Thursday, 3 Dec 2020

The new Berlin airport: A symbol of failure finally ready for takeoff

The much beleaguered Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport is almost ready to open

BERLIN – Germany will breathe a collective sigh of relief on Oct 31 when the new Berlin airport finally opens. It will be nothing short of a nightmare coming to an end.

Haunted by numerous construction troubles, frequent changes of management and repeated postponements to the reopening, the airport had become something of a bad joke. German engineering prowess, oftvaunted as the world’s best, became fodder for taunts in Berlin.

As a fitting end to this almost 15-year construction ordeal, the opening now falls in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic. Sarcastic commentators are already asking whether the airport is necessary at all. Passenger numbers are in fact down so drastically that they could easily be handled by the old Tegel airport.

Tegel, better known by its code TXL, had been built in the 1970s when West-Berlin was still a walled-in city. After unification and the moving of the German capital from Bonn to Berlin, it quickly became clear that the city would need a modern airport able to handle increasing air traffic.

In the early 1990s, Berlin had four airports – Tegel, Tempelhof, Gatow and Schönefeld – scattered over a city that once was divided in four sectors, each controlled by one of the occupying forces.

For a city shy of four million people, this air travel clutter had to end.

Planning of the new airport started in 1996, after a site was earmarked for one next to the dated former East German hub in Schönefeld, a Berlin suburb.

Construction began in 2006 and the opening was originally scheduled for November 2011. However, constant trouble with the smoke control system and thousands of other technical problems moved the official launch of the airport almost every year further down the road.

BER, shorthand for what will be the new Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport, saw executives come and go. Some of them hired like football coaches to save a struggling team from being relegated to a lower division. Every new executive brought in a new crew, which further enhanced the chaos.

In 2017, Mr Engelbert Lütke Daldrup took over as CEO.A calm and seasoned construction expert, he revealed in an interview with The Straits Times his secret for success with the project: “I stopped changing plans. I ordered that we will stick to what we have and that I won’t allow any modifications.”

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Mr Lütke Daldrup put a hard stop to the constant introduction of new ideas and adaptations that had, in the past, led to an avalanche of consequential changes.

As a result, the new airport of 2020 may not reflect the absolute latest in airport technology, but it will at least will work.

Dry runs have been underway since July, when batches of 400 volunteers from the general public would show up every Tuesday and Thursday for a user simulation of a regular business day at BER.

Picking up suitcases, pushing strollers, queuing at the check-in counters, figuring out display boards and finding their way to the gates in the new terminal, the ersatz passengers – masked and advised to keep their distance from one another – put the airport’s operations to the test in real time.

For BER, the Covid-19 pandemic may even turn out to be a blessing in disguise. Passenger numbers in Berlin are currently down to a quarter of the usual 110,00 travellerslanding at and departing from one of the Berlin airports.

On the opening day at the end of this month, the new airport will not see a huge rush of passengers but only modest numbers. With scores of observers just waiting for the next glitch to surface, this eases the pressure somewhat.

The slow start will also mitigate one of the key criticisms – that the airport is planned way too small to serve all the passengers that are now redirected from Tegel in the North of the city to BER in the South. Since nobody knows when passenger numbers will pick up to pre Covid-19 levels again, this debate also has died down.

The hope that the airport soon would become a major European hub is no longer. Perspective plans of new terminals to expand the airport will not be referred to any time soon.

“All the arrivals and departures of one day fit on a single display”, said BER operations manager Patrick Muller, with visibly mixed feelings.

While glad that the project is finally seeing the light of day, he admits: “Of course this is not on the level of airports in Dubai or Istanbul, but BER will be modern and well working.”

The protracted turbulence in the building of the BER left a mark.

In Germany, other huge construction projects like the Stuttgart station and the philharmonic hall in Hamburg have also proved to be difficult to realise, either because of technological hurdles, costs that go overboard or massive objections by citizen initiatives.

The new Berlin airport is now 4 billion euros over budget (the total is more than 6 billion euros) – and this not even the end of the line.

With revenues under water because of Covid-19, it will take many more years until the new airport may have compensated for the billions that piled up due to the prolonged construction. “I expect it will take as long as maybe three or four years for us to reach pre-coronavirus level of business,” said Mr Lütke Daldrup. Moreover, BER has already asked for 300 million euros more of taxpayer money to keep the new airport afloat.

While BER will eventually celebrate its opening, the days of Tegel are numbered. The airport, shaped like a hexagon and easy to access, is loved by many Berliners. With its distinct patina, it reflects the time when life in Berlin was cosy and calm.

A referendum to keep Tegel open even garnered the support of a majority of Berliners. However, the city government brushed the vote aside. Local politicians wanted only one airport that is prestigious. Now this new airport has to deliver.

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