No party for Berlin's new airport because engineers are 'too embarrassed' by eight-year delay

Oliver Smith
·7-min read
Berlin's new airport is really opening - getty
Berlin's new airport is really opening - getty

Just when you thought 2020 couldn’t get any more surreal, it seems that Germany’s Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BBA), after a 13-year saga punctuated by scandals, bankruptcies and comical setbacks, is actually going to open. 

October 31 has been circled in the calendar since late last year, and – incredibly – it seems that the Hallowe’en deadline will be met. There won’t be much fanfare, however, and not because of Covid. So embarrassed is the team behind the vast project, which has cost more than double the initial budget and was originally supposed to open in 2012, that no opening party is planned. 

The airport’s CEO, Engelbert Lütke Daldup, explained: “Berlin and Germany became a laughing stock. We, Germany’s engineers, were embarrassed.” So much for vorsprung durch technik. 

He added: “[The project] is none we could boast about. Therefore there will not be any big inauguration party. We will just open the airport.”

Has it really been that bad? Judge for yourself.

What went wrong?

How long have you got? That 2012 opening ceremony – due to be attended by Angela Merkel and 10,000 guests – was cancelled due to a fault with the fire alarms and smoke extractors. It turned out to be the tip of the iceberg.

According to Deutsche Welle (DW), the German broadcaster, 90 kilometres of cables were incorrectly installed, 4,000 doors were incorrectly numbered, the escalators were too short and the emergency line to the fire department was faulty. It has also been reported that the airport’s roof was twice the authorised weight.

At a glance | How the opening date has been delayed (again and again)
At a glance | How the opening date has been delayed (again and again)

A shortage of check-in desks was also identified. The solution offered by planners? To check in passengers using non-German carriers inside temporary tents in front of the terminal. It did not go down well.

Some truly comical problems have made headlines: 

  • In 2018 it emerged that 750 monitors showing flight information needed to be replaced (at a cost of €500,000) because they had been left on for six years and burned out. 

  • For months in 2013 planners couldn’t switch the lights off in the terminal building because of a computer glitch. 

  • Each day an empty train visits the airport’s station to keep the tunnels ventilated and stop the track rusting. 

  • A report suggested the airport was considering hiring nightclub bouncers to sound fire alarms manually because the system couldn’t be fixed. 

  • Hundreds of planted trees had to be chopped down because they were the wrong variety. 

  • Three thousand smoke detectors reportedly went missing. 

  • Flight paths and sound protection zones were incorrectly calculated.

That’s not all. There have been allegations of corruption – DW alleged that the airport’s planner-in-chief was “not an engineer but an imposter” – and worrying claims that a whistleblower at the airport was poisoned. This has not been proven.  

DW also points to “a botched privatization attempt, the need to soundproof surrounding homes, and compensation lawsuits” as well as “a simple lack of accountability”. “Politicians with limited project management experience were running the supervisory board and could freely make decisions with the knowledge that by the time any complications came to light they – the decision-makers – would be gone,” it argues.

Inside the empty airport - getty
Inside the empty airport - getty

According to the German politician Jörg Stroedter, the problems found in 2012 should have led to the decision to gut the building and start again. “If that had happened, the airport would have already been in operation for a long time, with newer and less complicated facilities,” he told the BBC.

The problems have been exacerbated in the meantime. Executives and engineers have come and gone, and the collapse of Air Berlin in 2017 created tenancy issues.

Heads have rolled too. The former Berlin mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who famously described his city as “poor but sexy”, was forced to resign from his post, in part because of the airport’s failings.

The first passengers will arrive next month - getty
The first passengers will arrive next month - getty

The embarrassment for Germany has also been hard to swallow. So much so that the family of Willy Brandt, the German statesman, requested his name be removed from the airport so it wouldn’t be associated with such a fiasco.

The saga has also been staggeringly expensive. BER was originally supposed to cost €2.83bn, according to a 2006 report. But by late 2012, €4.3bn had already been spent. This rose to €5.4bn by 2014 and €6.9bn by 2016. 

The final bill might reach €10.3bn, according to some estimates. All of which would leave it around €7.5bn over budget. The cash kept coming in thanks to a series of loans, but every month the airport remained unused it sank further into the red – simply maintaining the empty shell costs millions of euros.

Construction companies, taxi firms and shops have declared bankruptcy due to the ongoing delays, and a scandal broke out in 2018 over how much the airport’s head was paying himself.

The saga has seen heads roll - getty
The saga has seen heads roll - getty

But BER became an unlikely attraction

A fine example of schadenfreude if ever we saw one, until recently tourists have been paying to take tours of Germany’s disastrous unopened airport. There were various options available, including bike tours, which wended their way around the apron, passing empty terminal buildings and gates.

The bike tours were run by the airport, which, true to form, did not provide bicycles or helmets – visitors were told to come with their own set of wheels. The airport did, however, provide a packed lunch on the two-hour excursion, which was priced at €15 per head.

Group tours were also available of the ghostly terminals and check-in areas. Dubbed the “BER Experience”, these lasted two hours and cost €200 for a group of eight.

Hundreds even took part in regular “Airport Night Runs” at BER, which included half marathon, 10 km and 4x4 km relay races.

It’s not the only unused airport in Berlin that’s become a tourist attraction. The abandoned runways and scrubby wastelands of Tempelhof Airport, of Berlin Airlift fame, is now a park – and an unlikely spot for a bit of birdwatching.

Runners at the airport last year - getty
Runners at the airport last year - getty

So how many flights will actually arrive at BER?

A very good question. Global travel restrictions mean demand for flights is at a 21st-century low. This will certainly benefit BER if any teething problems emerge. 

So severe is the situation that the new airport’s second terminal will not be used at all to begin with. Terminal 1 can handle 28 million passengers per year, which is more than enough capacity for now. 

All those airlines that currently use Berlin Tegel and Berlin Schönefeld airports, including Ryanair, BA and easyJet, will simply switch to BER.

What of the old airports?

Both will close, with fans of Tegel particularly upset by its demise. Christopher Beanland, writing for Telegraph Travel earlier this year, said: “Tegel’s quirks are myriad: bespoke signage, clackety split-flap departure board, a copy of the Red Baron’s scarlet triplane slung above check-in, and a pile of evocative architecture by Meinhard von Gerkan and Volkwin Marg, who did the brutalist terminal and the more funky fire and petrol stations on the perimeter.

Tegel will be lost - getty
Tegel will be lost - getty

“Despite its shortcomings (small gates; tiresome security queues; no rail link) it had many advantages: the shortest stroll of any airport in the world from plane to taxi and a road journey into town of 20-odd minutes if you were lucky with traffic, plus a currywurst stand outside the terminal which looked like an S Bahn carriage. The British Airways lounge was a kooky time capsule where you could stock up on Teutonic treats like Berliner Kindl beer, sekt, sausages, potato salad, Milka chocolate and apple cake while you waited for your flight back to Heathrow or London City.”