Berlin’s Modern Airport That Has Never Seen an Airplane

Berlin Brandenburg Airport

Airports are for airplanes. Airports are for aviation passengers. Airports are complex logistical partnerships of commerce, transportation, and technology that pump life into the economy. With its reputation for top-notch efficiency, Germany should outperform all other countries when it builds an airport. That’s why it is so extraordinary to hear about its modern international airport that has yet to handle a single plane or passenger.

For a major city, Berlin has pretty bad airport options. Its primary airport, Tegel, is in bad need of an upgrade. More importantly, its location has put a significant damper on its ability to expand to handle more air traffic.

After more than 15 years of planning, construction began in 2006 for a new airport to replace Tegel. The new Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg Airport was touted as being on the cutting edge of aviation technology and design. When opened, as originally scheduled in October 2011, the new airport was expected to become a central hub of aviation for Europe. It was originally intended to replace both Schönefeld and Berlin Tegel Airport and become the single commercial airport serving Berlin and the surrounding State of Brandenburg.

No sooner did construction start, than problems began to mount. In June 2010 the construction planning company leading the development, Planungsgemeinschaft Berlin-Brandenburg International, declared bankruptcy. The opening date was pushed back from October 2011 to June 2012.

As the rescheduled opening date approached, things were looking good. Airlines began amending their flight schedules to reflect operations to the new airport. Reservations were sold to and from the new location. Plans were made to move equipment and infrastructure from other airports to Brandenburg. German President Angela Merkel was scheduled to speak at the grand opening.

With less than a month until the big event, planners determined that the check-in desk at the new terminal was far from adequate to handle the expected traffic. Each check-in counter was supposed to handle 60 passengers per hour, but they could, in reality, handle fewer than half this number.

Not wanting to delay things further, the airport managers planned to set up tents outdoors to use as check-in centers until something more permanent could be built. With eerily-similar overtones to sentiments in Germany over 70 years earlier, it was proposed that the tents would not be for German airlines, but for those whom the airport managers called “second class” and “ethnic.”

As it turned out, the world did not have to witness this spectacle, because of a failed safety test. Upon inspection, the fire safety system failed miserably. The smoke exhaust systems were built incorrectly, with dampers that had been installed without a permit. The system had a serious design flaw. As planned and built, the system would exhaust smoke during a fire emergency downward, under the airport’s floors. This, alas, created a problem, since smoke tends to rise during a fire.

There was also a wee problem with the electrical wiring for the fire suppression system. It was itself, a fire hazard.

Unable to resolve these problems quickly enough, the opening date was pushed to October 2013.

As 2013 rolled around, another delay was announced. Due to a number of personnel changes (one can only guess why!) the airport’s dedication was delayed to some time in 2014. Among the personnel changes was the CEO of the airport management team. He was replaced with two experienced individuals. Unfortunately, their experience was in politics and not at all with anything remotely resembling airport construction. On top of that, the airport’s former technical director, Jochen Grossmann, was charged with accepting nearly €600,000 ($680,000) in bribes.

When 2014 rolled around, and the airport was no closer to opening, the airport management corporation put out a request for any European company that had the foggiest idea of how to build an airport to bid for the planning and construction coordination of the airport. No useful offers were received.

Also that year — two years after the debacle concerning the fire suppression system was discovered — it was revealed that Alfredo di Mauro, the chief planner for the airport’s fire protection system, was not a qualified engineer but only an engineering draftsman. When confronted with this, Mauro said that technically he didn’t claim to be a qualified engineer. He said everyone thought he was, and he “didn’t contradict them.”

The calendar rolled on to 2015, without a revised date for the grand opening. That year, Imtech, one of the most important construction companies involved in the project, filed for bankruptcy, resulting in further delays.

By May 2016 enough progress had been made to schedule the opening for the next year. No sooner did that announcement go out before engineers ran into trouble with the subway station that services the airport. After determining the station could not be certified in time for the announced opening date, it was pushed back again.

Later that year another problem arose. The airline Air Berlin was to be the biggest carrier at the airport, but it filed for bankruptcy and went out of business. Lufthansa stepped up and offered to take on some of the routes to help out. The problem is that Lufthansa already has hubs in Frankfurt and Munich and had no interest in establishing a third hub in Germany. Without any airline operating connecting hubs out of Brandenburg, the grand vision of the airport becoming a central hub for European aviation was going up in smoke.

Speaking of smoke, the fire suppression system still was not resolved. With a proper fire systems engineer finally in place, a review of the system revealed problems not only with the smoke exhaust and wiring but also with the sprinklers and fire detection. Additionally, the solutions employed to fix the smoke exhaust problem were found to be wrong. A temporary solution of employing hundreds of nightclub bouncers to stand around the airport to manually sound alarms and open doors in the event of a fire did not, unsurprisingly, get official approval. As far as fire protection goes, it was back to the drawing board again.

To look at the airport today, it appears to be a functioning facility. The lights are on. Vendors have their names on storefronts. Monitors announce the flight schedules. A train runs regularly to and from the subway station. All would be well except for the trifling detail that there are still no planes or passengers going through the airport.

What continues to hinder the opening of Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg Airport? Detailing all of the problems would be too onerous to attempt. For the sake of brevity, here are a few of the highlights:

  • 90,000 meters of cables were installed incorrectly and need to be fixed;
  • 4,000 doors were incorrectly numbered. (We have attempted to find out how many doors the airport has in total, without success);
  • Several escalators were too short;
  • There still aren’t enough check-in desks;
  • 3,000 smoke detectors went missing;
  • Thousands of light bulbs run non-stop because officials can’t figure out how to shut them off;
  • 750 display screens that were switched on 7 years ago in readiness for the first opening date have remained on for all this time and need to be replaced;
  • Hundreds of freshly planted trees had to be chopped down because they were the wrong type;
  • Every day, an empty train goes five miles to the unfinished airport to stop the tracks from getting rusty;
  • Flight paths and sound protection zones were incorrectly calculated;
  • The emergency phone line to the fire department does not work;
  • The airport’s roof was twice the authorized weight, necessitating structural changes.

It should not be surprising that Willy Brandt’s family requested his name be removed from the airport. Rather than replace Berlin’s other two airports, residents grew tired of endless delays and are petitioning the government to keep Tegel Airport open indefinitely, even if Brandenburg eventually opens. Schönefeld has already undergone successful renovation and expansion during this time, and it appears it is here to stay as well.

What started off with a budget of €2.83 billion ($3.2 billion) is now approaching €10.3 billion ($11.7 billion). Officially, the airport is now scheduled to open in October 2020. Since that announcement, however, it was revealed that unapproved screw anchors made of plastic not rated for fire need to be replaced, casting doubt on whether this opening date is achievable. With some members of the government openly suggesting that they start over at a completely different location, only the most wildly optimistic doubt there will be even more delays and cost overruns.

For now, if you plan on traveling to Germany, you might consider making use of Europe’s extensive railway system. Any hopes of an easy flight into Berlin may very well go up in smoke.

UPDATE: Amid much fanfare, Willy Brandt Airport finally opened in October 31, 2020. While airport authorities did not specifically mention Commonplace Fun Facts’ exposé as the final impetus to get the project completed, we modestly point to the obvious connection between the two.

Read more stories of government waste.

Read more fun facts about aviation.

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