It’s been Germany’s most melodramatic will-they-or-won’t-they story for over two decades. And now, in the middle of a pandemic, with climate activists from Extinction Rebellion protesting at the building’s entrance, the long-delayed, scandal-ridden Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) has finally landed its first planes.
On Oct. 31 at 2 p.m., flights EasyJet 3110 and Lufthansa 2020 landed on the north runway, welcoming the first two passengers — the CEOs of both airlines — into BER, a tidy terminal made of soft wooden boxes inside an airy, four-story glass frame. Spectators watched from what will be a public viewing deck of the runways above the terminal.
“Ninety-four years ago, we were founded in Berlin, and since then, we were meant to land here,” said Lufthansa’s CEO, Carsten Spohr.
The new BER sits on the border between Berlin and its neighboring federal state, Brandenburg. With an initial capacity of 27 million passengers per year, the airport’s opening finally gives eastern Germany a worthy international hub to compete with Frankfurt and Munich in the country’s west.
“BER has annoyed us, disappointed us, moved us. But now, it can delight us, too,” said Germany’s Minister of Transport and Digital Infrastructure, Andreas Scheuer, in a moment of candor at the opening ceremony. The airport’s initial opening date, November 2011, was postponed so many times that the airport became a running joke.
Berlin’s reputation for unsustainable relationships with handsome but flawed airports predates BER by almost a century, though.
The city’s first airport, Tempelhof, became operational in 1927, but was reconceived less than 10 years later by the Nazi era’s most celebrated architect, Albert Speer. The new terminal at Tempelhof was meant to be the world’s largest, but despite a decade of construction, World War II put a stop on many of Speer’s plans.
In 1948, when the Soviets blockaded West Berlin in an effort to make the allies cede their sectors, planes filled with food and supplies for West Berliners landed at Tempelhof day and night, in three-minute intervals, but it wasn’t enough.
The main runway at Tegel Airport, in the French sector, was commissioned and constructed in just 90 days to assist the airlift. After the blockade ended, Tegel got its own commercial terminal, designed by the young architect Meinhard von Gerkan. His unique hexagonal design was beloved by passengers, because the gates were all just minutes from the entrance. But it was always designed to be small — a portal from a capitalist island behind the Iron Curtain to western Europe.
After reunification, everything changed. The early 2000s saw airport traffic soar as the German government returned to Berlin and tourism exploded. In the former East Berlin, the Soviet-sector airport, Schönefeld (the ugly yet reliable suitor in this drama), was also outgrowing its limited capacity. Tempelhof closed in 2008, while both Tegel and Schönefeld constructed makeshift sheds as additional terminals while they waited for the construction of BER, which began in 2006.
BER was also designed by von Gerkan, engineered for simplicity, flow, and quick access to gates through four quadrants. But his magic, which made Tegel a jewel, was about to expire. The architect wanted the new airport to have a streamlined design with an entirely flat, sweeping roof — no chimneys. Instead, he imagined a series of extraction fans to drive smoke down to underground pipes. Five years and many design changes later, a fire safety test proved this plan disastrous, and the roof was reconceived.
The opening was delayed seven months, initially. Then, there were more construction challenges, corruption and bribery allegations, and the resignation of Berlin’s mayor. By the mid-2010s, when Michael Müller became the mayor of Berlin, there was no opening date set.
Berlin, in a country seen as a leader in engineering and efficiency, was still subject to two tiny, out-of-date airports running millions of passengers over their capacity while scrambling to complete a new airport whose technology was constantly being outdated as it sat unused.
On Saturday, Oct. 31, that all came to an end.
“In the past years, there were days that were despairing. But today, this airport is one great tribute to reunification,” Müller said at the ceremony.
The small soft opening caused by the pandemic allows operational capacity, which was expected at 55,000 passengers a day according to an airport employee, to slowly scale up as limited air traffic returns to the skies. (In recent months, actual passenger traffic has topped out at about 26,000 per day.) Throughout the week, as nearby Schönefeld is rebranded to BER Terminal 5 and flights begin to transfer from Tegel, the new BER will work its way into the transition.
“We are living in the first day of a success story, but this airport will have new challenges. Our state has worked hard to make aviation more climate-neutral, and we see this as a challenge to the airport and the airlines,” Brandenburg’s Prime Minister Dietmar Woidke said, addressing the Extinction Rebellion protesters.
Meanwhile, Tegel will finally be closed, despite Berliners’ passionate attachment to it. The final departure is scheduled for Nov. 8, closing down the last chapter of Berlin’s 20th-century airport saga.
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