Thirty-one years after the Berlin Wall’s demolition, the city it divided remains one of Europe’s most fascinating places to visit (I mean when there’s not agoing on). With crammed into Berlin, you’re never at a loss for things to see (beer gardens included).
It’s just that flying into the city hasn’t been so enjoyable. Its two airports, Tegel and Schönefeld, have long provided a stark contrast to Berlin’s gleaming train station or to the airport theme parks of Frankfurt and Munich. Cramped and inefficient, Tegel’s saving grace was its nearness to the city center. Farther-flung Schönefeld was East Berlin’s airport until reunification. And it still looks like it.
But come Oct. 31, Berlin will finally get a grand new aerial gateway when Berlin Brandenburg Airport opens. Fourteen years in the making, and nine years behind schedule, the airport has long been the butt of jokes. At times it felt like the city might just give up and open Brandenburg as a giant museum, but now it appears Brandenburg will serve the role it was born for.
Also named Willy Brandt Airport, after the late West Berlin mayor and West German chancellor, Brandenburg (its airport code is BER) is located adjacent to Schönefeld, roughly 18 kilometers (about 11 miles) southeast of the Brandenburg Gate. It’ll consist of a pair of runways and three terminals, two of which, though not exactly new by this point, have never been used. Schönefeld’s current terminal will be refurbished as a terminal for budget airlines, and Tegel will close for good on Nov. 8. And like any good European airport (take note, America), Berlin Brandenburg will have extensive rail connections to Berlin.
If it could go wrong…
It all sounded good when construction began in 2006 — a modern and spacious airport that would be an appropriate showpiece for Germany’s capital — but Brandenburg’s construction was a lesson in Murphy’s Law. Everything seemed to go wrong, even before the first shovel was turned.
The problems began shortly after the planning committee selected the site in 1996. First came a dispute over whether the airport would be privately or publicly owned (the public camp won); then came lawsuits from local residents who weren’t thrilled to have a major airport as a neighbor. That all delayed the start of construction by six years. Once work really began, a tentative opening date of 2011 was set.
The next few years brought embarrassing design flaws, cost overruns (some estimates put the total at as much as 4 billion euros, or $4.7 billion) and accusations of corruption. DW News has a thorough timeline of all the problems, but to give you an idea, they included doors that weren’t numbered correctly, a terminal roof twice as heavy as it should’ve been, cables that were incorrectly installed and even escalators that were too short. Oh, and the construction-planning company also went bankrupt.
In 2010 the opening was postponed until 2012, but then two of the most notable problems arose. In November, 2011, a trial run by 12,000 volunteers found that more check-in desks were needed and that the automated baggage system wasn’t big enough. Six months later the fire protection system failed during tests. It also didn’t help when Air Berlin, which planned to use the airport as a hub, declared bankruptcy in 2017. That robbed the airport of a major landing-fee-paying airline.
More mistakes and setbacks followed, continually pushing back the opening date. By 2018, 750 flight-status monitors had already reached the end of their lifespan. The Oct. 31 date was set last November, and this time Berlin Brandenburg is really supposed to open.
“We have an airport that is ready for use in accordance with all rules and regulations,” Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, the airport’s CEO, said in a statement from earlier this month, when the airport received its operating certificate. “As far as it is humanly possible to tell, there is nothing standing in the way of the BER opening on Oct. 31.”
Of course, it’s all happening in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic, which has sharply cut air travel worldwide. At least that’s one thing airport officials can’t blame on poor construction. Just how the airport will perform is another question — we may not really know until air travel regains its pre-COVID footing. My guess is that it’ll feel like a giant shopping mall, which is typical for most international airports these days. The Guardian, meanwhile, calls the interior design “embarrassingly 1990s.” That may be true, but almost anything is better than Schönefeld.