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The curious case of Berlin's Brandenburg Airport

Will it ever open?

Photograph: Getty Images

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.