A look inside Berlin’s new BER airport, 5 weeks before its scheduled opening

After a near decade-long delay and billions in cost overruns, the Berlin Brandenburg Airport is scheduled to open on Oct. 31. KCRW Berlin's Sylvia Cunningham took part in a test run at the site to see if it's ready.

Photos by Sylvia Cunningham

 

 

With just about five weeks to go until the scheduled opening of Berlin’s new airport, the question on many minds is: Will it actually happen this time?

To help answer that question, I took part in a test run last week at the Brandenburg site of BER airport. My fellow volunteers and I wanted to see what the much-beleaguered project looked like inside.

With billions in cost overruns since its first of many scheduled openings nearly a decade ago, we were also curious if the airport finally appeared ready for its big debut on Oct. 31.

Burkhard Glase, a Berliner I spoke with at the test run, said he thinks it will be.

“I believe that they can do it,” Glase said. “Besides, they can’t afford the humiliation again.”

He told me he also took part in a test at the airport site about eight years ago. He said he’s pleasantly surprised at how far it’s come along.

“Although there’s certainly a lot left to do,” Glase added.

I agreed, given much of the terminal was still under construction.

I hadn’t been to any airport since before the pandemic, and I noticed a few things about air travel had changed. Not only were we given custom BER masks upon entry, there were also regular announcements about the current health situation, and we were encouraged to wash our hands frequently or use hand sanitizer.

The whole test experience was surreal. We were given “tickets” to fly domestically and internationally — in my case, Munich and Doha.

I grabbed a small lime green suitcase from the baggage carousel while other “passengers” were instructed to grab larger items, like sports equipment, a guitar, a stroller with a doll, or a crate to hold a fake pet.

I headed up an escalator to check in at Terminal 1, taking a moment to gaze up at the huge art installation suspended overhead. Made out of metal and mesh, it’s called “The Magic Carpet.” It was started by California artist Pae White nearly a decade ago before one of the many scheduled airport openings.

Checking in for my flight ran so smoothly that I was almost convinced that I’d actually be flying somewhere that day. That is, until I got through security and was surprised by the scene that greeted me on the other side: fenced-off construction and scaffolding.

Another volunteer, Ralph Grossmann, had a similar reaction. He said he never thought there’d still be construction at this stage.

“I thought it would be done,” Grossmann said.

That day I boarded two “flights.” Well, actually, they were buses. Though we couldn’t get an aerial view of the airport, my “bus pilot” did drive us around the grounds for about half an hour, allowing us to get the lay of the land.

He pointed out the existing Schönefeld Airport, which will become Terminal 5 of the new BER, along with police headquarters and a repair shop for planes, among other sites.

My “flight” on wheels was about half full, so we could spread out — which with the pandemic never far from mind, put me at ease.

Still, as I surveyed the grounded airplanes, I couldn’t help but think about how many travelers would actually be here when it’s officially operational.

With travel restrictions still in place, the threat of rising COVID-19 cases and passenger numbers at Berlin’s existing airports a mere fraction of what they were last year … the timing of this cursed grand opening is bittersweet.

The airport may be ready to open, but in 2020, do we even need it?

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