The curious case of Berlin's Brandenburg Airport

Will it ever open?

Despite the economic malaise that has hung over Europe for the past few years, one sector that has continued to grow is aviation, with passenger numbers steadily climbing  year-on-year. This has seen capacity at Western Europe’s hub airports come under increasing pressure, with more and more flights vying for what little space there is left. The ongoing political wrangling over London’s answer to increasing capacity, whether that be a third runway at Heathrow or a new airport in the Thames Estuary, is just one of a number of national dialogues happening across the continent, aimed at addressing the same problem.

The situation is particularly acute in Berlin, where the legacy of the Cold War is still affecting today’s air passengers. The city is currently served by the two old East and West Berlin airports, Schönefeld and Tegel, instead of the more conventional single-hub setup. Both relatively unchanged since reunification in 1990, these aging terminals are creaking under the strain of sky high passenger demand.

So the decision was taken back in 1991 to build the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport as a replacement for both, capable of handling the projected increase in passengers well into the future. 22 years later and the airport is still waiting to welcome its first passenger, despite an original opening date in 2010. The saga that has developed since then makes Heathrow’s Terminal 5 opening, which suffered from a number of baggage handling issues, seem like a cakewalk by comparison. The airport currently stands, all but finished, empty and seemingly no closer to opening than it was when first envisaged more than 20 years ago when the dust from the fall of the wall had barely settled.

Thanks to a number of construction problems, the opening date has repeatedly been moved back, leading to Rainer Brüderle, leader of the opposition party liberal Free Democrats in the Bundestag accusing Berlin’s mayor of “turning the city more and more into an international laughing stock”. Certainly, the national stereotype of German efficiency doesn’t ring true in this case. Without a resolution in sight, the financial burdens for the government, the contractors and airlines who were depending on Brandenburg’s opening, are mounting by the day.

The main problem seems to stem from an issue with the new terminal’s fire safety system, which make it unsafe to open to passengers until rectified. The system’s smoke extraction technology unusually sucks air down through gaps in the floor, rather than the more conventional ceiling extraction, where hot air has risen to. The Siemens and Bosch-designed system would have been fully automatic, but problems with the wiring and programming have yet to be overcome.

This is just one of a reported 66,000 problems which range from the infinitesimal to the grandiose. The building is currently lit 24 hours a day, with engineers admitting that the control system is so complex; they do not know how to turn them off. A Berlin metro train currently runs to the terminal every day, along its newly built spur line in order to keep air circulating in its tunnels. And the list goes on, devouring time and money with each passing day.

In fact, the cost of construction has doubled from an original estimate of €2.4 billion to €4.3 billion and is likely to rise further still. Airlines, too, are feeling the burden of the delayed opening schedule, with Air Berlin reporting a €38m net loss in Q2 as it is unable to expand its route offerings until Berlin-Brandenburg is open for business, instead having to operate out of the already-cramped Tegel airport. Michael Hoppe, general secretary of the board of airline representatives in Germany said “It is a big financial burden when you have to continually change your plans,” with the financial outlay of Air Berlin’s new facilities at Brandenburg already having been paid for, but lying unused.

Still, there is a glimmer of hope on the horizon, with the airport’s CEO Hartmut Mehdorn telling German Broadcaster Deutsche Welle that a March or April 2014 opening date is a possibility, but at a much reduced capacity of 10 flights a day, equal to 1,500 passengers. This is a far cry from the 82,000 passengers a day it was designed to handle.

By the time the airport does eventually open, it could already be a case of too little too late. In the first eight months of 2013, Berlin’s two existing airports together handled 17,280,729 passengers, a year-on-year increase of 4.1 per cent. With this number expected to continue rising, the capacity of the new Brandenburg airport, which was designed for 30 million people a year, could soon be exceeded. Perhaps it is already time for the government to start planning its replacement.

Photograph: Getty Images

Mark Brierley is a group editor at Global Trade Media

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Arsène Wenger: how can an intelligent manager preside over such a hollowed-out team?

The Arsenal manager faces a frustrating legacy.

Sport is obviously not all about winning, but it is about justified hope. That ­distinction has provided, until recently, a serious defence of Arsène Wenger’s Act II – the losing part. Arsenal haven’t won anything big for 13 years. But they have been close enough (and this is a personal view) to sustain the experience of investing emotionally in the story. Hope turning to disappointment is fine. It’s when the hope goes, that’s the problem.

Defeat takes many forms. In both 2010 and 2011, Arsenal lost over two legs to Barcelona in the Champions League. Yet these were rich and rewarding sporting experiences. In the two London fixtures of those ties, Arsenal drew 2-2 and won 2-1 against the most dazzling team in the world. Those nights reinvigorated my pride in sport. The Emirates Stadium had the best show in town. Defeat, when it arrived in Barcelona, was softened by gratitude. We’d been entertained, more than entertained.

Arsenal’s 5-1 surrender to Bayern Munich on 15 February was very different. In this capitulation by instalments, the fascination was macabre rather than dramatic. Having long given up on discerning signs of life, we began the post-mortem mid-match. As we pored over the entrails, the curiosity lay in the extent of the malady that had brought down the body. The same question, over and over: how could such an intelligent, deep-thinking manager preside over a hollowed-out team? How could failings so obvious to outsiders, the absence of steel and resilience, evade the judgement of the boss?

There is a saying in rugby union that forwards (the hard men) determine who wins, and the backs (the glamour boys) decide by how much. Here is a footballing equivalent: midfielders define matches, attacking players adorn them and defenders get the blame. Yet Arsenal’s players as good as vacated the midfield. It is hard to judge how well Bayern’s playmakers performed because they were operating in a vacuum; it looked like a morale-boosting training-ground drill, free from the annoying presence of opponents.

I have always been suspicious of the ­default English critique which posits that mentally fragile teams can be turned around by licensed on-field violence – a good kicking, basically. Sporting “character” takes many forms; physical assertiveness is only one dimension.

Still, it remains baffling, Wenger’s blind spot. He indulges artistry, especially the mercurial Mesut Özil, beyond the point where it serves the player. Yet he won’t protect the magicians by surrounding them with effective but down-to-earth talents. It has become a diet of collapsing soufflés.

What held back Wenger from buying the linchpin midfielder he has lacked for many years? Money is only part of the explanation. All added up, Arsenal do spend: their collective wage bill is the fourth-highest in the League. But Wenger has always been reluctant to lavish cash on a single star player, let alone a steely one. Rather two nice players than one great one.

The power of habit has become debilitating. Like a wealthy but conservative shopper who keeps going back to the same clothes shop, Wenger habituates the same strata of the transfer market. When he can’t get what he needs, he’s happy to come back home with something he’s already got, ­usually an elegant midfielder, tidy passer, gets bounced in big games, prone to going missing. Another button-down blue shirt for a drawer that is well stuffed.

It is almost universally accepted that, as a business, Arsenal are England’s leading club. Where their rivals rely on bailouts from oligarchs or highly leveraged debt, Arsenal took tough choices early and now appear financially secure – helped by their manager’s ability to engineer qualification for the Champions League every season while avoiding excessive transfer costs. Does that count for anything?

After the financial crisis, I had a revealing conversation with the owner of a private bank that had sailed through the turmoil. Being cautious and Swiss, he explained, he had always kept more capital reserves than the norm. As a result, the bank had made less money in boom years. “If I’d been a normal chief executive, I’d have been fired by the board,” he said. Instead, when the economic winds turned, he was much better placed than more bullish rivals. As a competitive strategy, his winning hand was only laid bare by the arrival of harder times.

In football, however, the crash never came. We all wrote that football’s insane spending couldn’t go on but the pace has only quickened. Even the Premier League’s bosses confessed to being surprised by the last extravagant round of television deals – the cash that eventually flows into the hands of managers and then the pockets of players and their agents.

By refusing to splash out on the players he needed, whatever the cost, Wenger was hedged for a downturn that never arrived.

What an irony it would be if football’s bust comes after he has departed. Imagine the scenario. The oligarchs move on, finding fresh ways of achieving fame, respectability and the protection achieved by entering the English establishment. The clubs loaded with debt are forced to cut their spending. Arsenal, benefiting from their solid business model, sail into an outright lead, mopping up star talent and trophies all round.

It’s often said that Wenger – early to invest in data analytics and worldwide scouts; a pioneer of player fitness and lifestyle – was overtaken by imitators. There is a second dimension to the question of time and circumstance. He helped to create and build Arsenal’s off-field robustness, even though football’s crazy economics haven’t yet proved its underlying value.

If the wind turns, Arsène Wenger may face a frustrating legacy: yesterday’s man and yet twice ahead of his time. 

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit