Waiting for an Opening Date: Berlin Airport Chaos Much Greater than First Thought

Airlines are shuffling their schedules and politicians are trading barbs in the wake of the announcement earlier this week that Berlin's much touted new international airport would not open early next month as planned. Passengers and airport businesses are waiting for a decision on a new opening date, which could be announced next week.

A recent aerial view of BER, the new international airport for Berlin-Brandenburg. Zoom
DPA

A recent aerial view of BER, the new international airport for Berlin-Brandenburg.

The announcement earlier this week that Berlin's new international airport will not open on June 3 as planned has left airlines scrambling to make changes to their summer schedules and local politicians running for cover.

Airport and local government officials said Tuesday that the international airport, Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt (BER), would not be opening on schedule due to problems with the fire safety equipment. A new opening date is expected to be set early next week, but several reports indicated that there was disagreement as to when the facility, to be named after former German Chancellor Willy Brandt, will be ready.

Photo Gallery

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Photo Gallery: Waiting for BER
Berlin and the eastern state of Brandenburg reportedly wanted the airport to open by the middle of August, around the time when local summer school and government holidays end.

The Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel cited unnamed sources Thursday saying that it was not just the fire preparedness system that caused the opening's delay, but also problems with the baggage conveyer system, the check-in counters, controls on automatic doors and the computer programs that are reportedly crashing at a high rate. Those sources told the newspaper that it will be at least six months before the airport is ready to open.

The mass daily Bild reported Wednesday that the airport had applied for a special permit which would have allowed workers to open fire safety doors and turn on sprinkler systems by hand, an exception that building inspectors refused to sign. The paper also reports some are speculating the airport's opening could come as late as December.

Speaking in front of the federal parliament's transportation committee, airport manager Rainer Schwarz said that the trial runs taking place at the airport since November have revealed a number of problems that could be handled with "operational measures." "If some of the technology for opening the doors doesn't work, then one can open them manually," he said.

Political Fallout

The delayed opening has embarrassed officials in the German capital, which had hopes that the airport would draw more flights to the city, giving it better connections that some day might compete with the major German hubs Frankfurt or Munich and also draw more travelers to the city.

Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit, a member of the center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), has come under heavy criticism from political opponents. In an speech before members of the city parliament on Thursday, Wowereit apologized for the delay, saying that many companies and people had relied on the airport opening on June 3 and were now greatly disappointed. "On behalf of the airport company, I apologize," he said. Earlier, Wowereit had said: "As annoying as it is that the announced opening date cannot be met, the airport will go into operation."

Jürgen Trittin, co-chair of the Green Party in the federal parliament, the Bundestag, told the newspaper Rheinischen Post: "If there is anyone who has to fear for his job, it's the reigning crash pilot Klaus Wowereit."

In the state of Brandenburg, which like the city-state of Berlin owns 37 percent of the shares in the airport company, politicians with the opposition Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party blasted the state's governor over the delay.

CDU party chair Saskia Ludwig told the German news agency DPA that Governor Matthias Platzeck of the SPD either did not take his position on airport's supervisory board seriously, or he "deceived citizens and the state parliament with terrific ignorance and recklessness."

A state spokesman responded by saying that the committee was informed of the airport's progress and risk status at every board meeting.

'People Will Forget'

Karl Born, a former board member of the German travel and tourism company TUI, told DPA that it is better not to open the airport too soon. "People will forget a crisis before the opening," he said. "But a crisis after the opening will stick forever."

In the meantime, German airlines are scrambling to rebook passengers with summer travel plans meant to go through the airport. Air Berlin, which is Germany's second-largest airline and will make the new airport a hub, has estimated it will have to change about 1 million reservations, and German flagship carrier Lufthansa will alter between 500,000 and 1 million reservations.

Air Berlin issued a statement on Tuesday criticizing the postponement, saying that airline board members had just visited the new airport last week, and all present were confident that the airport would open as scheduled.

The airline has subsequently formed a "Task Force Tegel" to arrange the flights and services scheduled for the new facility to be handled at the now-operating Tegel airport. All existing reservations will be honored, and the affected passengers will be contacted by the airline directly, Air Berlin said.

Two Other Airports Remain Open

Small businesses planning to open in the new international airport expect to lose millions of euros in lost revenue each month the airport remains closed. "For small firms, that very quickly turns into a question of being able to stay in business," Nils Busch-Petersen, a spokesman for the small business owners, told DPA.

The new airport was originally planned in the 1990s to replace the three airports that existed in the once-divided city. Until it opens, flights will continue in and out of Tegel Airport, in northwest Berlin, and Schönefeld, which sits adjacent to the new airport's location and was the former East Berlin airport.

Tempelhof Airport, which was redesigned by the Nazis and later served as a hub for the Berlin Airlift in West Berlin, closed in 2008.

The new airport had originally been scheduled to open in 2007, but the opening has already been pushed back twice. Recently, the project has been plagued with controversy over a change in flight paths, prompting a citizens' movement and protests in several parts of Berlin and its suburbs.

-- mbw with wires

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