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The history of Berlin in the 20th century is one of war, division and reunification. No single airport had served the traditional capital of the country because of the infamous ‘Iron Curtain’ dividing the city into east and west.
The city had been served from 1948 by Tegel. (TXL) Located in the former western French sector of the divided city, Tegel was for many years probably the most important airport in the city. Also in the west, Tempelhof (THF) had functioned as an airfield since 1909-indeed the Wright brothers had flown there in September of that year. The airport cemented a place in history as the main terminus of the Berlin Airlift from June ’48 to September ’49. It reached capacity in the ’60s and was closed in 2008. Schönefeld (SXF) dates from 1934 and is located in the former eastern sector. It carries the majority of European flights out of Berlin.
Schoenefeld Terminal Image; DPA
The city’s airports had experienced massive growth from the late 90’s; in ’91, 7.9 million passengers used the Berlin airports; in 2014, this had more than trebled to 28m, One of the consequences was that by 1996 it was clear that Berlin was running out of passenger capacity and the decision was made to build a new facility; Berlin Brandenburg International (BER) by closing the airports of Tegel and Tempelhof, expanding Schönefeld and constructing a new runway, terminal building and related transport links.
With its reputation for efficiency, innovation and superb engineering, even a major construction project should have been straightforward for Germany.
Alas, no. After 15 years of planning, construction of BER began in 2006, at an estimated cost of €2bn and an opening date five years later of October 2011. It was expected to cater for 27m passengers each year. The latest estimates are a cost of €7.3bn (over three times the original estimate) and an opening in 2020. Or 2021. Or never.
An unused Brandenburg. Image; Getty
Poor construction planning, appalling execution, awful management and allegations of corruption have even resulted in some recommendations that the airport be torn down and rebuilt from scratch. A change to the standard airspace arrivals and departures resulted in renewed demonstrations from residents of Berlin. The number of faults and errors in design and construction are almost comic; significant problems with the fire safety system, 4000 doors wrongly labelled, escalators too short. All 750 flight information monitors had to be replaced earlier this year at a cost of €500 000. The costs of the airport remaining unopened amounts to €9-10m per month.
Contrast this with the construction of the brand-new Daxing airport (PKX) in Beijing. The existing Beijing Capital airport (PEK) dates from 1958, approached capacity in 2013 and currently caters for more than 95m passengers per year. It’s currently the world’s second busiest after Hartsfield-Jackson in Atlanta which had 107m passengers in 2018.
To deal with huge anticipated expansion of passengers, construction of Daxing began in December 2013 and the first commercial flight took place on 26th September this year-6 years later. It has an initial capacity of 72m passengers per year and a theoretical maximum on site of 200m per year. It’s the world’s largest single-terminal airport of approximately a million square metres. Its estimated costs were about the same as the current cost of Berlin Brandenburg: €7.2bn, but final costs are half as much again; €10.3bn.
The contrasts between Brandenburg and Daxing couldn’t be more obvious; for about the same amount of money, Beijing has a working airport that can easily become the world’s biggest in a few years. Berlin has a €7.3bn embarrassment that may (or may not) finally deal with some passengers ten years late.
But wait-there’s more! The new ‘Dubai’ expected in 2027 is expected to cost €31bn. A true monster!