Germany’s Ghost Airport: Berlin’s Brandenburg
Roopinder Tara posted on October 08, 2019 |
Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport awaits its first flight since its first planned opening in 2012. The lights stay on because no one has found the light switches. (Image courtesy of CNN.)
Berlin’s Brandenburg Airport awaits its first flight since its first planned opening in 2012. The lights stay on because no one has found the light switches. (Image courtesy of CNN.)

If there was only one reason for a nation to cry in its beer, it would be the Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport. Can’t remember all that? You can Google “airport fiasco.”

With construction starting in 2006, the airport designated BER was to have opened in 2012. Yet, seven years later, the airport sits flightless, a sprawl of concrete and modern buildings without passengers, eroding Germany’s world-leading reputation for engineering, planning and efficiency.

We hear about successful infrastructure projects all the time—big, billion dollar projects— such as dams that turn country sides to inland seas, bridges that go on for miles or entire smart cities and tunnels that drill through Earth’s barriers. They are projects so impressive that their planners and engineers become heroes. Berlin’s airport offers a sharp contrast. It’s a project that no one wants to talk about, a graveyard for careers and aspirations.

The city of Berlin was to have a new airport in 2012. However, its construction has been plagued with mismanagement and engineering errors. After three cancelled openings, many fear it may never open and that they may have to start over.

A financial sinkhole with costs now three times what they were supposed to be, it only gets worse every month. German taxpayers pay EUR€16 million a month to keep it operational. Baggage conveyors turn on periodically without bags. Lights stay on because the light switches are nowhere to be found. Empty trains speed past platforms toward the city center. There are runways built for the biggest of passenger aircraft even though none of any size have ever landed or taken off.

A Brandt New Airport

Berlin’s Brandenburg was to have been a symbolic success that drew on a fabled history.

In post war 1948 Germany, Berlin was split in two. On one side of the wall, the Russians. On the other, the Allies. After Russia cut off West Berlin’s road and canals, an airlift was the only way the besieged population could have survived. A virtual air bridge was formed to deliver 2.3 million tons of food and supplies. Takeoffs and landings were 30 seconds apart at West Berlin’s Tempelhof airport. No airlift like that had been attempted before or has happened since.

Joined after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and with the East Berlin rising from its communist inhibitions, the reunited Berlin became the hippest city in Europe. Berlin in the early 2000s was a city brimming with pride, but tourism and trade were hampered by airports left over from the Cold War. Berlin had to have a modern airport, decreed the local politicians.

Why not name the new airport after Willy Brandt? Brandt was mayor of West Berlin when the wall was built and later elected chancellor. His support of Germany’s unification earned him the Nobel prize. However, since the airport has become a national embarrassment, the family of Willy Brandt has asked for his name to be removed from the airport.

Trust Me, I’m an Engineer

At a cost of EUR€2 billion, BER was to handle 27 million passengers a year, making it the third busiest in Germany behind Frankfurt (57 million) and Munich (38 million). Chancellor Angela Merkel was to attend the opening in June of 2012. The stage was set. Thousands of tickets for the Hoffest, Berlin’s annual mayor’s party, had been printed featuring the new airport.

Meanwhile, a safety inspection team was uncovering a shop of horrors. It was only six years prior that a fire in Dusseldorf airport killed 17. Determined for that to not happen again, they simulated a fire at BER to test the fire alarms. The fire alarms did not work. Ripping up the floors to find faulty wiring, they also found high voltage lines laid along data cables, in of itself a fire risk. They found smoke evacuation ducts had been placed in floors, even though smoke rises, which could have imploded.

The person given the job of chief planner for fire safety, Alfredo di Mauro, was presumed to be an engineer but was only an apprentice drafter. “Everyone thought I was an engineer,” di Mauro said to the DPA News Agency, “I just didn’t contradict them.” What about that “Dipl.-Ing,” the mark of a qualified engineer in Germany on his business card? It was an accident, he said.

Determined that the show go on, the airport planners downplayed the setback. Who needs an elaborate wired system? We’ll have 800 temporary, low-paid workers sit on stools in orange vests who sound the alarms with their cell phones and open the fire doors, said the airport planners. The safety commissioner was leery of the plan, which relied on the area’s cell phone coverage that was spotty at best and called on stationing people by smoke evacuation channels that could reach a 1,000 degrees F during a fire. He refused to grant the airport an operating license. The plans for a June 2012 opening were scrapped.

The Plans, They Are A-Changing

The East Germans opened Schönefeld airport in 1946. Tegel airport, a “gem of efficiency,” opened in 1948. Both airports are operating now but, of course, have become outdated.

In 2001, one man, Klaus Wowereit, was getting the idea that new airport would be just the thing for an up and coming Berlin. The popular and outgoing Wowereit, known as Wowi, was elected Berlin mayor and successful in attracting an annual S&M fetish street party to the city where he made public his desire for national office. “Is Germany ready for a gay Chancellor?” he asked. Wowereit would resign as Berlin’s mayor in 2014, scorched by the Brandenburg airport scandal.

Rainer Schwarz was named CEO of FBB, the company in charge of planning and building the airport. FBB hired Meinhard von Gerkan, arguably Germany’s most famous architect of the time, then in his 70s but who at 30 years old had designed Tegel airport.

A plot of land not far from Schönefeld was selected for BER.

We forgot the shops. Although retail shops account for half the revenue of airports, they were left off the original airport design of the Berlin Brandenburg airport. A second story was added after construction had begun to accommodate retail stores. (Image courtesy of Zimbio.)
We forgot the shops. Although retail shops account for half the revenue of airports, they were left off the original airport design of the Berlin Brandenburg airport. A second story was added after construction had begun to accommodate retail stores. (Image courtesy of Zimbio.)

Meinhard von Gerkanwas no fan of shopping—or shoppers. He spoke of passengers “dragging around unwanted bottles of whiskey like beggars.” It may have been a duty-free shop, a requisite of every international airport, that sparked von Gerkan’s ire, but the ban was applied to all shops.

Modern airports, like Singapore’s renowned Changi airport, looks more like a multistory shopping mall complete with food courts and restaurants, than an airport. Fifty percent of an airport’s revenue comes from retail shops. The planners realized an airport without shops was a mistake after construction had started. The building was expanded from 200,000 square meters to 340,000 square meters, making it bigger that Frankfurt’s airport. A second floor was added into the plan. Big changes after construction had already started causing havoc. It was like fixing an airplane while it was flying, said Prof Genia Kostka, Berlin Hertie School of Governance.

Big Plans Need Big Planes

Despite local political fervor and ambition, Brandenburg would be hard pressed to take over leadership from Frankfurt and Munich, already major hubs for the national carrier Lufthansa. Without being a hub for a major airline, Brandenburg would have been relegated mostly to regional travel or stops during international flights.

However, BER was designed to cater to long haul aircraft. It was decided that the airport had to accommodate the Airbus A380, the European aircraft industry’s pride and joy. The A380, a two-level behemoth with a capacity of 853 passengers, was the source of not just Germany’s but European pride. A terminal already under construction had a wall ripped out to accommodate the A380. The A380 demands extra long runways. Because of its two levels, special jet ways have to be installed so that the plane can be boarded and evacuated within a prescribed time. Yet, no airline was indicating it would be flying the A380 into BER. Nor may they ever. Airbus cancelled production of the A380 earlier this year, citing lack of orders.

With all the interest in the big planes, the initial airport plan included no facilities for small aircraft or ground disembarking, common to short haul flights.

One day, planes will take off here, says the tour guide. The airports only revenue as it lies fallow may be its 2 hour, EUR€15 bicycle tours for tourists curious to see a side of Germany opposite the usual efficiency and punctuality. (Image courtesy of FBB.)
One day, planes will take off here, says the tour guide. The airports only revenue as it lies fallow may be its 2 hour, EUR€15 bicycle tours for tourists curious to see a side of Germany opposite the usual efficiency and punctuality. (Image courtesy of FBB.)

It’s Just a Game

UnberechenB € R, a board game about the BER airport where the winner is the one who wastes the most taxpayer money. (Image courtesy of Flughafenspeil.de.)
UnberechenB € R, a board game about the BER airport where the winner is the one who wastes the most taxpayer money. (Image courtesy of Flughafenspeil.de.)

The Berlin airport has emerged as a board game. A parody of the airport fiasco, the game’s designers let you burn as much taxpayer money as possible: “Money does not matter!” The players go through eight sub projects. The one who burns through the most money wins.


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