The never-ending story: How BER airport became the laughing stock of Berlin

The still unopened BER airport has become a running joke for locals, and a painful topic for officials. Here's a look back on its trials and tribulations over the years.

The never-ending story: How BER airport became the laughing stock of Berlin
The still unopened BER airport. Photo: DPA.

Lufthansa had its planes ready and Chancellor Angela Merkel was lined up for the ribbon-cutting ceremony – all was in place for the opening of Berlin's state-of-the-art airport on June 3rd 2012.

Except the airport itself.

Five years on, and the BER airport remains unfinished, shuttered and a byword for fiasco in a country usually better known for its engineering prowess and obsession with punctuality.

SEE ALSO: The tunnel that will turn central Munich into a building site for a decade

Construction had begun back in 2006 for the mega-project set to replace the German capital's two ageing and saturated airports – Tegel and Schönefeld.

But the opening of BER, on the southern outskirts of Berlin, was scrapped a month before Merkel was due to inaugurate the site in front of 10,000 guests.

The problem related to the fire alarm and smoke extraction system – but it soon emerged that this was far from the only issue.

Besides a litany of technical faults that included a roof twice the authorized weight, there were planning errors, suppliers going bankrupt, and suspicions of corruption.

Finally the scandal cost Berlin's former mayor Klaus Wowereit his job.

Meanwhile BER's building costs more than tripled from the €1.7 billion ($1.9 billion) initially budgeted to more than €6 billion ($6.7 billion) to date.

Authorities are running quirky weekly visits to the airport for a fee, but at €10 a head, they are doing little for the bottom line.

No flights

Berlin officials visiting the airport. Photo: DPA.

While the airport remains shut, its runways are occasionally being used by neighbouring Schönefeld airport, which was once the air hub of communist East Berlin and is undergoing its own renovation.

Other infrastructure linked to BER has to be constantly maintained so it will be ready when the airport finally opens its doors.

To ensure that the rail tracks and stations built for the airport remain operational and free of mould, an empty regional train circulates on the route two nights a week.

The ghost trains will continue their lonely trips until the day the terminal opens, says Deutsche Bahn.

At the nearby Hotel Steigenberger, eight housekeepers and technicians maintain empty rooms – even though the hotel “is not expected to open before the actual inauguration of the airport” according to its operator Deutsche Hospitality.

Travellers booking flights on websites are already offered the choice of landing at Tegel, Schoenefeld or BER – except that those who pick the third choice find no available flights.

On Berlin roads, signs showing the way to the airport are, for now, simply crossed out.

Running joke

Lufthansa spokesman Wolfgang Weber recalled the day the airport was meant to open, with one of the carrier's Airbus jets set to be the first on the tarmac.

Germany's largest airline had a “big plan” to bump up the number of direct flights from Berlin to other destinations from eight to 45.

Tickets were sold, planes readied and personnel hired, he said, but “step by step, we cut down this flight plan”.

Today, Lufthansa and its subsidiary Eurowings link Berlin to 30 destinations from Tegel airport, and the carrier has kept BER off its flights plans for coming years.

“We need a date – and to have that date at least a year in advance,” said Weber.

But to avoid yet more embarrassment, authorities have not set a new date.

Thomas Winkelmann, the boss of Air Berlin, has acknowledged “the limits of Berlin in terms of infrastructure”.

In April – despite the carrier's name – he decided to boost the western city of Düsseldorf as a base for its long-haul flights.

For now, BER is a running joke among Berliners.

Some have suggested the sweeping and deserted site as a possible nuclear waste storage site.

Others, picking up on the Internet meme of “Chuck Norris facts”, say only the reputedly omnipotent US martial arts film hero can rescue the project now.

One joke reprised former East German leader Walter Ulbricht's notorious denial in 1961 that the communists were going to erect a wall around West Berlin – “Nobody intends to build an airport.”

The football club Darmstadt, after its relegation following a loss to Hertha Berlin, sniped at its adversaries on Twitter that “we landed in League 2, but you are still landing at Tegel”.

Even Germany's usually dour finance ministry joined the fun in a video presenting Germany as this year's G20 summit host, with an image of the airport and the admission “we are not perfect”.

By Marie Julien

SEE ALSO: 6 reasons why Berlin is now known as 'the failed city'

For members


EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.