Berlin’s ‘laughing stock’ airport to finally open to passengers

Berlin’s new international airport opens on Saturday, almost a decade behind schedule and three times over budget. The timing, right in the middle of one of the worst crises in global travel, could not be worse.

“It’s a tragedy,” said Katy Krüger, head of the airport’s terminal management. “To wait so long, and then this crazy downturn in the industry. It really hurts.”

The opening of BER, as it is known, was meant to be a moment of triumph for Berlin. After years of delays, the city was finally acquiring its own gateway to the world, a gleaming new interconnected hub that suited its status as the capital of Europe’s biggest economy.

But the coronavirus pandemic put paid to that. BER now has the look and feel of a costly white elephant, a throwback to a bygone era of mass tourism and global mobility that Covid-19 has brought to a screeching halt.

BER will open with “the entire aviation industry suffering its worst crisis since the second world war,” said Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, its managing director. “There’s not a single airport in Europe that’s even approaching normality.”

Mr Lütke Daldrup, a phlegmatic city planner who was installed in 2017 to rescue one of Germany’s most disaster-prone building projects, does not mince his words. BER had become a “laughing stock”, he said, adding: “We German engineers are ashamed of it.”

The original plan for BER to process 55m passengers a year looks like a pipe dream after the collapse in passenger numbers © Hayoung Jeon/EPA-EFE/Shutterstock

For that reason, he said, there would be no big opening party on Saturday, when the first flights touch down. “We’ll just open up,” he said. “There’s no reason to boast about this project.”

A sneak preview of BER this week revealed a vast and expensively appointed temple of travel flooded with light, finished in dark walnut panelling and glossy sand-lime floors. The centrepiece is the “Flying Carpet”, a striking red aluminium sculpture by the Californian artist Pae White which dominates the check-in hall.

BER has four times more space than the tiny city airport it replaces, Tegel, which had become a byword for overcrowding, poor services and bad transport connections. It also sits on top of a new railway station that will whisk passengers to and from Berlin city centre in a matter of minutes.

Ironically, the diminutive Tegel would probably be better suited to the pandemic era; Berlin’s airports currently handle just 25,000 passengers a day, a quarter of the level last year. The original plan for BER to process 55m passengers a year now looks like a pipe dream.

“We’re facing a very, very difficult winter,” said Mr Lütke Daldrup. Germany’s airports will suffer a combined €2bn drop in revenues this year, he said, with BER facing a €300m hit.

The airport, which cost nearly €6bn — three times its original price tag — was supposed to start making a profit from 2025 and pay off its outstanding €3.5bn in loans over the following 10 years.

Instead, it will require additional financing of more than €300m this year, with some €50m-€60m raised from internal cost-cutting measures and €260m from the airport’s shareholders — the German federal government and the authorities in Berlin and Brandenburg. That will be a bitter pill to swallow — German taxpayers are already on the hook for more than a third of the project’s cost.

Even before the pandemic struck, BER suffered from a significant weakness: it has a lot fewer international connections than other leading European cities. Of the more than 100 long-haul connections to western Germany last year only seven were to Berlin, said Mr Lütke Daldrup.

“We’re in the same category as the smallest and most insignificant European capitals,” he admitted. Tourists wanting to visit Berlin from Asia still had to fly to Prague and take the bus.

Still, the fact BER is opening at all is for many a minor miracle. The project has been dogged by technical difficulties, incompetent planning and dizzying management changes. Ground was first broken at the site 14 years ago, but the official opening ceremony in 2012 had to be cancelled when it emerged that the airport’s fire prevention system did not work.

For Ms Krüger, the terminal manager who has worked at BER for a decade, being able to finally open after so many delays will be a moment to savour.

“It’s like I’ve finally been able to shake off my old nightmare,” she said. “But it’s sad to be doing it when we have so few passengers coming here. We’re not used to that in Berlin.”

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