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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Why Angela Merkel's comments about the UK and US shouldn't be given too much weight

The Chancellor's comments are aimed at a domestic and European audience, and she won't be abandoning Anglo-German relationships just yet.

Angela Merkel’s latest remarks do not seem well-judged but should not be given undue significance. Speaking as part of a rally in Munich for her sister party, the CSU, the German Chancellor claimed “we Europeans must really take our own fate into our hands”.

The comments should be read in the context of September's German elections and Merkel’s determination to restrain the fortune of her main political rival, Martin Schulz – obviously a strong Europhile and a committed Trump critic. Sigmar Gabriel - previously seen as a candidate to lead the left-wing SPD - has for some time been pressing for Germany and Europe to have “enough self-confidence” to stand up to Trump. He called for a “self-confident position, not just on behalf of us Germans but all Europeans”. Merkel is in part responding to this pressure.

Her words were well received by her audience. The beer hall crowd erupted into sustained applause. But taking an implicit pop at Donald Trump is hardly likely to be a divisive tactic at such a gathering. Criticising the UK post-Brexit and the US under Trump is the sort of virtue signalling guaranteed to ensure a good clap.

It’s not clear that the comments represent that much of a new departure, as she herself has since claimed. She said something similar earlier this year. In January, after the publication of Donald Trump’s interview with The Times and Bild, she said that “we Europeans have our fate in our own hands”.

At one level what Merkel said is something of a truism: in two year’s time Britain will no longer be directly deciding the fate of the EU. In future no British Prime Minister will attend the European Council, and British MEPs will leave the Parliament at the next round of European elections in 2019. Yet Merkel’s words “we Europeans”, conflate Europe and the EU, something she has previously rejected. Back in July last year, at a joint press conference with Theresa May, she said: “the UK after all remains part of Europe, if not of the Union”.

At the same press conference, Merkel also confirmed that the EU and the UK would need to continue to work together. At that time she even used the first person plural to include Britain, saying “we have certain missions also to fulfil with the rest of the world” – there the ‘we’ meant Britain and the EU, now the 'we' excludes Britain.

Her comments surely also mark a frustration born of difficulties at the G7 summit over climate change, but Britain and Germany agreed at the meeting in Sicily on the Paris Accord. More broadly, the next few months will be crucial for determining the future relationship between Britain and the EU. There will be many difficult negotiations ahead.

Merkel is widely expected to remain the German Chancellor after this autumn’s election. As the single most powerful individual in the EU27, she is the most crucial person in determining future relations between the UK and the EU. Indeed, to some extent, it was her intransigence during Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ which precipitated Brexit itself. She also needs to watch with care growing irritation across the EU at the (perceived) extent of German influence and control over the institutions and direction of the European project. Recent reports in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung which suggested a Merkel plan for Jens Weidmann of the Bundesbank to succeed Mario Draghi at the ECB have not gone down well across southern Europe. For those critics, the hands controlling the fate of Europe are Merkel’s.

Brexit remains a crucial challenge for the EU. How the issue is handled will shape the future of the Union. Many across Europe’s capitals are worried that Brussels risks driving Britain further away than Brexit will require; they are worried lest the Channel becomes metaphorically wider and Britain turns its back on the continent. On the UK side, Theresa May has accepted the EU, and particularly Merkel’s, insistence, that there can be no cherry picking, and therefore she has committed to leaving the single market as well as the EU. May has offered a “deep and special” partnership and a comprehensive free trading arrangement. Merkel should welcome Britain’s clarity. She must work with new French President Emmanuel Macron and others to lead the EU towards a new relationship with Britain – a close partnership which protects free trade, security and the other forms of cooperation which benefit all Europeans.

Henry Newman is the director of Open Europe. He tweets @henrynewman.

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