Berlin (CNN) – It’s 10 years later, 4 billion euros over budget, and there’s a global pandemic that paralyzes the aviation industry.
Merry Halloween to Berlin’s besieged 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 modern transport hub that the German capital has always lacked, opening up connections to several long-distance destinations.
Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport (BER) is said to have been awarded 300 million euros in state aid without transporting a single passenger – and while there is no airport in the world that does not feel the heat right now, Berlin’s new airport is no stranger to crisis.
Plans to build a central international airport in Berlin date back to the city’s reunification era. Following the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, Germany’s leaders began talks on building a new airport, which they believed would help establish Berlin as a new world center.
At that time, the city had three airports – Tegel “Otto Lilienthal” airport, Schönefeld airport and Tempelhof airport – all of which played important roles in Berlin’s turbulent history after the war.
So why did the new airport – officially called Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt – take so long to build? How does such a bold vision for the future of Berlin end up as an exercise in national humiliation?
Complications from the start
Official construction began in 2006. Efforts to privatize the project failed, leaving the airport board under the leadership of the German Federal Government, the state of Brandenburg and the city of Berlin.
The efforts came with 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 – hailed as “the most modern” in Europe.
But a host of technical problems delayed progress as they jumped in the price of the airport. The initial cost projection became a gross underestimation.
The full range of architectural, structural and technical issues came to the fore in 2011 when a major opening arranged for June 2012 threatened.
In late 2011, aviation inspectors began filing for the construction site to check alarm systems and security features. A faulty fire protection system design first filled experts with doubt, and soon it became clear that there were huge problems with large structural elements such as escalator sizes, ceiling designs and ticket counters.
The imagined opening, a glorious screen complete with a look from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was canceled just a few weeks before and became a painful embarrassment to German officials.
The opening date was pushed to 2014, then 2016. A Brandenburg state audit completed in 2016 concluded that the airport’s usability was 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, the date was pushed to 2020, when spending ran past 7.3 billion euros.
‘Ready to go’
“The most important thing for us is that we open the airport,” airport manager Engelbert Luetke Daldrup told CNN. “After very hard years of building and testing and experimenting, we are ready to start.”
Terminal 1, which welcomes its first passengers on November 1, has a sleek glass façade with modern furniture and polished check-in counters.
“Magic Carpet,” an installation by American artist Pae White hanging from the ceiling in the check-in hall, adds a splash of color.
The overall impression, however, is one of functionality. The walnut panels feel like a failed attempt to add heat and belong more to the 1990s, when the plans for the airport were first born. And with nothing green yet to soften the exterior, the building is dark and box-like.
The elevators and escalators feel very narrow, suggesting that not all of these design flaws have been ironed out successfully.
Daldrup defends the airport against accusations that it is already obsolete.
“We had a lot of time to implement the latest technologies at this airport,” he says. “The airport in so many aspects, the technical aspects, has undergone a very serious infrastructure transformation.
“We are probably the safest airport in the world because we are so rigorously tested after the disaster in 2012.”
But thanks to Covid-19, it will take a while before the systems will be challenged by significant passenger traffic.
Operation with reduced capacity
Brandenburg Airport has capacity for more than 40 million passengers via Terminal 1, Terminal 5 and the upcoming Terminal 2 (which opens in the spring of 2021).
However, thanks to the pandemic, it expects to handle only about 11,000 passengers on its first day of operation on November 1 and only 24,000 a week later.
“Of course, Covid times are hard times, but in a year or two we will have many passengers here,” Daldrup told CNN. “People will enjoy this new modern international airport.”
Together with the budget airline EasyJet, it will be the two largest players on BER. This role will be marked on the opening day by two of the airlines’ aircraft 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 owners have backed the funding for the coming years to provide the necessary help to cope with the crisis.
Signage and marketing were ready for the opening in 2012.
Adam Berry / Getty Images
“Everyone knows that the capital of Germany needs a good infrastructure for international connection,” 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.”
He claims that the global economy is dependent on the said connection, he adds “airport industry, airports, airlines are the backbone of our economic recovery.”
Daldrup claims that the opening of the airport is “a sign of hope.” High ambition has always been a part of the history of Brandenburg Airport, so it is perhaps safer to say that it is the end of what has been a very embarrassing chapter for a nation known for efficiency.
Daldrup confirms: “There will be no party.”