Berlin (CNN) – It was nearly a decade behind schedule, exceeding 4 billion euros in budget and the global pandemic is crippling the aviation industry.
Happy Halloween to Berlin’s besieged Brandenburg Airport, which finally opened this Saturday.
The massive 1,470 hectare site in the Schönefeld region of southeastern Berlin aims to be a modern transportation hub that the German capital has always lacked, and will open connections to more long-haul destinations.
Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport (BER) is said to have been granted 300 million euros in state aid, without carrying a single passenger – and while there is no airport in the world that doesn’t feel hot right away. Now, Berlin’s new airport is no stranger to crisis.
Dream of unity
Plans to build a central international airport in Berlin date back to the city’s reunification. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, German leaders conducted discussions about building a new airport, which they believed would help establish Berlin as a new world hub.
At the time, the city had three airports – Tegel “Otto Lilienthal” Airport, Schönefeld Airport and Tempelhof Airport – all of which played a key role in Berlin’s turbulent postwar history.
So why did the new airport – officially named Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport – take so long to build? How did a bold vision of Berlin’s future turn into an exercise on national humiliation?
Complications from the start
Construction officially began in 2006. Attempts to privatize the project failed, leaving the airport leadership accountable, owned by the German federal government, the state of Brandenburg and the city of Berlin. .
The effort comes with a preliminary cost assessment of 2.83 billion euros ($ 3.1 billion at today’s exchange rates) and serious ambition. It will be an impressive facility – touted as “the most modern” in Europe.
But a series of technical problems delayed progress while raising airport prices. Initial cost prediction has become an underestimation.
All the architectural, structural and engineering problems took place in 2011, when an elaborate opening was held in June 2012.
In late 2011, aviation inspectors began entering the construction site to test alarm systems and security features. A faulty fire protection system design first raises the suspicion of experts, and soon it becomes apparent that there are major problems with key structural elements, such as escalator dimensions, design ceiling and ticket counters.
The opening envisioned, a splendid display complete with the arrival of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was canceled just weeks earlier and turned into a painful fluster for German officials.
The opening date was pushed to 2014, then 2016. The State Audit of Brandenburg completed in 2016 concluded that the airport’s usability was below 57%. In the end, officials decided to stop giving a tentative date and halt the entire project until the completion of major overhaul in management and construction.
Finally, when spending has crossed the 7.3 billion euro mark, the date has been pushed to 2020.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport: After nearly a decade of delay, Germany’s Berlin-Brandenburg Willie Brandt airport opened on October 31st.
Günter Wicker / Berlin Brandenburg Airport GmbH
‘Ready to take off’
“The most important thing for us is that we open the airport,” airport owner Engelbert Luetke Daldrup told CNN. “After years of construction as well as very difficult testing and testing, we’re ready to take off.”
Terminal 1, which will pick up the first passengers on November 1, features a polished glass facade with modern interiors and a shiny check-in counter.
The “Magic Carpet”, an installation by American artist Pae White, hangs from the ceiling of the check-in hall, adding an array of colors.
However, the overall impression is one of the functions. The walnut cladding felt like a failed attempt to add warmth and belonging to the 1990s, when plans for the airport first came into being. And with no greenery to soften the exterior, the building is dark and box-like.
Lifts and escalators feel very cramped, suggesting that not all of those design flaws have been successfully resolved.
Daldrup defended the airport against any accusations that it was outdated.
“We had a lot of time to deploy the latest technologies at the airport,” he said. “The airport in many respects, on the technical side, has undergone a very severe infrastructure redevelopment process.
“We are probably the safest airport in the world because we were under very strict inspection, after the 2012 disaster.”
But thanks to Covid-19, it will be a while before the systems will be challenged by any significant passenger traffic.
Works with reduced capacity
Brandenburg Airport has a capacity of more than 40 million passengers through Terminal 1, Terminal 5, and Terminal 2 (to open in spring 2021).
However, thanks to the pandemic, it is expected to take only about 11,000 passengers on the first day of operation on November 1 and only 24,000 a week after that.
“Of course Covid’s times are difficult, but in a year or two we will have a lot of passengers here,” Daldrup told CNN. “People will love this new modern international airport.”
It, along with low-cost airline EasyJet, will be the two largest carriers in BER. That role will be marked on the opening day by two of the airline’s planes performing a parallel landing on the two runways.
“We need help. All the major airlines need help,” Daldrup said. However, he said the airport’s owners gave financial support for the coming years to provide the assistance needed to deal with the crisis.
“Everyone knows the German capital needs a good infrastructure for international connectivity,” he said. “We want more flights to the United States, to New York, to San Francisco, to Los Angeles, to Philadelphia, to so many great cities.”
Arguing that the global economy depends on the aforementioned connectivity, he added “the airport industry, airports, airlines, are the backbone of our economic recovery.”
Daldrup claimed that the opening of the airport was “a sign of hope.” Lofty ambitions have always been part of the Brandenburg Airport story, so it is perhaps safer to say that it is the end of a very shameful chapter for a country known for its efficiency.
Daldrup confirmed: “There will be no parties.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story said the airport was 10 years behind schedule. This was revised to “almost a decade late.”