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At the airport, but not flying

March 3, 2017

Berlin's new BER airport has seen endless delays. It's already clear that little will happen before next year. DW's Janelle Dumalaon went to Berlin's "no-fly" zone to find out what on earth is going on there.

BER-airport Berlin-Brandenburg 2017
Image: DW/J. Dumalaon

In late 2004, residents of the town of Diepensee were relocated to neighboring areas to make way for the Berlin Brandenburg Airport Willy Brandt - the airport meant to show the German capital coming into its own as one of Europe's big league cities. 

But in the process, 200-year-old graves were discovered underneath the building site.  The project stopped for nine months, as archeologists dug up every last astonishingly well-preserved skeleton.

Fast forward to the present, and it's hard not to wonder if a century from now archeologists will be conducting excavations around the same expanse of land, and what kind of conversations they would have.

"This used to be the Schönefeld area," they'd say. "And this is the airport they tried to build."

It would at least be an interesting way to bring an endless saga of technical blunders, political blame games,  and an increasingly disgruntled taxpayer base full circle.

But hey, there's no need for hasty conclusions to the story, it's only been about a decade since construction efforts officially started.  And I'm here too, taking a look around before the sands of time erode the whole debacle. Or before the airport actually opens, whatever comes first.

In good company

And I'm not alone.  The number of people who would line up to see an unfinished, empty airport on a rainy weekday afternoon is more than a little surprising to me. At least 30 people are congregated at what would be the terminal if it actually had airline personnel and check-in staff behind the counters. Oddly, the departure and arrival boards are up and running, only they show flights out of the Schönefeld airport.

The group is made up of a mix of disappointed Berliners, curious tourists from other German cities, and at least one polite civil engineer-architect  who declined to give her name, but expressed sympathy for all those caught up in the struggles of the airport's construction.

"Name a building project that's ever finished on time," she says. "It'll have to work out somehow."

But not many others are armed with the serenity that comes with experience.

"How much does the airport cost per day to maintain?" a spiky-haired woman calls out to the tour guide.

"About a million euros," the tour guide says.

"Something to remember for my next tax return!" The spiky-haired elicits vigorous nods all around the group.

Cost overrruns

It's a very real sore point in the group. There's a privately run website that details the running costs of the new airport, along with alternatives the money could have been spent on (6,288,715 kindergarten slots, 37,094 meters of the A100 federal motorway  enclosing Berlin's city center, 51 more years of operating Berlin's Tegel airport, and so on).  Many are familiar with it. 

BER-Flughafen Berlin-Brandenburg 2017
The wooden model of the BER airport was completed without any delays ...Image: DW/J. Dumalaon

The tour guide says cost-related inquiries are among the most frequent questions she gets, apart from when the airport is finally going to open.

Another mainstay inquiry is whether it would be more cost-effective to tear down the whole complex and rebuild from scratch. She's reluctant to say.

But the terminal itself does have an ephemeral feel to it - like a trade fair ingress, where stalls and temporary offices are to be dismantled after the event is over and exhibitors and visitors alike have all left. Workers scurry back and forth carrying planks, wires, and cables, the whir of drills can still be heard in every corner.

It's hard to imagine that it's supposed to open in a year - if projected opening dates are still credible in any way, after having been changed six times.

 And I struggle to imagine it as a permanent, robust structure holding 28 million people a year, as opposed to a few small groups of stag party tourists checking in on Easyjet a couple of times a day.

In other words - the terminal feels tiny.

"Like it was built for ant travelers," sniffed one of the tour group participants.

It's a shame. The glass façade floods the terminal with light, the floors are made of marble, and the check-in counters are made of regionally-sourced wood.  In the face of a fiasco of improbable proportion, one imagines how the airport was supposed to look like without the cables still hanging from the walls, and random construction clutter still clogging up the walkways.


We're standing below the Magic Carpet 2012, a 1,000-square-meter art work stretched across the terminal's ceiling composed of bright red metal ribbons seemingly woven together to float above passenger's heads. 

BER-Flughafen Berlin-Brandenburg 2017
BER's Magic Carpet 2012 - you can either like it or hate it; there's nothing in betweenImage: DW/J. Dumalaon

It might actually be one of the few things in the airport that was finished on time. Many now treat it as a stand-in for the rest of the airport - a work meant to signify internationality as Berlin grows up as a global capital, and instead has turned into a symbol of the kind of head-in-the-clouds frivolity that enjoys grand visions but is impatient with the mundane, bureaucratic details. 

 I'd never seen the Magic Carpet before. Personally, I quite like it in the complex way I like Berlin. I understand on a practical level that the city needs a new, bigger airport to handle a growing population and expanding traveler traffic  - that it has to learn to take itself at least a little bit seriously.  At the same time, I appreciate Berlin's rough edges, that it marches to the beat of its own drum, and it isn't one of the slick, glittering world metropolises it's supposed to want to be.

"People will remember that it was a very difficult process getting the airport open," the tour guide tells me. "But when it finally happens they'll be relieved."

I think it might be a bit more complicated than that. In the tour bus passing the ghostly parking lots, disused buildings, and an unopened hotel, I can't decide whether the facilities look like they're waiting for action or they've been abandoned. It might be a few years until I know for sure - the next time I'll be back is if the airport finally opens.