Berlin (CNN) – It’s 10 years behind schedule, 4 billion euros on budget and there’s a global pandemic crippling the aviation industry.
Halloween at Berlin’s besieged Brandenburg Airport, which finally opens its doors on Saturday.
The massive 1,470 hectare site in the Schönefeld district of southeast Berlin aims to be the most modern transportation hub that the German capital has always lacked, and will open links to more long-distance destinations.
Berlin-Brandenburg-Willy Brandt Airport (BER) has already been reported to receive € 300 million in government aid, without carrying a single passenger – and while no airport in the world is feeling the heat now, Berlin’s new airport is also no stranger to the crisis.
The dream of monotheism
Plans to build a central international airport in Berlin date back to the era of the city’s reunification. After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, German leaders began discussions about building a new airport, which they believed would help establish Berlin as a new world center.
At the time, the city had three airports – Tegel Airport (Otto Lilenthal), Schönefeld Airport and Tempelhof Airport – all of which played important roles in Berlin’s turbulent post-war history.
So why did it take so long to build the new airport – officially called Berlin-Brandenburg-Willi-Brandt Airport? How did this bold vision of Berlin’s future end as an exercise of national humiliation?
Complications from the start
Official construction began in 2006. Efforts to privatize the project failed, and the airport’s management board was left in charge, under the ownership of the German federal government, the state of Brandenburg and the City of Berlin.
The endeavor came with a rough cost estimate of 2.83 billion euros ($ 3.1 billion at current exchange rates) and a serious ambition. It will be an impressive facility – touted as ‘the most modern’ in Europe.
But a large number of technical issues delayed progress as the airport’s price was inflated. The original cost estimate becomes an overall estimate.
A whole host of architectural, structural and technical problems emerged at their peak in 2011, with a looming bespoke opening that was staged in June 2012.
At the end of 2011, aviation inspectors began depositing at the construction site to check alarm systems and security features. The faulty design of the fire protection system initially filled experts with skepticism, and it quickly became apparent that there were major problems with major structural elements, such as escalator sizes, roof designs and ticket counters.
The envisioned opening, a spectacular full-on show with the rise of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, was canceled just weeks ago and turned into a painful embarrassment for German officials.
The opening date has been pushed back to 2014, then 2016. The Brandenburg state audit concluded in 2016 that the airport’s usability was less than 57%. In the end, the officials decided to stop moving ahead with the expected date and put the entire project on hold until major management and construction reforms were completed.
Finally, with spending above 7.3 billion euros, the date has been pushed back to 2020.
‘get ready to go’
“The most important thing for us is that we are opening the airport,” Airport President Engelbert Lutke Daldrup told CNN. “After very difficult years of construction, testing and trials, we are ready to go.”
Terminal 1, which will receive the first passengers on November 1, has an elegant glass façade with modern furniture and polished check-in tables.
Magic Carpet, an installation by American artist Bay White hanging from the ceiling of the check-in hall, adds a splash of color.
However, the overall impression is one of the jobs. The walnut wood panels seem like a failed attempt to add warmth and they belong more to the ’90s, when airport plans were first born. With no green spaces to smooth out the exterior, the building is dark and boxy.
The elevators and escalators appear to be very narrow, indicating that not all of these design gaps have been successfully settled.
DalDorp defends the airport against any accusations that it is already out of date.
“We had a lot of time to apply the latest technology at this airport,” he says. “The airport has, in many respects, technical aspects, undergone a very severe redevelopment of the infrastructure.
“We may be the safest airport in the world because we went through very stringent tests after the 2012 disaster.”
But thanks to Covid-19, it will be some time before the systems are stabbed by any major passenger traffic.
It works at low energy
Brandenburg Airport handles more than 40 million passengers via Terminal 1, Terminal 5 and the upcoming Terminal 2 (which will open in the spring of 2021).
Thanks to the pandemic, it is expected to handle around 11,000 passengers only on its first day of operation on November 1, and only 24,000 a week later.
“Of course, Covid times are tough times, but in a year or two we will have a lot of passengers here,” DalDrop told CNN. “People will enjoy this new modern international airport.”
She will, along with the budget airline EasyJet, be BER’s biggest player. This role will be celebrated on opening day by two airline planes celebrating a parallel landing on the two runways.
“We need help,” says Daldrup. “All major airlines need help.” But he says the airport’s owners have backed its financing for the coming years in order to provide the assistance needed to tackle the crisis.
Signage and marketing were ready to go for the 2012 opening.
Adam Berry / Getty Images
“Everyone knows that the German capital needs a good infrastructure for international communication,” he says. “We want more flights to the United States, New York, San Francisco, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and many more amazing cities.”
Arguing that the global economy relies on the aforementioned connection, he adds, “the airport industry, airports, and airlines are the backbone of our economic recovery.”
Dalorp claims the airport’s opening is a “hopeful sign.” Noble ambition has always been part of the Brandenburg Airport story, so perhaps it’s safer to say it’s the end of a chapter that has been very embarrassing for a country known for its efficiency.
“There will be no party,” says Dalorp.