Is 2020 the year that Berlin finally gets its new airport? It is nine years later than planned but Brandenburg airport is set to open in Oct-2020

2 January, 2020

"What else can go wrong now?" would not be an unnatural reaction to the news that Willy Brandt Berlin Brandenburg airport (BER) will finally officially open on 31-Oct-2020. It is unlike the Germans to be so late with a project given its manufacturing efficiency, but its capital city's new airport will live long in the transport history books for being a decade late in solving Berlin's capacity crunch and dated airport infrastructure.

Many believed the delays would be terminal - it should have opened in Oct-2011 - any further delay to the opening now could well be! But, things seem to now be on track and it has been confirmed that the final services from Berlin Tegel airport will take place on 08-Nov-2020.

The reasons why Brandenburg didn't open in 2011, largely connected to problems with electrical wiring and the fire control system, are well documented. Close behind it is the documentation on the harm the interminable delay did to Germany's reputation as an engineering centre of excellence.

Final checks remain to be done and the airport has to be tested by an army of volunteers and there remains plenty of scope for more issues to arise. The operator, Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg GmbH (FBB), has already forecast a reduced operating result in FY2020 due to a one-off charge for ORAT (operational readiness activation and transition) procedures for the commissioning of BER.

One issue already arising is that FBB is reported to require close to a further EUR300 million in financing for the project including more than EUR200 million required for the completion of the main terminal. The operator also requires an additional 200 employees "to operate BER safely".

FBB's CFO Heike Fölster said the company is in the process of setting up a new business plan with the financing gap in mind. Once again one gets the impression that FBB is continually (pardon the pun) fire-fighting crises on the hoof rather than anticipating them in advance.

CHART - Low-cost and charter airlines currently account for more than nine in ten seats at Berlin's Schoenefeld airportSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and OAG (data: w/c 30-Dec-2019)

And when it opens, Brandenburg can expect more pressure from LCCs and charter carriers operating now at the existing Schoenefeld Airport next door (which is to be rebranded as Terminal 5), for lower airport fees. They are dissatisfied that taxi distances to the existing facility will be several times longer than to the new facility, and are seeking the lower charges in compensation.

LCCs account for 50% of seats at Tegel, which is a bigger airport, almost twice the size of Schoenefeld, but it still potentially means that 60% of passengers at Brandenburg could be travelling on dissatisfied budget airlines.

Moreover, the levels of charges to airlines at Tegel are high in comparison with peers Hamburg, Frankfurt and Munich airports (but not at Schoenefeld), as the chart below demonstrates. Orienting charging levels at BER towards those of Tegel could be a mistake.

CHART - Berlin Tegel's airport landing charges are significantly higher than German's major airports across almost all aircraft categoriesSource: CAPA - Centre for Aviation and Air Transport Research Society (USD in 2019)

One good piece of news is that rail services to Brandenburg will launch on the opening day of the airport. That's a given. Deutsche Bahn had already completed tracks and platform facilities in time for the originally scheduled date in Oct-2011!

The commercial challenges Brandenburg has faced over the years while it remained a shell came from East German airports such as Dresden and Leipzig, and even Warsaw. But overall passenger traffic continued to increase despite the age of the two current airports. Berlin has become a European hub in every sense, even if national carrier Lufthansa has no intention of building a conventional aviation hub to complement its Frankfurt and Munich operations

Chancellor Merkel, who was raised in a town to the north of East Berlin, will step down in 2021, possibly sooner. She has been Chancellor throughout the debacle that BER has become and will not want this fiasco to be part of her legacy. The pressure for the 31-Oct-2020 opening date to be honoured is immense.