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

Berlin CNN  — 

It’s nearly a decade behind schedule, 4 billion euros over budget and there’s a global pandemic crippling the aviation industry.

Happy Halloween to Berlin’s beleaguered Brandenburg Airport, which finally opens its doors this Saturday.

The massive 1,470-hectare site in the Schönefeld region southeast of Berlin aims to be the state-of-the-art transportation hub that the German capital has always lacked, and will open up connections to more long-haul destinations.

But, having been hit by so many setbacks, complaints and inefficiencies that many were calling the project “cursed,” it’s not been an easy journey – nor are the omens good.

Airports trade body Europe ACI warned Tuesday that nearly 200 airports across Europe risk going bust within months due to the fallout of the coronavirus pandemic, with passenger traffic down 73% year on year.

Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport (BER) is reported to have already been granted 300 million euros in state aid, without transporting a single passenger – and while there’s no airport in the world not feeling the heat right now, Berlin’s new airport is no stranger to crisis.

Reunification dream

Plans to build a central international airport in Berlin date back to the city’s reunification era. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany’s leaders launched into discussions about constructing a new airport, which they believed would help establish Berlin as a new world center.

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

Tempelhof, close to the center of Berlin, has since closed and become a major park. Tegel, a stopgap that became permanent, has soldiered on with overcrowded facilities and outdated amenities, and will close November 8.

Schönefeld Airport – ranked “worst in the world” by online travel agency eDreams in 2017 – closed October 25, with much of its infrastructure incorporated into the new facility as the new Terminal 5.

So why did the new airport – officially called Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt – take so long to build? How did such a bold vision for Berlin’s future wind up as an exercise in national humiliation?

Complications from the outset

Official construction began in 2006. Efforts to privatize the project failed, leaving the airport’s board in charge, under the ownership of the federal German government, the state of Brandenburg and the city of Berlin.

The endeavor came with a rough cost assessment 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.

But a slew of technical issues delayed progress while bloating the airport’s price tag. The original cost projection became a gross underestimation.

The full range of architectural, structural and technical problems came to a head in 2011, as an elaborate opening organized for June 2012 loomed.

At the end of 2011, aviation inspectors began filing into the construction site to check alarm systems and security features. A faulty fire-protection system design first filled experts with doubts, and soon it was clear there were huge problems with major structural elements, such as escalator sizes, ceiling designs and ticket counters.

The envisioned opening, a splendid display complete with an appearance from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was canceled just weeks before and morphed into a painful embarrassment for German officials.

The opening date was pushed to 2014, then 2016. A Brandenburg State Audit completed in 2016 concluded that the usability of the airport was at less than 57%. Eventually, officials decided to stop offering an expected date and put the entire project on hold until major overhauls in management and construction could be completed.

Finally, as spending cruised past the 7.3 billion euros mark, the date was pushed to 2020.

‘Ready for takeoff’

“The most important thing for us is that we open the airport,” airport boss Engelbert Luetke Daldrup tells CNN. “After very tough years of building and testing and trials, we are ready for takeoff.”

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

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

The overall impression, however, is one of functionality. The walnut paneling feels like a failed attempt to add warmth and belongs more to the 1990s, when plans for the airport were first born. And with no greenery yet to soften the exterior, the building is dark and box-like.

The elevators and escalators feel very narrow, suggesting that not all those design glitches have been successfully ironed out.

Daldrup defends the airport against any accusations of it being already outmoded.

“We had a lot of time to implement the newest technologies at this airport,” he says. “The airport in so many aspects, the technical aspects, has undergone very severe infrastructural redevelopment.

“We are probably the safest airport of the world because we are so strictly tested, after the disaster of 2012.”

But thanks to Covid-19, it’ll be a while before the systems will be challenged by any substantial passenger traffic.

Operating at reduced capacity

Brandenburg Airport has capacity for more than 40 million passengers over Terminal 1, Terminal 5 and the upcoming Terminal 2 (which will open in spring 2021).

Thanks to the pandemic, though, it expects to only be handling about 11,000 passengers on its first day of operation on November 1, and just 24,000 a week later.

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

Back in May, the German flag-carrier Lufthansa, the second-largest passenger carrier in Europe, received a $10 billion state bailout.

It, along with budget airline EasyJet, will be the two biggest players at BER. That role will be marked on opening day by two of the airlines’ planes ceremoniously performing a parallel landing on the two runways.

“We need help. All the big airlines need help,” says Daldrup. However, he says the airport’s owners have backed its financing for the upcoming years in order to provide the necessary assistance to cope with the crisis.

Signage and marketing was all ready to go for the 2012 opening.

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

Arguing that the global economy is reliant on said connectivity, he adds “the airport industry, the airports, the airlines, are the backbone of our economic recovery.”

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

Back in 2012 – that cataclysmic year of Mayan prophecy – the opening was to be met with fanfare and razzmatazz. However, in 2020, the year when disaster truly struck the aviation industry, 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 has been amended to “nearly a decade late.”