Berlin Brandenburg opens, ending a decade-long debacle

On 31 October, the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt (BER) – named after the late German Chancellor and Nobel Peace Prize recipient – finally opened its doors to the public. 

The opening event centred around the landings of two aircraft operated by easyJet and Lufthansa (described as “our most important partners even in these difficult times” by airport operator FBB’s chief executive Engelbert Lütke-Daldrup), and was attended by Minister-President of the State of Brandenburg Dietmar Woidke, Berlin’s governing mayor Michael Müller and German Federal Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure Andreas Scheuer, among others. 

The airport opened after years of delays. Credit: Ekaterina Zershchikova-Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH. 

As German politicians and airport executives celebrated the airport’s official launch, the prevailing sentiment – for those directly involved as well as the people of Berlin – may have been one of profound relief that the project had at last reached a decisive milestone after a beleaguered construction phase that had seen delays of nearly a decade and costs that ballooned from around €2bn to nearly €7bn. 

“The people here in the German capital region had to wait a long time for this day,” said Lütke-Daldrup during the opening ceremony.

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A long wait might be an understatement for a project that single-handedly put a dent in Germany’s reputation for efficiency. The new airport had been in the planning since the 1990s, with construction commencing in 2006 and an opening date set for 2011. But the blown deadlines and false starts were seemingly endless during the airport’s convoluted development saga, which included the bankruptcies of both the airport’s construction planning company and one of its main intended airline customers (Air Berlin), as well as corruption and bribery allegations, management changes and ruinously expensive deficiencies in the project’s fire safety and smoke exhaust systems. 

But even amid the added challenges presented by a global pandemic, BER managed to stick to its final launch date of October 2020. With the opening of the airport, Berlin’s Schönefeld Airport has been incorporated into the new air hub as Terminal 5, on the north side of the area’s two parallel runways. Terminal 1 and 2 are located between these runways, which can be operated independently, although Terminal 2 currently remains closed until demand picks back up amid Covid-19. 

BER’s launch on 8 November also enabled the long-delayed closure of Berlin Tegel Airport, a Cold War-era facility that, while holding a soft spot in many Berliners’ hearts for its striking hexagonal design and proximity to the city centre, was not suited to the needs (or aircraft sizes) of 21st-century aviation. 

BER will now settle into its role as Berlin’s sole and flagship airport, with transport options including a dedicated motorway connection and a rail link directly to a six-track train station beneath Terminal 1 – FBB expects that two-thirds of passengers will reach the airport by train. As demand begins to recover and Terminal 2 opens, BER will have an annual capacity of 40 million passengers. FBB and the German Government are aiming to leverage this new infrastructure to dramatically increase long-haul flights and connecting services at the airport, creating a true aviation hub in the vein of Frankfurt and Munich.

“Today, the world is looking at BER, an airport that has been a source of great emotion for all of us in recent years,” said Scheuer in October. “I hope that it will now quickly win the hearts of the people, just as Tegel had a firm place in the hearts of Berliners for decades. As Minister of Transport, it is my aim to see BER become an international hub.”