Taking off

Twenty-two years after reunification, Berlin finally gets a shiny new airport. Monocle takes a preview tour of the site.


  • Juni 2012 (Ausgabe 54)


  • Martin Müller & Felix Brüggemann

Architect Robert Angermann is standing between scaffolding and plastic sheeting near the docking gates of Berlin’s new airport. He’s wearing a yellow helmet and thinking about what will become the defining feature of the building. “Simplicity,” he says. “This will be an airport of short distances and extremely easy to navigate.” There will be no forest of confusing signage like there is in Frankfurt. No epic walk as in Munich. The new Berlin airport, named Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt (or BER) will be clean, sober and sensible. It will not overwhelm travellers with futuristic innovation or pretentious design. Instead, it will be pragmatic and viable in a very German-engineering way. There will also be lots of wood.

“It’s critical that passengers immediately ‘get’ the logic behind an airport’s infrastructure,” Angermann explains. That’s why at BER the whole layout is symmetric. To simplify things, navigation architects GMP – the same company that designed Tegel Airport – started with a clean slate for signage. The goal was to have as little as possible.

To keep things running smoothly even the good old split-flap arrivals/departures display had to go. “It’s romantic but it’s not state of the art anymore,” says Angermann. Instead passengers at BER can look up their flight information only on monitors – and on their smartphones. Berlin-based digital agency Pixelpark is providing a system called Airport 3.0. It will bring location-based real-time flight information to passengers’ phone screens.

Another feature of the new airport is that it will house all carriers in the same building. After checking-in luggage in the entrance hall and passing security, there’s only a – admittedly huge – shopping area to cross before passengers arrive in front of a row of 16 gates located at the back of the building (there are an additional nine boarding bridges in the South Pier and 12 walk-boarding positions for low-cost carriers in the North Pier). No zigzagging or following endless corridors.

BER boasts an underground railway station (none of the existing Berlin airports had one) and its own motorway exit – 60 per cent of travellers are expected to arrive by car.

Fifty per cent of BER’s turnover will come from what the industry calls non-aviation business: shopping and food. The building boasts branches of upmarket restaurants such as Borchardt and Lutter & Wegner, as well as regional food specialities such as Spreewald gherkins and currywurst sausages, so travellers can sample some typical Berlin goodies even when in transit.

Construction of BER started back in 2006 and it’s about time the German capital finally got a proper airport. Due to the city’s Cold War history of being divided into a western and an eastern part, until now there were only two smaller ones: Tegel in the west and Schönefeld in the east (a third airport, inner-city Tempelhof closed in 2008). At the same time, passenger numbers have been rising steadily: in 2011 more than 24 million boarded in Berlin – 7.7 per cent more than in the year before. Berlin’s air travel is growing faster than any other German airport.

All this despite the fact that there are currently only 11 non-stop long-haul connections from the capital (most German international air traffic flies via Frankfurt and Munich). Lufthansa has, however, announced that it will increase routes out of Berlin from eight to 38 but German legislation doesn’t always make it easy: Emirates, for example, has long been lobbying for landing-rights for Berlin but it would have to drop one of its existing German destinations in order to do so.

Most hopes rest on local quality low-cost carrier Air Berlin. It will make BER its hub, offering more international non-stop destinations and dropping other routes in favour of the capital. The only problem – economically Air Berlin is not in good shape. In spite of a record 35 million passengers in 2011, the company lost money for the fourth consecutive year. Late last year Etihad acquired 29 per cent of Air Berlin stock, lifting at least some of the airline’s financial burden and adding Abu Dhabi as a new hub to Air Berlin’s connections. At the same time, the airline became part of the Oneworld alliance, bringing, among others, Qantas to Berlin.

Still, the airport’s PR department shies away from too much bravado. Instead it modestly points out the airport’s central location in the middle of Europe and announces a focus on inner-European connections, especially to the east. Flight times to eastern Europe and Asia are one hour shorter than London, Paris or Frankfurt.

The new airport has a starting capacity of 27 million passengers a year. But it can easily be extended to deal with up to 45 million passengers: the building licence for a second terminal has already been authorised – something no other central European airport can claim. On the evening of 2 June Berlin Tegel and Schönefeld will close their gates forever. Overnight all mobile equipment and machines will be hauled to the new airport where on the morning of 3 June the first plane will take off.


Prof Dr Rainer Schwarz, CEO of Berlin Brandenburg Airport

Why does Berlin need a new airport?

Before the Berlin Wall came down only allied airlines could fly to West Berlin. Even our national carrier Lufthansa was not allowed in. Airports also mirrored the historical situation: Tempelhof, the airport of the Berlin airlift, and Schönefeld, the former airport of the capital of the GDR. And in the ’70s an- other airport was built, Tegel, that had only one function: to allow West Berliners access to West Germany as easily as possible. These structures don’t make sense anymore.

What are your expectations in terms of business?

For the first time Berlin is able to enter the long-haul market, which of course needs feeder-traffic in one airport, ideally in one terminal – which is exactly what we will offer. For the entire region this will mean a real economic stimulus.

Isn’t all this long overdue?

You have to consider that in 2005 Berlin had no long-haul connections at all. This is taking much too long. But in German terms it’s not so long. Munich needed more than 30 years to complete its airport in 1992. This is the sad state of German planning law.