Berlin Opening Delayed

Andreas Spaeth reports that the opening of Berlin’s Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport is postponed until March 17, 2013.

Though it looks certain to be a world-class facility when it is operational, the opening of Berlin's BER has already been delayed twice. (Berlin Airports) (Alexander Obst / Marion Schmieding Berlin Airports)

On May 8, the management of Berlin’s airports had to take the unexpected and embarrassing decision to postpone the opening of the capital’s new single airport, Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt.  Often referred to by its IATA designator code BER, it was originally supposed to have opened in October 2011.  Then, new EU regulations were introduced for liquid detection at security checkpoints which forced the airport’s designers to modify the security process and push back its opening to June 3, 2012.  With less than four weeks to go to that deadline, it transpired that the airport had many unsolved problems in its systems, making it impossible to open on schedule.  The official culprit was the automatic fire protection system with its complicated computer technology that, according to the operator, wasn’t up to standard.  German newspaper reports said the airport had originally made a deal with the authorities that they would accept a temporary solution in order to facilitate the opening.  But soon it became apparent that many more complex technical issues existed within the terminal and were far from resolution.
The German press seized on the nationally embarrassing situation and widely reported Berlin politicians’ accusations that, these facts must have been known internally for a long time, yet the information was “suppressed” and not communicated properly at the appropriate political and managerial levels.
On May 17, the official new opening date was set for March 17, 2013.  But some industry watchers already doubt if this can be the first day of operation for the new airport, which took 22 years to build after the German unification.
After seemingly endless political fights, first about the site (93 options were evaluated), then about the operating consortium, the final decision in favour of Schonefeld-South was taken in 1996.  It was considered that a site just south of the old East German Schonefeld airport would best suit the interests of Berliners and visitors.  Another decade on, in 2006, construction started.
The airport’s perimeter was enlarged by 2,397 acres (970ha) to 3,632 acres (1,470ha).  This area includes part of the existing Schonefeld, though only the existing airport’s southern runway will be retained as part of the BER concept.  It was extended by 1,968ft (600m) to give 11,811ft (3,600m) and, when BER opens, it will then become its northern runway.  BER’s new 13,123ft (4,000m)-long runway, completed in 2011, was built approximately 1.1 miles (1.9km) to the south, allowing both runways to operate independently of each other.  Though complete, it will not be used until BER opens.  Operating company Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH says that the new airport will be able to accommodate about 1,000 flights a day.  Currently, the combined capacity of Tegel and Schonefeld’s runways is only about 700.
For the time being, there is a considerable capacity squeeze in Berlin, especially at Tegel Airport, which is the closest to the city centre and now has to accommodate the many new Lufthansa and Air Berlin flights that were supposed to use BER.  Tegel’s management team and staff are doing their best to accommodate these extra movements, including pushing its night flight curfew back by 15 minutes to 23:15 local.  However, some airlines still had to move their operations to Schonefeld instead of serving Tegel.
The total cost of the new airport is now officially €3 billion (US$3.7bn), up €500,000 (US$627,000) on the previous figure.  The overall price tag will grow when compensation payments to airlines and other costs incurred by the abrupt delay to the opening date are taken into consideration.