europe ACI warned on Tuesday that almost 200 airports across Europe could go bankrupt within a few months due to the consequences of the coronavirus pandemic. Passenger traffic fell by 73% compared to the previous year.

The Willy Brandt Airport Berlin-Brandenburg (BER) is said to have already received 300 million euros in state aid without transporting a single passenger – and although there is currently no airport in the world that does not feel the heat, the new airport is Berlin’s no stranger in the crisis.

Reunion dream

The plans for the construction of a central international airport in Berlin go back to the time of the reunification of the city. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, German heads of state and government discussed building a new airport that they believed would help establish Berlin as a new world center.

At that time the city had three airports – Tegel “Otto Lilienthal”, Schönefeld and Tempelhof – all of which played an important role in Berlin’s turbulent post-war history.

Tempelhof near the center of Berlin has now been closed and has become an important park. Tegel, a stopgap that became permanent, has kept working with overcrowded facilities and outdated amenities and will close on November 8th. Schönefeld Airport, which was classified as the “worst airport in the world” by the online travel agency eDreams in 2017, was closed on October 25th. Much of its infrastructure was integrated into the new facility as the new Terminal 5.

Why did the construction of the new airport – officially called Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt – take so long? How did such a bold vision for Berlin’s future as an exercise in national humiliation come about?

Complications from the start

Official construction began in 2006. The endeavors to privatize the project failed and the airport was managed by the federal government, the state of Brandenburg and the city of Berlin.

The company was tied to a rough cost estimate of 2.83 billion euros ($ 3.1 billion at today’s exchange rates) and serious ambition. It would be an impressive facility – touted as “the most modern” in Europe.

A number of technical issues delayed progress while the airport’s price inflated. The original cost projection has become a gross underestimation.

The entire spectrum of architectural, structural and technical problems came to a head in 2011 when an elaborate opening became apparent in June 2012.

At the end of 2011, aviation inspectors began to log on to the construction site to check alarm systems and security features. A faulty design of the fire protection system initially cast doubt on experts, and it soon became clear that there were major problems with key structural elements such as escalator sizes, ceiling designs and ticket counters.

The planned opening, a great exhibition with an appearance by 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 and then to 2016. A Brandenburg state audit completed in 2016 showed that the airport was less than 57% usable. Eventually officials decided to no longer offer an estimated date and postpone the entire project until major overhauls in management and construction could be completed.

When spending topped 7.3 billion euros, the date was postponed to 2020.

‘Ready to take off’

“The most important thing for us is that we open the airport,” airport director Engelbert Luetke Daldrup told CNN. “After very tough years of building, testing and testing, we are ready to go.”

Terminal 1, which will welcome its first passengers on November 1st, has a sleek glass facade with modern furniture and polished check-in counters.

The “Magic Carpet”, an installation by the American artist Pae White, which hangs from the ceiling of the check-in hall, adds a touch of color.

The overall impression, however, is one of functionality. The walnut siding feels like a failed attempt to generate heat, and it belongs more to the 1990s when the plans for the airport were born. And since there’s still no green to soften the exterior, the building is dark and box-like.

The elevators and escalators feel very tight, which suggests that not all of these design flaws have been successfully addressed.

Daldrup is defending the airport against allegations that it is already out of date.

“We had a lot of time to implement the latest technology at this airport,” he says. “In so many aspects, the technical aspects, the airport has undergone extensive infrastructure renovation.

“We are probably the safest airport in the world because we are being tested so rigorously after the 2012 disaster.”

Thanks to Covid-19, however, it will take a while for the systems to be challenged by significant passenger traffic.

Operation with reduced capacity

Brandenburg Airport can accommodate more than 40 million passengers via Terminal 1, Terminal 5 and the upcoming Terminal 2 (which will open in spring 2021).

Thanks to the pandemic, only around 11,000 passengers are expected to be handled on the first day of operation on November 1, and a week later only 24,000.

“Of course, Covid times are hard times, but in a year or two we will have a lot of passengers here,” Daldrup told CNN. “People will enjoy this new modern international airport.”

In May, the German airline Lufthansa, the second largest passenger airline in Europe, received a government rescue operation worth 10 billion US dollars.

Together with the low-cost airline EasyJet, it will be the two largest players in BER. This role will be marked on the opening day by two of the airline’s planes, which are ceremoniously making a parallel landing on the two runways.

“We need help. All major airlines need help,” says Daldrup. However, the owners of the airport would have supported the financing for the coming years in order to provide the necessary help to deal with the crisis.

Signage and marketing were ready for the 2012 opening.

Adam Berry / Getty Images

“Everyone knows that the capital of Germany needs a good infrastructure for international connectivity,” he says. “We want more flights to the US, to New York, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, to so many wonderful cities.”

He argues that the global economy relies on this connectivity, adding that “the airport industry, airports and airlines are the backbone of our economic recovery”.

Daldrup claims the airport’s opening is “a sign of hope”. High ambition has always been part of Brandenburg Airport’s history, so perhaps it is safer to say that this is the end of a very embarrassing chapter for a nation known for efficiency.

As early as 2012 – this catastrophic year of the Mayan prophecy – the opening should be greeted with fanfare and razzmatazz. However, in 2020, the year the aviation industry really experienced disaster, the celebrations will be very muted.

Daldrup confirms: “There will be no party.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story said the airport was 10 years behind schedule. This was changed to “almost a decade late”.

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