Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) – the worst new airport?
A few weeks ago, I was excited to travel again. Also, I would fly from the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) for the very first time.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport is the airport that we have waited for nearly ten years. Which, when it was finally opened in late 2020, was nearly nearly ten years behind schedule and cost about 7 Billion Euro. That is about 5 Billion Euro over budget. And not just that – another 1.8 Billion are required in subsidies to keep Berlin Brandenburg Airport from becoming insolvent.
The airport was started in 2006 and expected to open in 2011. At the time, it was expected to cost around 2 Billion.
Now you might think this must be quite some airport. But… can I say, just to sum it up in short, that it is not very good at all?
Lets look at the previous Berlin Airports – now all closed, leaving Berlin Brandenburg Airport the only contender.
Berlin Tempelhof (THF, 1923-2008)
Tempelhof is Berlins first airport. Built in what is now pretty much inner city in the 1930s, it is a meticulously preserved example of Third Reich monumental architecture. For a short time in the 1930s was the worlds largest building. Although it was very much operational, with two 2km runways when it closed in 2008, it was thought to be surplus to the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport. You can still visit it as part of a guided tour.
Berlin Schoenefeld (SXF, 1946-2020)
Schoenefeld was the main airport of the German Democratic Republic. In order to generate revenue, it allowed some Western Airlines to fly into Eastern Germany, and West Berliners could relatively easily transfer to Schoenefeld in order to catch flights, and with additional holiday charter flights for West Berliners, it was the busiest of the three Berlin airports for years until reunification and the prices of flights coming down.
Schoenefeld, on the other side, always had the luxury of space – and access since it is actually located in the state of Brandenburg and not B Berlin. Opened in 1947, it was open to both airlines from socialist countries and those of the “class enemy” – to generate revenue for the cash-strapped German Democratic republic. Until the suburbs became more built up, its good infrastructure, runways up to 3600m and instrument landing capability up to CATIIIb made this the most advanced Airport of Berlin – and yet, it still got terrible reviews due to the poor connection to the city, poor facilities and general run-down-ness in recent years – as the BER was being built at a nearby site. Also, with passenger numbers and numbers of flights rising, and Berlin becoming more populated, noise became a really big issue.
Berlin- Tegel (TXL, 1948-2020)
As Berlin was entirely surrounded by Socialist German Democratic Republic, the “air corridors” meant only Allied Airlines were allowed to fly into the two West Berlin Airports, Tempelhof and later, Tegel. This also meant both airports were essentially city centre airports.
Tegel existed as a small military airfield for testing zeppelins and rockets since the early 20th Century. It entered a new era when the French Allies built the at the time longest runway in 1948, in order to supply Western Berlin with supplies as part of the Berlin Airlift.
With the advent of jet travel, this large runway came into its own when more and more types of aircraft required larger runways to be flown safely. When Tegel opened in 1960, it was just a bit less central than Tempelhof owing to the carving up of Berlin after World War II, with two runways up to 3km in length, allowing access for larger jet airplanes. The honeycomb 1974 Brutalist terminal building was innovative at the time, for it allowed for ultra short ways for passengers, dedicated security checks for each gate, but soon become outdated in the era of mass travel. Unfortunately, the really cool design got somewhat messed with, as little seemed to be invested once it was decided Berlin gets a new airport, with cheap repairs and modifications to allow to process more passengers, as evidenced in the prefab extra terminals tacked onto each side.
Despite becoming more and more inconvenient design, this was the major airport for feeder flights for intercontinental flights from Frankfurt or Munich, as well as offering a few intercontinental flights to the United States and the Middle and Far East. For many years following reunification, it was the fourth-busiest airport after Frankfurt, Munich and Dusseldorf.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport: Why a completely new airport?
In the prosperous Western Germany from the 1950s onwards, Frankfurt, Munich and Dusseldorf became major Western German hubs.
As Lufthansa was not permitted to fly into Berlin and had to leave this privilege to Air France and British Airways, there was very little interest in maintaining a huge presence in Berlin, and the compact TXL served just fine for most business travel to Western Europe, while charter flights often went from SXF, using a special transit bus service.
After the reunification of Germany and the reinstatement of Berlin as its capital, it was decided that Berlin needs a big international airport. Nearby Leipzig already had a decent airport with very long runways for cargo and a decent rail connection – and some other potential sites for a new airport were scoped out.
It was therefore hard to understand that the city along with federal government finally settled on a site next to Schoenefeld as the site of the new Berlin Brandenburg Airport airport, despite repeated protests and lawsuits from locals, despite incidents and crash landings with casualties.
Now, with three major airports already in the city, one would have thought they would get this Berlin Brandenburg Airport right. I have now travelled twice to and from Berlin Brandenburg Airport, and both times I have wished TXL and SXF back. So, what is wrong with it?
Getting to Berlin Brandenburg Airport
If you are coming by car, then be prepared for a convoluted drive on the city motorway and expensive parking at Berlin Brandenburg Airport. Not recommended. You can take a taxi, of course, but only licensed taxis are permitted to serve the airport and cost roughly 50 Euro – depending on traffic.
If it weren’t a bit pricey and a bit unpredictable (the notorious A100 and A113 and various other roads causing unplanned holdups), taxi might be a viable option.
A local train ticket is only 3,60 Euro but trains can be a bit hit-and-miss.
Coming from the centre of Berlin, the best option still is to take one of the half-hourly Airport Express (FEX) trains – bog standard local trains that don’t stop as often as the S-Bahn, for a standard ticket price The train starts at Central Station and serves seven stations before terminating at the airport. That is, if there is no rail strike which have become more frequent over the past half year – then the FEX is among the the first ones to go.
Regular regional trains serve the airport as well, going through the central Berlin stations in addition to the FEX – roughly every twenty to thirty minutes during the day.
And Hallelujah, what has been standard in places like China or Japan, there is finally a intercity train connection to the BER, too, taking you as far as Rostock by the Baltic Sea and Dresden in Southern Saxony – every three hours or so.
All trains stop at the underground BER Station, a gloomy long dark single tunnel. The last time I used it on a Friday early evening, prime travelling tome, it looked like a cold war ghost station. But at least it’s just a few minutes walk to the terminals.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport Check-In
Where are we? Istanbul? Munich? Upon emerging onto the main concourse under a big camo net except that it’s blood red and a bit scary looking, like Body World’s unravelling a giant’s blood supply but in reality titled “Magic Carpet” , I was faced with an indefinite-seeming number of banks for Check-In, all empty.
As this airport seemed more and more like some generic Noughties out-of-town airport, I headed straight across to the security Check, which, despite the Check-In Area being empty, boasted a small queue.
Long, Long walks at Berlin Brandenburg Airport
Given that the airport has only one terminal so far, the distances to walk are phenomenal.
The old Schoenefeld Terminal (called Terminal 5), across the Northern Runway, was swiftly closed when the BER finally opened in late 2020 shortly before the second national COVID-19 lockdown.
The plan allegedly is to have aircraft piers in an H-shape flanked by the two runways, with two terminal buildings across each other and the main pier.
At present, there is a Terminal 2 sticking like a index finger off the Terminal 1, but it is not in use. There are so many plans of the airport, it becomes really unclear what actually already exists and what doesn’t.
Anyway, once past security, I was released into the dark windowless maze of the Duty Free Shop – one of those where you have to walk through, in a windy fashion. And unlike in IKEA, there were no shortcuts out. Now call me uncivilized and recently travelled, and it is true that I have only seen a small number of airports in the past few years, but I usually associate this with cheapskate secondary airports like Luton or Stansted.
Lack of Passenger facilities at Berlin Brandenburg Airport
Once I saw the light again, there was… a front of windows and then, long long corridors. No more shops.
The sign to my gate indicated I would walk 12 minutes. It seemed endless. Instead of breaking up the walk with a couple nice shops or cafes, where people really might stop to take a breather on the long way, there was… nothing. Just narrow walkways.
The only break for refreshment was a Coca Cola Vending Machine.
Just once, I spotted a little island with a coffee bar where a standing up, paper cup espresso would set you back 3.80 Euro.
I counted 20 food and drink outlets on the BER website. That includes the pretzel and coffee stall on the station concourse and any airside food trolleys. Better pack the sandwiches.
And with all this, I have not even mentioned aesthetics. While at first the main terminal looks like a cheap copy of Munich Airport, with a long, long corridor air side and a wider corridor with shops running parallel, Munich has facilities and is relatively functional if you are stuck there for a few hours.
Here at BER, you see gleaming corridors that remind me of hospitals, already scuffed looking white walls and a lot of painted grey steel. Aesthetically, it has no pleasing or distinguishing features. And that is before you even get to the gates, who are scruffily minimalistic.
I may have muttered my frustration with bare-bones SXF and “toy airport” TXL sometimes, but at least they had character and short distances to the aircraft, none of which the new BER has. I guess I will have to get used to it, though, for this is now our only major airport within miles, and one day, I will travel a little more often again.
Have you travelled to the new BER airport? What do you think of it?