Berliners Fly From Metal Shed While Waiting for Airport

Baptiste Grange, a Frenchman who’s lived in Berlin for the last decade, can’t believe Germany’s largest city is still served by two antiquated airports.

“They look temporary and lack the services and amenities that you have in hubs like Amsterdam’s Schiphol or Heathrow in London,” Grange, a music industry executive, said as he prepared to board an Air France flight to Paris from Tegel airport in the west. “It’s a shame for a city that sees itself as an international capital not to have a world-class airport.”

In the 25 years since the Wall fell, Berlin has reclaimed its spot as the nation’s capital and top tourist attraction, passing Rome as the third-most-visited destination in Europe. What the city of 3.5 million hasn’t managed to do is finish an airport to serve those masses. The new facility is years behind schedule, with no opening date in sight.

The delayed airport is the biggest unresolved challenge for a city that had to stitch itself back together following reunification. After Berliners finished chiseling away the concrete border, they awoke to a city with three airports, two main train stations and subway stops that hadn’t been used for decades -- not to mention three opera houses and two zoos.

Berlin has remade much of its transport network by reestablishing old connections that existed before World War II and building a new main train station, with the old competing locations in the east and west turned into regional hubs. Yet the area around the new station, opened in 2006, lacks restaurants and other services, and the subway and tram lines linking the station to the east are not yet complete.

Military Parades

Some of the scars from the division are still noticeably visible today. The western half lacks East Berlin’s trams and the grand boulevards that were built in part to accommodate military parades with Soviet tanks. Much of the city’s new transport infrastructure was constructed in empty lots in former border areas dubbed “death strips.” In the case of the two zoos, Zoologischer Garten in the west purchased the east’s animal park in 1994 and both are still in operation.

“It was a huge opportunity and the same time a huge challenge to unite these two cities,” said Klaus Wowereit, Berlin’s outgoing mayor who governed for the past 13 years. “We have had population growth of about 40,000 people a year for the past three years and there’s no end in sight. That’s an enormous challenge for the city, also for the infrastructure.”

Transport Innovator

Berlin has historically been a transport innovator. In 1881, Siemens AG founder Werner von Siemens opened the world’s first electric tramline in the city, eventually replacing horse-drawn carriages. Siemens also put up Berlin’s first traffic light in 1924 at Potsdamer Platz, then Europe’s busiest square, which was crossed by dozens of trains, 26 street-car lines and tens of thousands of cars. The area was reconstructed from scratch following reunification.

Berlin hasn’t been nearly as successful with building the new airport, which has been under construction for eight years. The city in 2008 closed Tempelhof, the iconic location used by Allied planes to help West Berliners survive a Soviet blockade. The plan was to do the same with Tegel and Schoenefeld in the east after the new airport started operations in June 2012. A month before that, the opening was canceled because of construction faults.

The city has yet to give a new opening date for the airport, which is over budget and may already be too small. Costs have increased mainly because the facility will need to be bigger than originally planned, said Lars Wagner, a transport authority spokesman.

Limited Connections

Passengers at Tegel and Schoenefeld increased 6.2 percent through September to about 21 million. They’re expecting about 27 million visitors for the full year -- the current capacity of the new airport. Wowereit told reporters last week that he expects the number of travelers to grow.

Air France-KLM Group, Air Berlin Plc, Lufthansa AG and other airlines had planned to expand routes from Berlin and possibly add more long-haul connections to regions outside Europe. Instead, the city still has only a handful of flights to the US and Asia, in part because the current hubs are unable to accommodate large jets like the Airbus A380 Superjumbo.

That’s also left Berlin travelers with Tegel, a hexagon-shaped building in the west opened in 1974 with 14 jetways, and Schoenefeld, originally built to serve East Berliners. Tegel’s makeshift additions include secondary terminals that are a converted parking ramp and a metal building that doesn’t have any jetways. The facility also doesn’t have any rail connections to the city.

Train Links

“The region needs this new airport, and soon,” Wagner said in a phone interview. “Everyone who goes out there and sees the infrastructure knows that this airport will open.”

The new facility is connected to the Autobahn and has an underground train station with six tracks, including a high-speed train link, which promises a fast connection to the center of Berlin and other cities in the region. That’s provided it opens, which some are skeptical about.

“Let’s see if it ever happens,” said Grange, who is a frequent traveler. “So much for German efficiency. Even southern European countries don’t go through such embarrassments.”

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