August 28, 2012
Visitors to the ILA Berlin Air Show will be able to watch the daily flight display against the backdrop of an impressive new terminal—the city’s new Willy Brandt International Airport (officially Berlin Brandenburg Airport). The project was supposed to highlight the innovativeness and economic clout of the Berlin region, but instead it has developed into Germany’s most serious infrastructure scandal.
That is because what visitors will actually see is an empty, inoperative terminal with no aircraft parked in front of it, a facility exceeding its budget by more than €1.7 billion ($2.1 billion). This leaves the airport’s operator—Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg (FBB)—at the mercy of its shareholders. The airport should have opened on June 17, but that inaugural has long since been pushed into next year, with airlines scrambling to accommodate their increased flight schedules at the two existing airports, Tegel and Schoenefeld.
Schoenefeld airport is directly adjacent to Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BBI) and what is now the old airport’s southerly runway will be one of the two parallel runways once BBI opens. The new facility’s southerly runway is completed and—what is probably the only advantage of the delay—can be exclusively used for ILA traffic during the show.
The airport’s failure to meet its opening date is not only an embarrassment for planners and a financial disaster for the operator. It is also a real public policy crisis for Germany, which has been one of the more restrictive European countries when it comes to opening up more air services, particularly those operated by Persian Gulf carriers. One of the primary arguments in the ongoing debate is that local airlines need some kind of protection from Gulf region carriers that are allegedly or actually subsidized by their respective governments. And that includes both direct government aid or via subsidized, artificially cheap airport infrastructure, so the argument goes.
But that is exactly what could be happening in Berlin. The airport is depending on massive public aid to fund additional expenses to support the 2013 opening. This has been the subject of some serious wrangling between the federal and state governments. One way to avoid direct subsidies would be loan guarantees, but even those would only mask the fact that Germany’s air transport sector is benefitting from massive government aid.
Berlin’s new airport was originally due to open in 2011, but that slipped to June 2012. Roughly a month ahead of the new date, Berlin’s mayor Klaus Wowereit had to reveal another delay and announced that the facility will now be ready on March 17, 2013.
The postponement was blamed on problems with the fire protection system, but investigations found that other projects had fallen behind as well. The airport fired its technical director and hired a former Fraport executive to get construction back on track. However, almost no one still believes that the March 17 deadline will be met. Many officials now say an opening in time for the winter timetable in late 2013 is more realistic. That puts more strain on airlines and passengers dealing with the two existing—and inadequate—airports. Both Air Berlin and Lufthansa have massively increased their Berlin operations in anticipation of the new airport.
Another serious issue has been airport noise protection. Following a local court ruling, the airport may have to spend around €600 million more on protecting neighboring communities from noise, adding to the financial burden.