Brandenburg’s debut opens the door for long-haul connectivity into Berlin, but who will take the risk?

4 February, 2020

One of the biggest airport stories of 2020 will be the opening of the new Berlin Brandenburg airport in Germany’s capital city. This is an opening sentence that should have been written back in 2011, but as we all know the project has been hit with some quite significant hurdles. This means that when the airport formally opens in Oct-2020, there are already concerns over how effective it will be to meet growing passenger demand.

It is clear that Brandenburg will be much better than what Berlin currently has to offer. Neither, Tegel nor Schoenefeld - which is being incorporated into the new facility - are shinning lights for customer satisfaction. But, will it be big enough and should plans to close Tegel once Brandenburg opens be reconsidered?

Technical University of Berlin honorary professor Dr Elmar Giemulla recently added to the debate with his own claims that Berlin Brandenburg would be too small by the end of its last expansion phase out to 2040 "if one more airline comes along and turns Berlin into a hub".

He noted the current zoning decision permits an upper limit of 360,000 aircraft movements per annum, be urged its operator to "make every effort" to acquire a plan approval procedure for the next stage of its master plan "as soon as possible" so that the upper limit of aircraft movements can be extended.

Berlin’s status as an air hub, considering it is the capital of the most populated country in Europe with the biggest economy, was not high until fairly recently. Its two airports long underperformed by comparison with those of other capitals such as London and Paris, partly because Lufthansa’s main hub is at Frankfurt, the financial capital of Germany. To add insult to injury Lufthansa then started to build its secondary hub at Munich in the south of the country, something it continues to do into 2020.

Even in 2019, the total passenger throughput was only around 36 million compared to 108 million at the two Paris airports and 182 million at the six in London.

Assuming Willy Brandt Airport, Berlin Brandenburg International, to give it its full title (BBI for short), does now open on time, this recent growth should at least offer a vital springboard to re-establishing Berlin as an economic hub, complete with the long haul connectivity that befits a city of its stature.

But Lufthansa executives have publicly stated they don’t want another hub. Apart from Frankfurt and Munich it is also committed to Duesseldorf where it has 9% of the capacity (and Eurowings has 40%) and Hamburg (20% and 33% respectively). Right now Lufthansa’s seat share is 16.3% at Tegel (Eurowings 13.4%) and 0% at Schoenefeld where neither Lufthansa nor Eurowings operate at all.

The Blue Swan Daily has previously questioned why long-haul activity may have been insufficiently developed in Berlin...

So if Lufthansa is not going to help build up the new Berlin airport, especially long-haul routes there, which airlines are? Tegel currently offers the only connectivity that can be described as ‘long-haul’, and that is limited to flights to Dubai, Doha, Beijing, Singapore and New York.

The airline that stands out at Tegel right now is easyJet. Apart from Lufthansa and Eurowings, only one other airline, SWISS, has capacity in excess of 4%. But easyJet has no aspirations towards operating long-haul. easyJet also has a strong presence at Schoenefeld, behind Ryanair, but similarly, the latter is not looking at adding long-haul flights.

Because Berlin has no hub tradition, long-haul airlines that may be attracted to it are more likely to be of the point-to-point ‘low-cost’ variety rather than the traditional full-service hub/spoke, and are ultimately reliant on origin and destination demand.

Norwegian does operate at Schoenefeld, where it holds 5% of capacity. But services are only to the three Scandinavian capital cities. Whether or not Norwegian would bring its long-haul capacity to Germany after culling intercontinental flights from Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen is unclear. After all, it offers networks from both London and Paris, amongst seven major European cities in total, and where it has competition with full-service airlines, something it would not have in Berlin.

Another potential candidate could be jetBlue Airways. Last year jetBlue announced a new route between London and Boston starting in 2021 and that it was also mulling other European cities, where passengers “suffer from high fares or mediocre service and those which are effectively controlled by legacy carriers and their massive joint ventures.” ‘Other carriers’ would not even place an object in its way if it identified Berlin as one of them.

From Canada, Air Canada Rouge could be tempted to extend an existing Berlin seasonal service into a year-round one though it typically does that only if there is a very good reason. WestJet may well prefer higher populations and catchment areas, but could establish an advantage in Berlin if it were to deploy one of its Boeing 787s or 767 300ERs on a route.

In Asia, Scoot is already operating between Singapore Changi and Tegel but there are opportunities for carriers to commence services from other important Asian centres such as Kuala Lumpur, Hong Kong and Bangkok. Another option is International Airlines Group, which has extended its LEVEL brand beyond Barcelona to Amsterdam and Paris and could operate uncontested services out of Berlin.

The door is certainly open for airlines, but while the new airport might look to these long-haul, low-cost airlines for its salvation their business model remains unproven and it might choose to attempt, instead, to attract full-service carriers, but these will be wary of business prospects, at least initially.