For two decades unification has encompassed Germany, except for Berlin’s airports, which have kept their Cold War-era organisation. Serving the former West Berlin, and more recently full-service carriers, is Tegel while former East Berlin’s airport, and home more recently to low-cost carriers, is Schönefeld.
That will change on the night of 2 June when Tegel shuts and equipment moves across town to Schönefeld, which will be re-branded as Berlin Brandenburg. Schönefeld’s equipment will move across the airfield to the new Brandenburg site, where LCCs will co-exist with full-service carriers. At a time when cities from Tokyo to Houston have or are considering the alternative airport approach pioneered by Europe, and greenfield sites in Europe sit unused, Berlin’s move is a test of the status quo and an inquisition into what passengers really want from an airport experience. Berlin reckons it has the formula.
EasyJet and Ryanair will pay more to use the new airport, but considering the latter’s CEO, Michael O’Leary, has not been his caustic self about the plan or filed a lawsuit, the two carriers see the same potential as full-service airlines: ample room for growth and opportunity to grow transfer traffic because of having a single airport.
Berlin Brandenburg comes as airberlin shifts to a hybrid model to attract business passengers and their higher yields; last month it joined the oneworld alliance. The city of Berlin is also trying to woo companies to the capital instead of establishing themselves in cities like Frankfurt or Munich.
But LCCs are not forgotten. They will be catered for with simplistic gate lounges and tarmac boarding, as well as the synergies enjoyed by all carriers for being in a more simple single-roof facility with a common security checkpoint and shops, avoiding duplication. But this simplicity has not been gained at the expense of the passenger experience, which was one of the first things spokesman Oliver Aust asked a group of visitors last month on a tour: “Do you understand the airport?”
Anywhere else, the question would have been a punch line: we were dressed in hardhats, boots and safety vests, occupying a space with temporary flooring, wires suspended from the ceiling and construction equipment everywhere. But Berlin Brandenburg did make sense.
We were standing in the centre of the check-in area, directly in front of escalators bringing passengers from the platform where dedicated trains will run to the city centre. Unlike at other airports – even modern ones – ground transportation is centrally integrated with no long walks or twisting around corridors. Immediately upon reaching the top of the departure area are screens listing flights and check-in counters – no fumbling for where to go.
Although the check-in counters – housed in 10 mini buildings, or “islands” – were draped in protective transparent plastic, they made the area extremely relaxing with their deep wood paneling. If Berlin Brandenburg can make a construction site calming, an airport should be no sweat.
We walked through the spacious security area, opening with 30 channels, to the central market area that will be home to 150 “retail and gastronomy units”, from low-end to high-end, available to all passengers and not discriminating against LCC passengers with only cheap options.
The inverted U-shaped terminal has been planned around Berlin’s anchor airlines: airberlin and Lufthansa. The former and its oneworld partners will occupy the left (southern) pier while Lufthansa and Star Alliance as well as SkyTeam carriers will occupy the right (northern) pier. Walking along the airberlin pier, the gate area maintained its calming wooden paneling and signs in burgundy, not the look-at-me! yellow that has plagued other airports.
For those with lounge access, Berlin Brandenburg will have three: one for airberlin, Lufthansa and smaller carriers. airberlin’s lounge occupied the corner with floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the tarmac. In the distance were airberlin and Lufthansa’s hangars. Although airberlin is smaller nationally but bigger in Berlin, it has the bigger hangar. “Take it symbolic if you think,” Aust said.
In between the main terminal and hangars is space for two satellite terminals. Berlin’s current airports annually cater to 24 million passengers and Berlin Brandenburg is being built to handle 27 million. Constructing the two satellite terminals will bring capacity to 45 million. Parallel runways are already in place.
The closure of Temphelholf in 2008 angered many, but as Berlin’s straight-talking mayor quipped, people should have used it more. (He followed-up by saying he did not want to see anyone who complained about Berlin Brandenburg check-in there.)
Temphelholf has been converted into a mix-use space while Tegel’s post-aviation life has not been determined. In an ironic twist, the current Schönefeld site will be converted to handle government and VIP flights; the facility once serving the centre of communism will welcome leaders of the free world.
While some Berliners will miss the convenience of Tegel, just outside the city centre, they will receive a dedicated train line running to the main railway station, the Hauptbahnhof, in 30 minutes. There will also be a better noise footprint.
“For every one person around Schönefeld /Brandenburg that will get more noise from expanded operations, five people in the city get less noise,” Aust said.
With typical German efficiency, luggage belts have been tested and the control tower opened two months in advance to ensure a smooth transition (and avoid a Heathrow T5 mess). But one area the airport will have no control over is its own name. Officially it is Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt, named after the Nobel Peace Laureate and former chancellor.
New York JFK and Paris CDG are commonly known by their full names whereas Rome Fiumicino Leonardo da Vinci, amongst others, is not. Yet the airport’s as-yet unknown colloquial name is fitting: in such a passenger-focused airport, it is the passengers who will decide.