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Berlin’s Airport Curse

Ask anyone who’s ever traveled to Berlin about their airport experience, and you’ll likely be met with a groan. While Berlin’s hypermodern transit system is considered one of the best in the world, a trip to small Tegel or Schönefeld Airports is akin to being whisked into some incongruous wonderland of thawed frozen food and brutalist architecture that hasn’t undergone a facelift since John F. Kennedy erroneously proclaimed himself to be a jelly donut.

Notably absent from the German capital is a flagship airport with a steady influx of transcontinental flights like those seen in Frankfurt or Munich. It’s now been 30 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall, and BER, or Flughafen Willy Brandt—Berlin’s aspirational “normal” airport—has still not materialized. BER’s structure is complete, but its doors remain shuttered; a slew of bureaucratic nightmares and failed safety inspections have rendered it a stain on typically revered “German efficiency.” To this day, BER has cost German taxpayers over €5 billion, and the deficit is increasing by the second.

It’s time to give in: BER is a lost cause, and the city of Berlin should seriously consider never opening it. Yes, the airport’s present fiscal inefficacy and horrendous track record of sticking to commitments inform this call, but an even more important consideration is the changing nature of transit. As Germany faces the task of dramatically reducing its carbon emissions, BER would be nothing more than a sunk cost. Rather, BER can be repurposed for good, modern causes: The building can stay, but its goal of air travel itself should be conceded as a defeat.

"Every day, BER’s upkeep costs German citizens over €1.1 million, and some are keen to note that the overall cost of the project could have alternatively funded kindergarten education for nearly seven million children."

Berlin has a special, if awkward, relationship with airports. The city’s swift transition from Nazi hub to divided Cold War-hotspot has blessed (or cursed?) it with an amalgamation of small, quirky airports, from Tempelhof (THF)—Hitler’s pet project turned public park, film set, and refugee home—to West Berlin’s Tegel (TXL) and its wonky communist antithesis Schönefeld (SXF), both of which are infrastructurally stuck in the 70s.

The impetus to build an airport worthy of the EU’s most populous and productive economy came shortly after German reunification in 1990. Ground was officially broken on BER in 2006, yet problems plagued the project from the outset. Chief among them was the 2008 financial crisis. Instead of waiting out the economic downturn and approaching BER’s construction with uniformity, the airport’s supervisory board—comprised predominantly of politicians rather than businessmen—pushed to finance BER predominantly with public money and split the task among 30 to 40 smaller subcontractors.

When BER didn’t open as planned in 2011, it became obvious that coordination between these various subcontractors had, quite literally, fallen through the cracks. After multiple successive postponements in 2012, auditors discovered that the airport had over 550,000 individual faults, ranging from broken light bulbs to defective alarm systems to violations of the fire code. Corruption, too, was at play; certain members of the board had been paid bribes to grant contracts to otherwise unsavory firms.

Over the past eight years, these issues have not been resolved; in fact, they have compounded. BER’s opening date has been pushed back countless times, all to no avail. October 2020 was most recently named as BER’s “next” opening date, but Berliners remain skeptical. The airport has become a running joke in German society: In its morning email briefing, Der Tagesspiegel (a Berlin daily newspaper) has a “count-up” from BER’s “non-opening.” The latest number well surpassed 2,700 days.

Even if BER were to open, what would it be other than a stain on the name of Willy Brandt, the founder of modern German social democracy? Perhaps the biggest draw of any new airport is its ability to become an airline “hub” through which connections are routed (as opposed to a “spoke,” or destination-only airport), thereby bringing in more passengers and, in turn, capital. When conceived, BER was meant to become the hub of AirBerlin. In 2014, however, the airline sued BER for €48 million in damages due to the airport’s opening delays and false promises, and by 2017, AirBerlin had filed for bankruptcy. It is now defunct.

The hub issue distinguishes BER from other newly-opened airports, particularly Istanbul’s, which is projected to accommodate 200 million passengers annually and become the world’s biggest airline hub. A hub-less BER, by contrast, looks to be an unequivocal loss; every day, BER’s upkeep costs German citizens over €1.1 million, and some are keen to note that the overall cost of the project could have alternatively funded kindergarten education for nearly seven million children.

"Had it opened on time in 2011, Flughafen Willy Brandt could have had its hub and its heyday; however, with every obstacle and delay, the airport fades further into obsolescence."

An opening of BER would also come at precisely the wrong sociopolitical moment. Germany is in the process of drastically reducing its carbon emissions to meet its commitments under the Paris Climate Accord. As part of a newly-released €55 billion climate plan, the Merkel government agreed to begin charging companies €10 for every ton of carbon dioxide emitted in transit starting in 2021, a fee that will increase to €35 by 2025.

Simple analysis reveals that these measures seek to hamper air travel within continental Europe, which emits nearly three times as much carbon dioxide per passenger as travel by train. The legislation would cause the cost of train tickets to decrease by ten percent, while the price of flights within the continent would surge by 74 percent. Germany’s nationalized railway company, Deutsche Bahn, is concurrently investing €156 billion in modernization efforts. And yet, somehow the hub-less BER seeks to turn a profit by operating as a spoke in intra-European airspace. When even your own government seeks to undercut you, it’s time to wake up to reality.

BER’s delays have caused it to pre-emptively become a relic of a past era. Had it opened on time in 2011, Flughafen Willy Brandt could have had its hub and its heyday; however, with every obstacle and delay, the airport fades further into obsolescence. But not all is lost: A building has been built, after all—and it should be used, just not as an airport. BER already features an extensive train station, making it accessible from across all of greater Berlin and surrounding Brandenburg. It has, allegedly, now passed its fire safety inspections. It is also home to a host of coworking spaces, shops, offices, and restaurants. Why not turn it into a multipurpose public space? An art gallery, perhaps? A shopping mall? Film set? Or all of the above? Berlin is no stranger to repurposing buildings from a dark past; indeed, BER should look no further than Tempelhof, which made the drastic 180-degree turn from Nazi monument to shelter for thousands of refugees.

Perhaps BER’s fate was sealed before its conception. After all, Berlin is an unconventional city, one that, throughout time, has proven unwilling to conform to imposed norms, eager to march to the beat of its own off-tune drum. Berlin has never had a traditional relationship with airports, and it doesn’t look like it ever will. But, hey, that’s part of the charm.

Illustration by Hannah Ferguson ’20:

About the Author

Allison Meakem '20 is the Campus Editor of the Brown Political Review. Allison can be reached at