BERLIN — Styled like a boarding card, Gregor Gysi’s invitation to the opening party of the “most modern airport in Europe” arrived in the mail. There would be 10,000 guests and a red carpet landing by Chancellor Angela Merkel on the runway. Gysi couldn’t wait.
Eight years later, Gysi, a lawmaker and native Berliner, is still waiting.
Berlin-Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport, conceived 30 years ago in the giddy aftermath of German reunification as a symbol of freedom and modernity, has instead become the butt of jokes. When the opening on Gysi’s invitation was abruptly scrapped, it was neither the first postponement nor the last for a project delayed by a seemingly endless succession of problems.
With the latest opening date now scheduled for Oct. 31, invitations have again gone out. This time there is no party (“It felt wrong,” the airport’s public relations manager said), just an opening — fingers crossed.
“I’m the only one who always knew this airport would open in the fall,” Gysi said. “I just didn’t know which year!”
The litany of engineering blunders, corruption scandals and lawsuits that have plagued what was once Europe’s biggest building site have chipped away at the story that Germany likes to tell about itself as a model of efficiency and good government.
Six opening dates have come and gone.
Miles of cables were incorrectly installed. Firewalls turned out to be just walls. Escalators came up short. Screens had to be replaced, having reached the end of their lives.
Under construction for 14 years, the airport is nine years past its original opening date and more than $4 billion over budget. Every month, it costs several million dollars just to keep the unused airport running.
Airport staff are paid to flush all the toilets to keep the plumbing working. Ghost trains run to the ghost terminal at night to stop the tunnels from molding. Cleaners clean the unused rooms of the four-star airport hotel.
With so many costly setbacks, T-shirts spotted in the city offer this advice: “Let’s just move the city of Berlin to a functioning airport.”
But this time, insists Engelbert Lütke Daldrup, the airport’s chief executive, everything is functioning. Perhaps the biggest incentive to make sure the airport opens, he said, is not to be “laughed at” anymore.
“We German engineers are mortified,” said Lütke Daldrup, a trained engineer and longtime public official who was called in to save the project in 2017. “Germany is known for its engineering competence. We think of ourselves as punctual, efficient and competent. This was embarrassing for Berlin and for Germany as a whole.”
Even Merkel has publicly aired her exasperation.
“The very Chinese with whom we have government consultations are asking themselves, ‘What on earth is going on in Berlin that they can’t even build an airport with two runways’,” she said two years ago.
With its doors finally about to open, the airport already has the whiff of another era, like a giant movie set created for a period drama set in the 1990s.
If it looks vintage — light walnut paneling on check-in counters and chocolate-colored suede on seats by the gates — it’s because it is vintage.
The conspicuously small flight information screens were “cutting edge” a decade ago, said Patrick Muller, the operations chief.
Self check-in and cellphone charging stations did not exist when the airport plans were drawn up, so they are being added.
Hovering below the ceiling in the check-in hall is a giant red sculpture of a flying carpet — testimony, some snicker, to the fairy-tale approach to big infrastructure projects in a city that defies the German stereotype of punctuality, order and planning.
“This airport is an allegory for Berlin itself,” said John C. Kornblum, a former U.S. ambassador to Germany, who has lived in the city on and off since the 1960s. “It’s charming, irreverent, eccentric — and utterly dysfunctional.”
Chronically indebted and reliant on subsidies from richer states, Berlin is “a sort of failed state” at the heart of Germany, Kornblum said.
In recent years, Germany’s capital has amused and exasperated the country in equal measure, with headlines about regular prison breaks and a famously unresponsive bureaucracy, at least by German standards.
It can take up to 38 day to issue a death certificate, Die Zeit reported in an article about Berlin titled “In love with failure.” The developers of software used in the city’s registry offices claim it works everywhere else, just not in Berlin.
Berlin’s reputation as “poor but sexy,” in the words of one former mayor, is a legacy of the Cold War, when East Berlin was run by Communists and West Berlin was a heavily subsidized capitalist outpost.
Starting with the Berlin airlift during the Soviet blockade in 1948, airports had a special significance in the city for generations: They represented freedom to West Berliners surrounded by the Communist East, and freedom to easterners once the Berlin Wall came down.
A state-of-the-art airport worthy of the reunited capital became a shared dream after reunification — and more recently a matter of real urgency as the city’s existing airports were overwhelmed by rising passenger numbers.
But just picking a location took half a decade — and was arguably the first blunder: Instead of an abandoned airfield in a remote area south of Berlin, politicians opted for a more densely populated spot closer to the city, leading to premium land prices and lawsuits from residents living under the flight path.
To minimize noise, pilots flying from the southerly runway will be required to make a complex 145-degree turn on takeoff, which the national air traffic control association describes as “demanding” and pilots have dubbed “the vomit curve.”
The list of stumbles has only grown.The foundations of the terminal were already laid when it emerged that the star architect hired for the project, Meinhard von Gerkan, had designed the airport without a proper duty-free area — a vital source of revenue — because he had no time for the “mall-ifiction” of airports.
Plans had to be adjusted in a panic.
Then, a month before the scheduled 2012 opening — tickets had already been sold, and taxis had been practicing drop-off and pickup — it was revealed that hundreds of fire safety doors and a giant smoke extraction system (“the monster”) in the basement did not work.
When management proposed to hire “human fire alarms,” the building inspector told them they were insane.
To avoid another last-minute disaster this year, the airport has run dress rehearsals for months. Thousands of volunteers pose as passengers, testing the airport staff on everything from check-in to crisis response.
On a recent morning, the terminal was buzzing with yellow-vested volunteers dragging suitcases through security. One pretend-passenger had lost her bag, another her child. A third had been instructed she was a pickpocket.
“If the police stop you, do cooperate but do not admit the theft,” her script said.
Most extras were Berliners curious to see an airport that in some cases had been talked about for longer than they had been alive. Susanne Wendt, a 33-year-old bank employee, said wryly that she had signed up “to see the airport at least once before it fails to open again.”
Lütke Daldrup dismisses such doubts. It may no longer be Europe’s most modern airport, he conceded, but “it’s the safest airport in the world.”
“Every screw in the building has been scrutinized,” he said.
Whether anyone will actually be flying is another question.
Having missed out on the travel boom of the past two decades, Berlin’s new airport now opens in the middle of a pandemic.
“The ultimate irony is that after all this, after 30 years, hardly anyone is flying,” Kornblum said. At least, he added, “social distancing will be easy.”