Twentieth-century history is etched deeply into the surface of Berlin; almost destroyed by the end of the Second World War, it came to embody the Cold War until the destruction of the Berlin Wall signified its end. Where once the most famous wall in history stood, tourists now marvel that this elegant, laid-back city could have witnessed so many of the horrors that the modern world had to offer.
It is this history that explains how this city of 3 million people found itself in possession of three international airports – one for Berlin’s west, one for the city’s east, and a ‘spare’. But east and west have been consigned to the past. The present age dictates a need for one state-of-the-art and future-proof hub. And this is the need that the Berlin Brandenburg International Airport (BBI) was designed to address.
Currently, the greatest number of international passengers bound for Berlin fly into Tegel Airport in the city’s north-west. There has been an airport on the Tegel site since the 1930s, but it was redesigned and rebuilt in the late 1960s. Aficionados of airport architecture regard Tegel as a design icon, but it was only ever intended to handle domestic flights. It now handles not only European but also New York flights and is therefore stretched to its limits. Tegel is due to close when BBI is completed in 2011. The already-closed Templehof Airport, to the south of Tegel but also within the boundaries of what was West Berlin, will forever be remembered as the landing strip for the ‘candy bombers’ during the Berlin Airlift between 1948 and 1949, delivering many thousands of tons of essential supplies to the sectors outside of Soviet control and under blockade.
However, BBI is being built on a site adjacent to Schönefeld, Berlin’s other currently active airport, formerly in the Eastern Bloc and home of the German Democratic Republic’s (GDR) own airline, InterZug. Given that the GDR collapsed only two decades ago, there are surprisingly few relics of the era. Those that do remain include former apartment blocks built for InterZug pilots and staff, and the anonymous-looking red-brick building in which then GDR general secretary Erich Honecker famously embraced his Soviet Union counterpart Nikita Khrushchev. As is usual in Berlin, architectural history, where it remains, is folded easily into the present, reused and reinvented. The BBI project, however, is starting from scratch.
The notion of a new airport for the Berlin-Brandenburg region was first mooted in 1992, and was intended to anticipate the city’s return to economic strength and its status as the capital of a reunited Germany. The two greatest shareholders are the Berlin and Brandenburg regional governments (although the federal government also has a stake) and it is anticipated that when complete, BBI will deliver multiple benefits to both the region and the country at large.
But BBI is much more than a prestige project. Both business and leisure passengers in Berlin have been crying out for more destinations to be made available to them, especially in the Middle East, the US and Asia. And the need has become more apparent as the city matures into its post-reunification role.
BBI has been a long time in the making; finalising the location was difficult, and Berlin Airports, the company behind the project, had to fight numerous cases in the administrative courts to secure necessary permissions to proceed. Two villages needed to be relocated before construction could begin. Templehof was also closed in 2008 to protect the cashflow of BBI, an unpopular move as, in the hearts of Berliners, the airport represents the city’s spirit of survival.
But Berlin Airports claims that it has maintained a constant and positive dialogue with the residents of villages close to the airport, resculpted local landscapes, and built sound-proofing mounds to restrict the noise of the construction site itself. Once built, noise pollution in Berlin as a whole will be radically reduced as air traffic will be taken out of the heart of the city. The BBI site is located in the south-east of the area in a much lower population density area, although it is still extremely accessible.
Chief executive Dr Rainer Schwartz says there are several compelling reasons behind the creation of a new airport for Berlin. The most obvious is demand. In numerical terms, two international airports (three before the closure of Templehof) for a city represents an embarrassment of riches. But the reality is that Tegel airport was constructed to serve flights between Berlin and Munich, Hanover and Frankfurt. It is no longer state of the art. And there is certainly no room for expansion.
The other great failing of the current situation is that it hinders the city from realising the potential that lies in its strategic location. The new airport is intended to be a stepping stone to the east, or as Mr Schwartz says, “at the heart of Europe with a strong focus on European point-to-point traffic and selected long-haul destinations”. He points out that the location offers a strategic advantage over hubs in the West: flight times to eastern Europe and Asia being up to an hour shorter. In the case of long-haul flights to Asia, this would mean planes could fly without needing a change of crew, significantly cutting costs.
Demand for a new airport has been increasingly apparent even in the past two years. In 2009, Tegel and Schönefeld handled 21 million passengers, an increase of 22% since 2005, making them collectively the third-largest airport location in Germany.
Last year was a terrible year for the aviation industry as a whole, but Berlin Airport’s financials were robust in comparison to the average. Total revenues were €243.9m (a 3.3% drop over the previous year); but its cost-cutting programme helped the company increase earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortisation by 14.4% to €91.2m – by saving some €15m in material costs. The project company also managed another Herculean feat against the backdrop of global recession: raising €2.9bn from the debt markets in order to pay for construction, representing the largest European infrastructure financing operation in 2009, and as Mr Schwartz points out, “placing the project on a solid footing”.
BBI will have freight facilities, but the emphasis is on leisure and business travellers. BBI will open in 2011 with a starting capacity of 27 million passengers, with opportunities to expand to 45 million, which, the company hopes, will future-proof the airport for decades to come. The business community in particular has argued that Berlin has traditionally been let down by a lack of destinations. This picture is changing. At the end of 2009 Berlin was serving 166 destinations, mostly European, but also including New York, Bangkok, Beijing and Doha.
New airports always have the edge over older rivals in that they can respond to current aviation trends and anticipate the future. Mr Schwartz says that a key feature of the new facility is that it will offer services which are cost-relevant to the requirements of the airlines that will use it. Berlin Airports has distinguished between the needs of the low-cost carriers (such as Ryanair and easyJet), scheduled carriers, and the in-between brands – in particular Air Berlin, which already offers flights to multiple destinations from Berlin. This means that while Lufthansa and British Airways jets will be connected to the terminal by passenger tunnels, low-cost carrier passengers will use less advanced methods, allowing the carriers to pass on the savings.
Inward and outbound non-air connections are critical to the success of modern airports and work is already under way on a six-track railway station enabling travellers to reach Berlin’s new central railway station, Hauptbahnhof, in less than 30 minutes.
Once German rail company Deutsche Bahn has included the airport in its route network, it should be extremely straightforward to access intercity routes and destinations in Poland and the Czech Republic.
It has been said that modern-day airports are little more than shopping malls with high security and runways attached. However, the forecast is that BBI’s retail opportunities will provide major sources of revenue. By the time construction is finished, there will be about 150 retail, restaurant and catering spaces available to let across more than 20,000 square metres. This includes 30 restaurants, and 20 service providers, while a 9000-square-metre marketplace will form the centrepiece of what Berlin Airports calls “the BBI retail concept”.
The company is keen to stress that, while it wants BBI to possess all the attributes of the most sophisticated airports around the world, it should also be distinctly ‘Berlin’ in flavour. With this in mind, Berlin Airports is currently in talks with the city’s leading restaurateurs about opening franchises.
Elsewhere in the world a new airport might put a city on the map. Berlin is already regarded as one of the most important metropolises in Europe, not only on the back of its extraordinary history, but because it embodies both the cosmopolitan and the urbane. BBI promises to be no more than the city deserves.