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Berlin’s new airport – still waiting for take-off

Leaders of the German capital have been talking about building a flashy new international airport since the 1990 reunification — and jaw-jaw is where things remain 14 years later with not a square metre of concrete poured.

Failure to start the airport — dubbed Berlin-Brandenburg International — has gone from being an embarrassment to an economic drag on the region which has a jobless rate of almost 20 percent.

Germany may be the world’s third biggest economic power but there is not a single flight from Berlin to anywhere in the United States nor any flights to Tokyo.

Even flights within Europe are limited, and travellers from Berlin are used to changing planes at Germany’s major airports, Frankfurt and Munich.

The Berlin airport saga is a tale of missed opportunities with the latest twist being a cryptic statement by German Transport Minister Manfred Stolpe seemingly marking the end of hopes for a world-class facility.

Stolpe, in a recent speech to business leaders, declined to talk about a major hub and instead spoke only of "a reconstruction based on needs" with further development options.

The idea of a reconstruction is apparently aimed at the former East Berlin airport Schoenefeld, where Berlin-Brandenburg International (BBI) is supposed to be built.

Schoenefeld is currently the size of regional airport in the American Midwest and somewhat shabby. Berlin’s other two airports are Tegel in former West Berlin, which most airlines use, and tiny Tempelhof just south of the city centre.

Despite growing uncertainty over BBI’s fate, Berlin’s leftist city government still wants to close Tempelhof as agreed in the mid-1990s. Tegel is to be closed later.

Economics Senator Harald Wolf, a member of the former East German communists which rules the city with the Social Democrats, demands closure of Tempelhof by the end of the year.

The 13 airlines using the airport are battling the move and one of them, Deutsche BA, even offered to lease the entire airport and pay the EUR 15.4 million losses it runs up annually.

But Berlin officials dismissed the offer due to what opposition conservatives term an "ideological aviation policy" and "ignorance". Cities like London have recently built downtown airports similar to the one Berlin plans to shut, they note.

Wolf counters that leaving Tempelhof open would drain revenue from a future international airport and destroy its viability.

A major hurdle for building the new mega-airport is money.

Attempts to privatise the BBI airport collapsed two years ago amid blunders including alleged bidding irregularities which ended with the two rival companies, Hochtief and IVG, joining forces and making a single take-it-or-leave-it offer.

Berlin officials rejected the tender and insisted they would instead build the airport with public funds. This drew amazement given that the city is in effect bankrupt with over EUR 50 billion of debt. Recently there has been talk of a new privatization attempt.

Meanwhile, airlines operating out of Schoenefeld are getting impatient as they wait for improvements on the airport which is widely seen as the last choice among Berlin travellers.

"It would be in the interest of German Wings if Berlin-Schoenefeld is swiftly made into an international hub airport," said Joachim Schoettes, chief spokesman of the no-frills airline German Wings.

But Berlin does not even have a building permit for the new mega-airport at Schoenefeld.

The planning process under Germany’s notorious bureaucracy has been running since 1999 with Transport Minister Stolpe saying a decision is expected by the end of this year.

Plans to open the new airport in 2007 have been ditched and the new target is 2010.

The trouble is that as Berlin has wasted the past decade arguing about a new airport, other major German cities have been building world-class facilities.

Munich just opened its hyper-modern Terminal 2 and a rebuilt Duesseldorf is also attracting more international flights.

Closer to Berlin the city of Leipzig, which has proven nimble at winning investment, has expanded its airport which is only 140 kilometres south of the capital. Leipzig’s airport will soon be connected via high-speed train with Berlin and, unlike BBI, Leipzig allows 24-hour take-offs and landings.

There was more bad news for Berlin earlier this week with the announcement that an American company, Erie Aviation Inc, plans to invest USD 35 million to transform a former East German military airbase 180 kilometres southeast of Berlin into an air-freight centre.

The Drewitz airfield, in the middle of the huge pine forest near the Polish border, will have its runway extended so that 747s from North America can land.

It will be ironic indeed for this remote region to have regular flights from the US while Berlin lacks a transatlantic connection.

March 2004