After 9 years of delays and false starts, Germany’s third-largest airport, Berlin Brandenburg “Willy Brandt” Airport (BER) is scheduled to open on October 31, 2020.
We won’t be able to be there for the opening, but we’re looking forward to a visit once this COVID-19 business is resolved.
In the meantime, here’s a recap of our 2014 visit to the airport site, when we joined a bus tour of the unopened airport.
Our report first appeared on USA TODAY.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport is late for an important date
The highlight of my late June visit to the unopened and much-delayed Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport was racing down a runway as a passenger in a tour bus going more than 60 miles per hour.
It was also one of the saddest parts of the tour.
That’s because due to technical glitches, cost overruns, corruption and project mismanagement, tour buses – not airplanes – are likely the only vehicles that will be barreling down the BER runways for quite some time.
Under construction since 2006, Berlin’s much-needed new airport was designed to serve 27 million passengers, with an initial opening target date of November 2011.
That date was pushed back to June 3, 2012, and, despite trial runs during which the airport authority did tests of the baggage carousels, check-in desks, and security checkpoints, and simulated what it termed “all imaginable scenarios,” a problem with the airport’s fire safety and suppression system was discovered.
With just four weeks’ notice, opening day was called off.
Since then multiple target dates for a new opening day – six or seven, it’s hard to keep count – have come and gone. Now all the company managing the project will say is that “an opening date is expected to be announced at the end of the year.”
2016 has been bandied about as the next possible opening date, but additional problems and embarrassing operational revelations keep cropping up.
In May, there was an announcement of a suspected corruption case involving bribes for the awarding of contracts. In early June, there was out-of court settlement between the airport management company and airberlin, the major tenant at Berlin’s outdated Tegel Airport, over claims the airline felt it was due because of delays in the switchover.
And at the end of June, it was revealed that the engineer responsible for designing the new airport’s fire safety system was in fact just a draftsman, not a real engineer, and had been fired.
Besides showing off any progress, one reason the airport authority offers BER tours “is because it’s important that people don’t only read about the airport in the newspaper and see the reports on TV,” said an airport spokesman.
Tour buses stop first at a 105-foot-tall observation tower offering a bird’s eye view of the unopened airport terminal, the unused runways, empty parking lots, and assorted other facilities-in-waiting.
At the bottom of the tower is an airport information center, with a scale model of the airport and a glass cabinet of souvenirs emblazoned with the BER logo.
The staff on duty the day I visited said they don’t sell many of these souvenirs to tourists. And they seemed amused when I asked about purchasing some BER t-shirts, baseball caps, tote bags, inflatable plastic beach balls, and small, plastic lunch boxes.
Our tour bus then drove slowly past the very quiet office, cargo, and airport security facilities and by the railway station, where empty trains run each day to make sure systems remain working.
Photo ops of the front of the main terminal building were only offered from inside the bus, but the terminal’s glass façade offered a glimpse of “The Magic Carpet,” by Pae White. The large, red, work of art, one of several pieces specially-commissioned for the airport, hovers over the check-in lobby.
Out back, the bus pulled up at BER’s one A380-compatible gate, which has a jet bridge draped with Olaf Nicolai’s “Gadget,” a piece of art that looks like a string of giant pop beads and is designed to change colors to match those of the livery of the airplane at the gate.
Tour-goers were allowed off the bus here and invited up a set of not-quite-finished stairs for a look at a gate area where seats were installed, but still wrapped in plastic, and ceiling panels gaped open.
“It’s not unusual for big projects like this to be over budget,” said Johann Bammann, a retired architect whose tour ticket was a gift from a friend. But delays are dragging on too long, he said, “it’s time for the city to have a new front door.”
After a stop near the control tower, the bus made that dash down the runway, stopping to let passengers out to run around and pose for photos.
“It’s just unbelievable. I can’t understand why it’s taking such a long time to open this airport,” said Barbel Liedtke, a former Berlin-based Pan Am Airlines employee taking the tour with a friend. “But I’m sure there are a lot of people to blame.”