REVEALED: The real story behind Berlin (BER) airport’s nine-year delay

Technical problems and disorganisation are commonly cited reasons why the Berlin Brandenburg (BER) airport didn't open as planned nine years ago. But the story goes a little deeper than that.

REVEALED: The real story behind Berlin (BER) airport's nine-year delay
From left to right, Von Gerkan, former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit and former Brandenburg state premier Matthias Platzeck (SPD) at a ceremony for the BER project on June 9th, 2011. Photo: DPA

If you live in Berlin, you are sure to know Meinhard von Gerkan’s work. The flamboyant architect was in his 30s when he designed Tegel Airport, whose departure halls are still beloved for their convenience. He’s also built the new Hauptbahnhof and renovated the Olympic Stadium.

But there is another project that he surely would rather forget: Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER).

READ ALSO: What you need to know about Berlin's 'cursed' new BER airport

Back in the 1990s the reinstated capital decided it needed a modern airport befitting its status. Its three Cold War airports were too small, too central, too old fashioned.

Von Gerkan’s drawings for the new build were elegant. A single glass terminal would be covered by a flat roof spanning from parking bay to piers “in one gesture.” Suspended on columns, the roof was a homage to Mies van de Rohe’s “schwebende Dach” at the Neue Nationalgalerie.

Meinhard in front of Berlin's Hauptbahnhof. Photo: DPA

What a roof it was to be. Clean and pristine. Free from clutter like chimneys or air vents.

Achieving this goal wasn’t without complications, though. Fire safety, for instance. The price to be paid was a complex and costly smoke extraction system, which would suck smoke below the building via pipes controlled by a system of thousands of automatic flaps.

While the system was functional in theory, no one knew if it would work in practice.

But what’s money in the face of beauty?

“Simple truth doesn’t get you anywhere in my profession,” von Gerkan told Der Spiegel in 2013. “The Opera house in Sydney would have never been built if people had known all along what it would cost. One has to fake the numbers.”

For a city as broke as Berlin at the turn of the century, “faking the numbers” meant presenting a plan for a smaller, more humble building than that which would eventually emerge.

As one opposition politician observed, “the ink was barely dry on the planning certificate before a wave of changes were implemented.”

A whole new floor was added to increase capacity. Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, insisted on a docking bay for the Airbus A380, even though German’s third largest airport wasn’t supposed to host the doubledecker.

READ ALSO: Berlin Brandenburg (BER) airport to finally open after nine-year delay

When building started in 2006, Mayor Wowereit declared it his “prestige project” and announced an opening date in November 2011 – coincidentally in the same year that he would be up for re-election.

Even before construction started, problems had arisen. The city gave up on its original idea to hand over the building site to a single construction company after all of the bids were suspiciously similar in size.

Wowereit and his colleague in Brandenburg, Matthias Platzeck, decided to oversee the project themselves. With the two SPD men at the helm, Berlin’s Mittelstand would benefit, they promised. Dozens of different contracts were handed out, with each company having responsibility for a different aspect of the build. How hard could it be?

The new BER right before its opening on Thursday. Photo: DPA

Well, quite hard actually.

In 2010, when one of the major contractors went bust, Berlin’s mayor had little choice but to push back the opening by seven months. The new deadline in June 2012 had to be met – the mayor wouldn’t tolerate anything less.

But when tests were finally conducted on the fire system at the end of December 2011, it failed. The automatic flaps didn’t open and close as they were supposed to. As predicted, the extraction fans exerted too much pressure, causing pipes to implode.

There was no chance of the system gaining approval from the TÜV, the German safety regulator, in time. So the airport management came up with a Plan B, which they called a “man-machine interface.”

According to the plan, work would continue on the fully automatic system after the opening day. In the interim, humans would respond to fires by manually opening and closing the labrynth of flaps.

The proposal was “an act of desperation,” one engineer later admitted.

When the district of Dahme-Spreewald, where the airport is situated, refused to give its approval, Wowereit conceded that the game was up. Just two weeks before opening, with tickets sold and the champagne practically on ice, the airport announced another delay, this time until 2013.

Eight years and several missed deadlines later, the airport will finally open next Saturday.

What happened to that beautiful roof? Well you can see for yourself when the airport opens on Saturday.

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EXPLAINED: Berlin’s latest Covid rules

In response to rapidly rising Covid-19 infection rates, the Berlin Senate has introduced stricter rules, which came into force on Saturday, November 27th. Here's what you need to know.

A sign in front of a waxing studio in Berlin indicates the rule of the 2G system
A sign in front of a waxing studio indicates the rule of the 2G system with access only for fully vaccinated people and those who can show proof of recovery from Covid-19 as restrictions tighten in Berlin. STEFANIE LOOS / AFP

The Senate agreed on the tougher restrictions on Tuesday, November 23rd with the goal of reducing contacts and mobility, according to State Secretary of Health Martin Matz (SPD).

He explained after the meeting that these measures should slow the increase in Covid-19 infection rates, which was important as “the situation had, unfortunately, deteriorated over the past weeks”, according to media reports.

READ ALSO: Tougher Covid measures needed to stop 100,000 more deaths, warns top German virologist

Essentially, the new rules exclude from much of public life anyone who cannot show proof of vaccination or recovery from Covid-19. You’ll find more details of how different sectors are affected below.

If you haven’t been vaccinated or recovered (2G – geimpft (vaccinated) or genesen (recovered)) from Covid-19, then you can only go into shops for essential supplies, i.e. food shopping in supermarkets or to drugstores and pharmacies.

Many – but not all – of the rules for shopping are the same as those passed in the neighbouring state of Brandenburg in order to avoid promoting ‘shopping tourism’ with different restrictions in different states.

2G applies here, too, as well as the requirement to wear a mask with most places now no longer accepting a negative test for entry. Only minors are exempt from this requirement.

Sport, culture, clubs
Indoor sports halls will off-limits to anyone who hasn’t  been vaccinated or can’t show proof of recovery from Covid-19. 2G is also in force for cultural events, such as plays and concerts, where there’s also a requirement to wear a mask. 

In places where mask-wearing isn’t possible, such as dance clubs, then a negative test and social distancing are required (capacity is capped at 50 percent of the maximum).

Restaurants, bars, pubs (indoors)
You have to wear a mask in all of these places when you come in, leave or move around. You can only take your mask off while you’re sat down. 2G rules also apply here.

Hotels and other types of accommodation 
Restrictions are tougher here, too, with 2G now in force. This means that unvaccinated people can no longer get a room, even if they have a negative test.

For close-contact services, such as hairdressers and beauticians, it’s up to the service providers themselves to decide whether they require customers to wear masks or a negative test.

Football matches and other large-scale events
Rules have changed here, too. From December 1st, capacity will be limited to 5,000 people plus 50 percent of the total potential stadium or arena capacity. And only those who’ve been vaccinated or have recovered from Covid-19 will be allowed in. Masks are also compulsory.

For the Olympic Stadium, this means capacity will be capped at 42,000 spectators and 16,000 for the Alte Försterei stadium. 

3G rules – ie vaccinated, recovered or a negative test – still apply on the U-Bahn, S-Bahn, trams and buses in Berlin. It was not possible to tighten restrictions, Matz said, as the regulations were issued at national level.

According to the German Act on the Prevention and Control of Infectious Diseases, people have to wear a surgical mask or an FFP2 mask  on public transport.

Christmas markets
The Senate currently has no plans to cancel the capital’s Christmas markets, some of which have been open since Monday. 

According to Matz, 2G rules apply and wearing a mask is compulsory.

Schools and day-care
Pupils will still have to take Covid tests three times a week and, in classes where there are at least two children who test positive in the rapid antigen tests, then tests should be carried out daily for a week.  

Unlike in Brandenburg, there are currently no plans to move away from face-to-face teaching. The child-friendly ‘lollipop’ Covid tests will be made compulsory in day-care centres and parents will be required to confirm that the tests have been carried out. Day-care staff have to document the results.

What about vaccination centres?
Berlin wants to expand these and set up new ones, according to Matz. A new vaccination centre should open in the Ring centre at the end of the week and 50 soldiers from the German army have been helping at the vaccination centre at the Exhibition Centre each day since last week.

The capacity in the new vaccination centre in the Lindencenter in Lichtenberg is expected to be doubled. There are also additional vaccination appointments so that people can get their jabs more quickly. Currently, all appointments are fully booked well into the new year.