Berlin’s BBI airport celebrates its new terminal
Berlin - Deutsche Welle

Berlin’s BBI airport celebrates its new terminal

Berlin has been planning a new airport for 20 years. Now at least the terminal structure of Berlin Brandenburg International is complete. But many have raised doubts about the economic wisdom of the project.

Read it in Deutsche Welle

Airport Berlin Brandenburg International “Willy Brandt” – to call it by its proper name – celebrated its long-awaited new terminal construction ceremony on Friday, with a weekend of family festivities planned to follow. The official opening is scheduled for October 30, 2011, an event that has been postponed several times over the past two decades.

Developers boast that BBI could well be the last new airport ever built in Germany. It is certainly a project big enough to merit grand statements. “What we saw today is extremely impressive,” said Brandenburg state premier Matthias Platzeck said on a press tour of the BBI this week. “You don’t need much imagination to recognize what is being built here, and you don’t need much imagination to see that on November 1 next year the flights from Berlin and Brandenburg will start from here.”

Doubling Berlin’s passenger capacity

BBI will open with two runways and a capacity of 25 to 27 million passengers a year. By comparison, Berlin’s two existing airports, Tegel and Schoenefeld, turned over a combined total of 21 million passengers last year. Once BBI is up and running, the construction of so-called ‘expansion modules’ on the outlying airfield could see capacity increase to 45 million by 2035.

The attendant infrastructure is also impressive; a complete railway station has already been built under the u-shaped BBI terminal to serve regional and – eventually – high-speed rail links.

After his guided tour, Platzeck counted off the myriad ways the airport will drive the region’s economic expansion. “I think this airport will fulfill the expectations we have placed in it,” he told reporters. “It will be capable of taking up a growing number of passengers, and it will provide more capacity for the region than Tegel, Tempelhof and Schoenefeld have managed until now as a trio. Economic researchers have said that in the next few years, when the airport is in operation, up to 40,000 jobs are possible in the area, and I’m certain that this will be the case.”

Such projections are, of course, difficult to substantiate, but it is certainly true that BBI is already having an economic effect on the area. Property prices in the southeast of Berlin are steadily climbing as foreign property dealers begin to speculate on the success of the airport.

Costly luxury

But BBI has been expensive enough. In 2007, the invitation to submit tenders for sections of the airport had to be repeated because all submissions were well above the proposed budget of 630 million euros ($813 million). The ceiling for total costs has since been set at 2.83 billion euros.

Despite the money, time and political will invested in the airport, some observers are less enthusiastic about its future. Frank Welskop has been attracting increasing attention for his book “BBI – A New Banking Scandal?” in which he argues that the new airport is a huge financial folly.

In the 1980s and 1990s, Welskop spent seven years in the land development department of the state of Brandenburg and five years as an independent advisor to the Berlin state parliament. He believes these positions have made him a direct witness to the consistent mismanagement that has led to repeated delays.

“BBI was planned much too late, and construction only began in 2006,” he told Deutsche Welle. “It was originally meant for the 2000 Olympics, which Berlin bid for, and BBI was supposed to be linked to the Transrapid rail network – and as the taxpayer knows, all that came to nothing.”

A giant economic mistake

The result is an airport that is simply much too ambitious for its potential economic resources, according to Welskop. “The problem is, this is meant to be a major international airport for long distance flights – A380 superjumbos – as well as a transfer hub and and a major trans-shipment center for cargo flights,” he said. “And these three criteria are simply not true.”

Welskop added that long-distance flights make up less than three percent of Berlin’s passenger numbers – and transfers account for just 1.5 percent. ” Cargo has shrunk to a ridiculously low level – this year it has dropped by another 11 percent,” he said. “You can’t run a huge airport on such a small turnover.”

Another prominent critic is Professor Markus Kerber of the think-tank Europolis. Kerber published a study of the economic circumstances under which BBI is being built. He concluded that the states of Berlin and Brandenburg should have developed the capacity of the old airports rather than investing vast amounts of cash on a speculative boom in Berlin’s tourist industry.

“We live in a period of growing uncertainty about the number of passengers, and we know quite definitely that growth rates are due to low-price carriers like Easyjet and Air Berlin,” he said. “Apart from that, there is no sustainable growth in the traffic attracted by Berlin.”

In the face of growing uncertainty about growth rates, Kerber questions how anyone can justify closing down Schoenefeld, Tegel and Tempelhof to build a new airport that will increase overall capacity by just 2 or 3 million passengers.

Welskop believes Berlin’s local politicians suffered a collective delusion following the fall of the Berlin Wall. Economic projections for the city and the region made in 1990 were outlandish, with an expected boom in population, tourism and trade. So far, only the tourist industry has seen such an expansion, partly because of the number of budget airlines that use Schoenefeld.

But since BBI is almost certain to hike airport fees it charges the airlines, budget airlines could easily be driven away, threatening one of the key sources of Berlin’s tourist boom.

Filed under: Berlin - Deutsche Welle
Tagged with: