Nine years after its initial deadline, Berlin Brandenburg International Airport started operations on 31 October 2020 with the landing of two aircraft – one operated by easyJet and one operated by Lufthansa.
The opening was commemorated by a ceremony which saw the attendance of Mayor of Berlin Michael Müller as well as German Transport Minister Andreas Scheuer. A memorial wall commemorating Willy Brandt – the airport’s namesake and former Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) – was also unveiled.
“The long journey of our new airport was not always and solely guided by very fortunate decisions,” commented Brandenburg minister of finance and European affairs Katrin Lange at the time. “But now that the work has been completed, […], I would like to take this opportunity to point out that one decision was a happy one from the start – and that was the decision to name this airport after Willy Brandt.”
In the last 30 years, Berlin Brandenburg suffered every mishap and misfortune that can hit an airport, from design disasters to corruption allegations.
1990s: a new project for a unified Berlin
In 1990, after the reunification of Germany, authorities proposed a plan to build an airport that would accommodate the needs of the newly unified Berlin. The towns of Jüterbog, Schönefeld and Sperenberg – all situated in the north-eastern state of Brandenburg and all equipped with airfields – were initially considered as the new airport’s location.
Six years later, the project’s shareholders – which included the city-state of Berlin, the state of Brandenburg and the German Federal Government – rejected the initial plan of building a new hub for the region and instead opted for expanding the existing Schönefeld Airport, turning it into Berlin Brandenburg International Airport.
Schönefeld was chosen not only because of its proximity to the capital, but also because both Berlin and Brandenburg could gain economic benefit from the investment. As part of the renovation project, the airport was expanded by 9.7km2, reaching a total area of 14.7km2.
Between 1997 and 2003, a series of negotiations regarding privatisation and the tender process took place. As a result, privatisation was rejected and the project was given to Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH (fbb), the airport’s managing company.
Early 2000s: from public hearings to planning approval
Between 2000 and 2004, planning permissions and preparatory works commenced alongside public hearings and consultations with those opposing the project. In 2004, the Brandenburg Aviation Authority issued planning permission for Brandenburg airport, approving the financial concepts and awarding the initial planning contracts. Preparatory construction work began.
In 2005 the Berlin-Brandenburg Higher Administrative Court rejected claims made by five airlines, which were campaigning against the closure of Berlin-Tegel Airport, the city’s beloved hub which represented the only way out for West Berlin residents during the Cold War.
As stated by the court, Berlin-Tegel’s operating license was due to expire once the new airport had been commissioned.
By 2006, the Federal Administrative Court – one of Germany’s federal supreme courts – approved the plan to convert Tegel into Berlin-Brandenburg International Airport, allowing the initial ground-breaking works and site preparation.
As construction works began, the airport’s opening date was set for October 2011.
Between 2007 and 2010: works begin but opening postponed
A year after the Federal Administrative Court’s project approval, works began on the railway tunnel and underground railway station, as well as on the north taxiway, the south runway and road infrastructure. In 2008, works at the airport’s terminal finally began, with the new terminal’s outer structure completed a year later.
In 2010, despite construction works finishing for the new terminal, FBB announced that the opening date would be postponed from 30 October 2011 to 3 June 2012.
According to the company, the reasons included delays in the technical building systems as well as the need to install additional security screening lines in the airport’s north and south pavilions. Experts, on the other hand, believed that the opening date postponement was also linked to the construction planning company, Planungsgemeinschaft Berlin-Brandenburg International, filing for bankruptcy in February 2010.
2011 to 2014: delays, scandals and bribes
The years between 2011 and 2014 were some of the hardest for the Berlin Brandenburg project.
Initially, the German Federal Administrative Court sent the project a positive sign, as it released a final ruling on supplementary planning permissions, stating that the airport could start operating on 3 June 2012.
The court’s decision was welcomed by FBB CEO Rainer Schwarz, who commented: “The ruling of the Federal Administrative Court finally gives the airport operating company, the airlines and local residents a solid basis on which to plan for the future.
“This decision is a sensible compromise between securing the competitiveness of Berlin Brandenburg Airport and protecting the interests of local residents.”
However on 8 May 2012, less than a month before the due date, FBB called off the opening, saying that the works and the airport’s structural handover could no longer be realised by June.
The reason for the postponement was attributed to fire safety standards. As reported by several outlets, including the BBC, officials had discovered that fire detectors and protection flaps were not functioning.
Nine days later, the project’s supervisory board confirmed 17 March 2013 as the new opening date, which was subsequently pushed to 27 October 2013. The October 2013 opening data was eventually cancelled at the beginning of January 2013 due to persisting problems with fire protection equipment.
This year also coincided with several changes in the airport’s management: former Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit stepped down as chairman of the project’s supervisory board whilst Rainer Schwarz was fired from his position of CEO of Berlin Brandenburg. At the same time, the airport’s former technical director Jochen Grossman was accused of accepting $680,000 in bribes.
In 2014, a public tender for planning and construction coordination was announced but no significant offers were received. In the same year, it was also revealed that the chief planner for the airport’s fire protection system, Alfredo di Mauro, faked being an engineer.
Replying to the German news agency dpa, di Mauro said: “Everyone thought I was an engineer. I just didn’t contradict them.”
From 2015 to 2017: leadership changes while delays and scandals continue
After firing the new CEO Hartmuth Mehdorn – who replaced Schwarz when he stepped down – after less than a year, 2015 saw the appointment of a new CEO as well as new corruption allegations.
As Mehdorn was replaced by Karsten Mühlenfeld and Berlin’s new mayor Michael Müller was appointed head of the supervisory board, new charges of corruption surfaced, including allegations of bribes to airport officials. One official was convicted for accepting bribes from Imtech Deutschland, the firm responsible for building the fire and smoke vents, which also filed for bankruptcy.
On 21 January 2017, FBB confirmed that the airport’s opening was pushed to an unspecified date and eleven months later the airport’s management board confirmed the October 2020 opening.
2017 to 2020: welcome news as the airport opens at last
Whilst construction works for the interim terminal terminated in 2018, a year later the topping out ceremony for terminal 2 took place on 30 July 2019. The good progress of the works – which included assigning each airline to its terminal as well as principle and compound tests – allowed FBB to set 31 October 2020 as the opening date.
Despite the Covid-19 pandemic, the project continued and, on 1 October 2020, the airport received its operating permit from the Joint Aviation Authority of Berlin Brandenburg. The news was welcomed by FBB.
“Having received clearance from the building authorities to use Terminal 1 at the end of April, we now have the last necessary notices that we have an airport that is ready for use in accordance with all rules and regulations,” said CEO Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, who replaced Mühlenfeld in 2017.
“As far as it is humanly possible to tell, there is nothing standing in the way of the BER opening on 31 October 2020.”
On 31 October, as scheduled, the airport finally opened its gates.