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Berlin delay: the long-running tale of BER airport's stalled opening date still awaits a happy ending, reports Andreas Spaeth.

Potentially the biggest embarrassment in Germany's civil aviation history continues without an end in sight. There is still no reliable timeline for the new Berlin Brandenburg Willy Brandt Airport (BER), south of the German capital, to open to air traffic.

Originally set to open its gates on October 30, 2011, three later opening dates have been set, which all came and went without anything happening. There has been no notable building activity at the airport site for about 12 months.

"I don't understand why either," was the response from Hartmut Mehdorn in a recent German media interview. He has stated that he will present a new opening date for BER by September, most likely for 2014. But nonetheless, he hopes to start small-scale operations this year and has already applied for the southern runway to be opened this autumn.

Mr Mehdorn became CEO of BER's operator, Flughafen Berlin Brandenburg (FBB), in March, with politicians hoping his tough, no-nonsense approach would somehow solve remaining issues and finally see the airport opened.

At 70 years old, Mr Mehdorn is a well-known public figure in Germany, having previously headed the national railway Deutsche Bahn for a decade, which caused many to view him as one of the most controversial managers in the country. Re then served a little over a year as CEO of airberlin, in which period FBB was taken to court over the opening delays. Mr Mehdorn has since switched sides to take up his new CEO position and the court case is now 'resting'. It remains unclear who leads the project, forecast to cost an estimated [euro]4.3bn (US$5.7bn) now--[euro]1.2bn (US$1.6bn) more than originally planned.

Last year an expert from Frankfurt airport, Horst Amann, was brought to Berlin as Technical Director for BER. He prefers an analytical 'slow-go' approach to find every detail that has gone wrong in building the facility, while Mr Mehdorn tries to speed things up by promoting unconventional approaches.

Mr Mehdorn is entertaining two major proposals: open BER in phases, starting with a soft opening this autumn and leave the old Tegel airport--which handles most of Berlin's scheduled air traffic--open for the time being or even indefinitely. The latter appears impossible though: the authorities agreed when BER was built that the capital's other airports, including Tegel, must close to justify the new hub's capacity needs and minimise pollution. Berlin's Mayor Klaus Wowereit wants to strictly adhere to this, but many local passengers have expressed sympathy for their old city airport. Flag carrier Lufthansa even distributed bags imprinted with the slogan 'I love TXL' at the world's biggest travel fair ITB, in March.

"There is no capital in the world that has only two runways, but that will be the case if all traffic is handled via BER," Mr Mehdorn said in the interview. "We need a third runway as an emergency reserve," he demanded, but conceded that politicians had the final say. Contrary to earlier statements by BER's operator, Mr Mehdorn says the fire-suppression system is not the main culprit for the delayed opening. He also dismissed reports that airport employees do not know how to operate the lighting system, saying: "Of course we know how to switch it off and on." However, industry claims that the cost of maintaining the new facility even without traffic, will be higher than operating Tegel airport, are not disputed. Mr Mehdorn makes it clear there are a "handful" of issues that have to be eliminated before opening. One of the main problems he identifies is the LAN data link, consisting of 115 individual systems running through the airport to enable communications, which does not function as required.

The southern runway at BER was briefly open during the Berlin Air Show ILA in September 2012. "We are thinking about starting a test run of Pier Nord at year's end," Mr Mehdorn said in the interview, referring to the low-cost carrier section of the terminal, mainly intended for use by UK airline easyJet. "[It may be possible] with two small airlines, 1,500 passengers, and six or eight aircraft per day. That's how we can test if the baggage handling, security checks and fire brigade is functioning." airberlin has already stated it would never want to split operations between Tegel and BER, and the German airline lobby BDL has expressed scepticism. However, easyJet, which is already operating a main base at the old Schonefeld airport, would be a likely partner.

"There will still be a major date for moving," assures Mr Mehdorn. "A partial opening is the most normal thing in the world. I personally don't believe it will be possible to put Tegel and Schonefeld out of service in one day, and then to start BER from zero to one hundred in one second--that would cause me stomach ache."

It remains unclear, especially with the ongoing delays, if BER can ever succeed in its stated goal to become a genuine hub airport. Local carrier airberlin is increasingly orientating itself towards the hub of Abu Dhabi, home of its partner Etihad Airways, where it now feeds passengers onto onward services to Asia and Australia. But that does not appear to deter Mr Mehdorn: "We will be a hub airport for Northern, Eastern and Southern Europe; we want connections to Asia and America." He declares tongue-in-cheek: "At least we have an attractive capital, that's something Frankfurt airport doesn't have."

Yet, even Mr Mehdorn admits that a business model is needed. One central question at BER is over the night curfew, to begin at 22:00 or 23:00. "We are in competition and have to offer our airline customers attractive take off and landing slots," demands the airport director. "If a jet can't land here at 22:15, it will be going elsewhere. The result is that Berlin will be a regional airport, to the disadvantage of Berliners," he warns.
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Title Annotation:BERLIN
Author:Spaeth, Andreas
Publication:Airports International
Date:Jul 1, 2013
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