The official opening of Berlin’s new airport (BER) has been announced—and subsequently cancelled—so many times during the last decade that it feels somewhat surreal to be finally heading to its brand new Terminal 1 for the official launch event. The fact that the train is packed with people wearing masks, and hardly a suitcase in sight is, on the other hand, an ominous reminder that it’s perhaps not the ideal time to be opening an international airport.
The airport, officially called the Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg Airport, after the former leader of West Germany, has become a national and regional embarrassment over the years, as delay after delay has put strain on the city’s other airports, and reports of incompetence and corruption have become a constant theme in the schadenfreude-loving German and international media.
The issues over the years have included lights that wouldn’t turn off, automatic doors that wouldn’t open, escalators that were too short, and a smoke-extraction system that was so complex and dysfunctional it was nicknamed ‘the monster’. Today, however, rising up smoothly into the terminal via the lifts from the train station, everything looks impressively spic and span. The abundant glass, wood and floors are all polished to a sheen, there are several large (and empty) check-in areas, and even an operational Starbucks for that classic Flüghafen feel.
There are police everywhere, some surrounding a small group of protesters holding banners saying things like “Save Lives Not Planes”, but mostly on general security duty it seems. Up on the visitor terrace, a few dozen press and city officials are gathered to witness the main event: the simultaneous landing of a Lufthansa and easyJet plane, the two main carriers to be operating from the airport, and the first main base outside the UK for the latter airline since 2004.
Although Angela Merkel was slated to be at the landmark event back in 2011, she is nowhere to be seen today, and neither are the ceremonial planes, come to that, or at least not at the appointed time (2pm). An announcement tells us that the misty weather has meant they cannot land at the same time after all, so a few minutes after 2pm they land separately (out of sight for most of us), then slowly turn to face each other on the airport’s south runway in front of us.
As they sit there, just a few metres of space between their respective noses, it’s difficult not to think of the famous Cold War event in 1961 at Checkpoint Charlie, when American and Soviet tanks faced one another in similar fashion over the Berlin Wall. Fortunately, the planes moved away from each other again very quickly, and the assembled attendees dispersed back into the main terminal.
At the opening of the new BER airport. Only delayed by a decade. No big celebration due to corona but symbolised with two planes (EasyJet and Lufthansa) landing together. pic.twitter.com/S0sp9wpTtV
— Slow Travel Berlin (@slowberlin) October 31, 2020
Although there were groups of people milling around the vast space, it felt eerily empty compared to normal airport activity, which of course is the next challenge for BER: staying afloat as the world waits for international travel to return. Visitor numbers to the city are down some 10 million this year, which is good in one sense since the airport was originally designed to accommodate just over 20 million for its 2011 opening, which is way less than the 36 million that arrived annually in the last two years; a Masterplan BER 2040 has since been put in place, which will expand the airport again to cope with the anticipated 55 million passengers by 2040.
But it still leaves the not insignificant problem of money. The project is funded by the states of Berlin and Brandenburg (37 per cent each), and the federal government (26 per cent), and was said to be costing Germany up to €1 million (£902,000) a day even before the pandemic. News reports suggest the airport will get around €300 million in government support this year, plus loans of around €550 million next year, and CEO Engelbert Lütke-Daldrup has said he doesn’t expect profits until 2025.
While the airport is finally open to the public, its financial problems have apparently only just begun.