Up in the Air

BERLIN – It’s the city’s biggest construction project since the Berlin Wall. But 20 years after it was first conceived and almost $4 billion dollars later, Berlin’s new airport is a hulking empty terminal with no planes and no passengers.

Last May, less than a month before Willy Brandt International Airport was supposed to go into operation, the opening was called off, ostensibly because of fire-safety violations. The inauguration was pushed back to March, and then to October of next year. Now that date is being called into question.

Even if it is completed on time, the complex may not have enough check-in counters or baggage carousels to meet demand. The cost overruns – about $1.5 billion – will be borne by German taxpayers, as the airport is jointly owned by the federal government, Berlin and the neighboring state of Brandenburg.

Air Berlin, the upstart charter airline that has grown into Germany’s second-biggest carrier, is demanding compensation for the delay. In anticipation of the new hub, the airline had added destinations like Los Angeles to its routes, but it has been forced to continue using its warehouse-like terminal at Tegel, the airport built during the Berlin Airlift. Its planes need to take costly detours on the approach into Tegel, the airline claims.

The new airport, which was supposed to be the city’s gateway to the world, has turned into a symbol of its provincialism.

Because of Berlin’s occupied status during the Cold War, only airlines belonging to the four Allied powers – the United States, Britain, France and the Soviet Union – were allowed to fly into the city. West Berlin’s Tegel was a dead-end destination, compared with the busy hubs in Frankfurt, Munich and Düsseldorf. East Berlin’s Schönefeld airport, a Soviet-style box, served the Socialist camp. Fifteen years ago, Berlin had only two regular intercontinental flights: to Havana and Ulan Bator.

Today, Berlin is struggling to regain its position as a weltstadt, or world city. Residents grumble about rising rents, traffic and crime – even though these indicators are all modest compared with other major cities. Last year, the city’s population surpassed 3.5 million, growing faster than expected but still less than in the 1920s.

Berlin’s small-town convenience is part of what has made it so attractive. But in contrast to the city’s world-class cultural institutions, cutting-edge art scene and vibrant nightlife, the shabby terminals at Tegel and Schönefeld make for an incongruous welcome.

Most Berliners have resigned themselves to waiting for the new airport. Yet some locals, like the residents of the rural communities along future flight paths, cheer every delay. As activists petition the Brandenburg government for stricter limitations on night flights, they seem to be alone in their confidence that Berlin possesses the organizational skills to complete the project.

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