What should have taken place 9 years ago, finally goes live this week after half a baker’s dozen worth of postponements… Instead of the stereotypical “Vorsprung durch Technik”, punctual, structured image many of us have of anything “Made in Germany”, BER airport has been the country’s running joke for well over a decade… and yet, this Hallowe’en finally sees it lift its dust sheets and start “living”.
"Berlin has a new and modern gateway to the world. The opening is a reward for the perseverance and great commitment of our colleagues at Berlin Airport. At the same time, the commencement of flight operations at BER in this pandemic-related deepest crisis in aviation is a positive ray of hope in difficult times. Three airports in Berlin will become one central, large, and modern airport location, which will significantly increase customer friendliness during arrival and departure in Berlin. This makes BER one of the major airports in Germany - in a line with Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf" is President of the Federal Association of the German Aviation Industry, Peter Gerber’s congratulatory statement on the airport’s inauguration on 31OCT20.
What could possibly go right?
Over at the North German Aviation Press Club in Hamburg last week, there was a distinct lack of rose-tinted spectacles. The main tenor? BER airport will never be profitable and instead will depend heavily on annual state subsidies in a 3-figure million-euro range: “a bottomless pit” that would otherwise have to declare bankruptcy even prior to its official opening this weekend. Starting with the chaotic construction project that was originally budgeted at 2 billion euro and ending up more than trebling to 6.6 billion euro. Add to that a 9-year delay in opening and then… the COVID-19 effects which have brought passenger figures tumbling worldwide.
That last point, however, might just be a saving grace given that the new airport would already have been to be too small from the outset. Though originally planned to handle 22 million passengers a year, this forecast was far below the real figures. To put it into perspective: Tegel and Schönefeld handled 35.6 million passengers in 2019, and the trend had been rising. Even with BER’s second terminal decided in 2017 and completed just this SEP20, the airport would still only have been large enough for 28 million passengers. So, on the one hand, the pandemic solves the size issue: Terminal 2 will remain closed for now, whilst Terminal 1 and Terminal 5 (the latter is the new definition of Schönefeld Airport), will handle around 20% of the airport’s intended capacity in the near future. On the other hand, however, it also means that the plans to start making money with the airport from 2026 onwards, are out of the window for now. Needless to say, plans to fund and build Terminals 3 & 4, which would bring BER’s capacity up to around 58 million passengers, have been shelved indefinitely, given the pandemic effects.
Location, location, location
BER and timing have never been good friends. First, all the opening date delays, and now the actual opening happening in the middle of a pandemic that is currently seeing much of Europe heading into lockdown again. “Lockdown Light” in Germany is planned to last the entire month of November. The expected 20% passenger throughput may well be optimistic at this rate. And then there is the issue of a missing “home carrier”, given that Air Berlin went bust almost 3 years ago to the day…
Location, however, is another point of criticism. Back in the 1990s, seven Berlin locations were evaluated as possible new airport sites. At the time, Sperenberg and Jüterbog, both rural areas, would have been much more suitable sites with regard to land-use planning and noise pollution, yet economic and political reasons meant that Schönefeld was eventually chosen, with plans to incorporate some of the existing airport’s infrastructure. The location criticism is two-fold: though it was chosen because of its proximity to the city center, with existing road and rail links, the half-hour rail-link in particular is too slow – similar to the situation in MUC. In both cases, non-stop trains should have been planned. The other issue is noise pollution, and because of this, BER has a night-flight ban from 00:00 to 05:00, despite Schönefeld currently still being allowed to operate 24 hours. Any night-flight ban is a barrier to fully benefiting from freight potentials and restricts flexibility when it comes to passenger flight delays for whatever reason.
BER is a Retro-Airport
The Berlin Brandenburg Flughafen Holding GmbH was founded on 02MAY91. The Schönefeld site was eventually decided in 1996. After a failed privatization hiatus lasting over 5 years, planning began in earnest in the early years of the new millennium – and before the real breakthrough in smartphone usage. Imagine how the world has changed in the past 15 years and how, now, there is a new layer in the Maslow Pyramid: one that stipulates a fully charged phone-battery. You can forgive 72-year-old Tegel Airport for not having charging sockets for transiting passengers. You cannot forgive a brand new Brandenburg Airport for the same problem, however, and yet, when it comes to electrical equipment, the press speaker for Gebrüder Heinemann recently admitted: “We are afraid that the electrics systems no longer match today’s requirements."
The dark shadows loom over the opening ceremony
The first flights to land in BER on 31OCT20 were a Lufthansa plane coming in from Munich and an easyJet flight. The two rivals, yet at the same time, largest operators into the airport, performed an inaugural parallel landing. Yet, as with most airlines worldwide, these two are also badly bleeding cash during the pandemic. easyJet has losses exceeding 1 billion euros and Lufthansa is having to downsize dramatically to survive. An unclear future for both, and – especially the inaugural domestic MUC-BER Lufthansa flight has been criticized on social media, as it is seen as unnecessary in a pandemic and with rail alternatives being more environmentally friendly on that route.
So, in true Hallowe’en style – time will tell whether a functioning BER turns out to be a trick or a treat...
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