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What you need to know about Berlin’s ‘cursed’ new BER airport

After several years of delays, the new BER airport is finally opening on Saturday October 31st. Here's what you need to know.

What you need to know about Berlin's 'cursed' new BER airport
An EasyJet flight parked at Terminal 1 of the BER airport. Photo: DPA

The Berlin region's new international airport was supposed to be a symbol of German unity and engineering prowess as the country came together after nearly half a century divided.

But instead, the new hub called BER — which will finally open on Saturday after nine years of delays and technical failures — has become an embarrassing dent in Germany's reputation for efficiency.

Here are key facts about the mishap-prone project.

READ ALSO: Berlin Brandenburg airport to finally open after nine-year delay

Symbol of reunification

After the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, city authorities wanted a new airport to be a symbol of a country reunited after decades of the Cold War.

Aside from the technical BER initials, the airport carries the name of the former West German Chancellor Willy Brandt, who opened relations with the eastern bloc in the early 1970s.

At reunification in 1990, the German capital had three middle-ranking airports — Tegel and Tempelhof in the west and Schönefeld in the former communist east.

Taxis at Berlin Tegel's airport. Photo: DPA

In 1996, local and national authorities began drawing up plans for a new airport fit to rival international hubs such as Frankfurt and Munich, with a planned opening date of 2011.

Tempelhof, known for its huge Nazi-era canopy, closed in 2008 — the runways and airfield have since been converted into a massive city park — while the other two airports remained in service.

Faults and scandals

In 2010, the first signs of turbulence appeared. Project managers said stricter European aviation safety regulations and the bankruptcy of a planning company meant they had to delay the opening by a year.

From then on, the opening was repeatedly postponed.

In 2012, construction was suddenly halted after a fire safety system was found to be defective.

An inauguration ceremony planned only a few weeks later with Chancellor Angela Merkel was hastily cancelled.

In 2016, things took a sinister turn when prosecutors investigated the alleged poisoning of a whistleblower who had called out corruption on the project.

Faulty lighting systems, escalators that were too short, not enough space for lucrative shopping outlets… the project was dogged by one issue after another.

READ ALSO: Ready for take-off? Inside Berlin's long delayed BER airport before it opens

Costs take off

The airport's price tag had rocketed from €1.7 billion to more than €6.5 billion by 2020, bringing an extra burden on a city already heavily in debt.

Once popular former mayor Klaus Wowereit — who coined the “poor but sexy” catchphrase that became Berlin's moniker in the early 2000s — was one of the project's most high-profile casualties.

As chairman of the airport's supervisory board, he was blamed for cost overruns and later resigned over what he considered his “biggest failure” after 13 years in power.

Airport executives and local media began speaking of a “cursed” project.


A sign at the new BER airport reads “Time to Fly”. Photo: DPA

Local opposition

In a referendum organised by locals in 2017, Berliners voted to keep open Tegel, known for its unconventional hexagonal design and ease of travel. Aircraft gates were just steps from the terminal entrances but its facilities eventually became cramped and outdated.

The vote highlighted the attachment Berliners have to the airport, built in 90 days with Europe's longest runway in 1948 as the Soviets blockaded road and rail into the western sector.

But authorities stuck to the plan and confirmed the closure of Tegel for late 2020. The area will be converted into an office park, with the terminal buildings forming part of a university for applied sciences.

Opening in a pandemic

The explosion of tourism and cheap flights of the last decade caused authorities to think Berlin Brandenburg had been designed too small.

The hub was to have a capacity of 27 million passengers a year, increasing to 33 million with the opening of a second terminal a few years later.

READ ALSO: What's next for Berlin's Tegel airport when it closes in November?

Yet in 2019, 35 million passed through Berlin's two airports.

Authorities decided that Schönefeld, the unloved communist-era airport next to the new site, will continue to operate as BER's Terminal 5.

At the end of 2019, project managers announced that the new airport would finally open in 2020.

With aviation traffic into Berlin down 70 percent this year due to the coronavirus pandemic, at least capacity will be one less thing for the operators to worry about.

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HOUSING

These are the plans for affordable (and sustainable) housing at Berlin’s former Tegel airport

Berlin’s city government has announced plans to build 5,000 apartments - all made of wood - on the site of Tegel airport, which was closed down for good at the beginning of November.

These are the plans for affordable (and sustainable) housing at Berlin's former Tegel airport
An artists impression of the new Schumacher Quarter. Source: Tegel Projekt GmbH

“From 2021, the largest timber construction district in the world, with over 5,000 apartments, will be built in the eastern area of the former Tegel airport,” said Berlin’s housing senator Sebastian Scheel (Linke).

The new district will be called the the Schumacher Quarter.

Scheel pledged that the new housing will be both climate neutral and affordable.

“From research and development, to material production and construction, everything will takes place in one place. This could help urban timber construction to achieve a breakthrough,” said Scheel.

He added that the aim was to make the timber housing for cities 20 to 25 percent cheaper to construct than a traditional build with reinforced concrete.

Photo: DPA

The project will be overseen by the Tegel Projekt GmbH, a company entirely owned by the city of Berlin.

The city will be hoping that the project goes more smoothly than the last state-run airport build. The disastrous construction of Berlin’s new Berlin Brandenburg (BER) international airport took a decade longer than planned.

READ ALSO: Berlin Brandenburg (BER) International Airport to finally open after nine-year delay

There is still some work to do on the site before construction can begin.

“Contaminated areas and military explosives need to be removed before it starts. The first ground work is already underway,” said Scheel. Construction on the building is scheduled to begin in 2024.

“According to current planning, the education campus and the first residential buildings in the Schumacher Quarter will be ready in 2027, the last ones in the early 2030s”, he said.

The new quarter is expected to provide homes for 10,000 residents of the capital. 

Another residential build on the site of the old airport is set to bring 4,000 more apartments into a city which is plagued by a shortage of living space.

The Tegel Projekt GmbH also wants to bring together founders, students, investors, industrialists and scientists in a new urban space. 

The Urban Tech Republic will be home to up to 1,000 different companies, and there are also plans to turn the current Terminal A into a university campus.

READ MORE: What's next for Berlin's Tegel airport?

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