Thursday, September 23, 2021

BER: A dinosaur is born

By Lorenz Maroldt

I still have my paper invitation to the BER opening gala scheduled for spring 2012. “Don’t forget!” it reads, front and center, in striking red letters with an exclamation mark. And also, just in case the message wasn’t clear enough: “Berlin Brandenburg Airport is opening soon.” Don’t forget! Soon! And, of course, BER was going to be “the most modern airport in Europe,” indeed, “a cathedral of air traffic” – in atheist Berlin, no less. The cancellation letter arrived ten days before the planned wingding, and was signed: “With friendly ….” I guess they’d already run out of time for any actual “greetings.”

More as a gag, I began to count and then tweet out the days that had passed since the non-opening. Never would I have thought that the number would surpass 3,000. This probably makes me the only Berliner who’s worked so continually and reliably on the completion of BER over the years.

How does one go about not completing an airport on time?

Well, it starts with hiring a chief engineer who isn’t in fact an engineer. The man behind the never-operational fire protection system was a mere architectural draftsman. The management team had mixed him up with someone else and he didn’t want to make a fuss.

But mishaps like these are understandable. After all, the management team simply didn’t have the time to worry about such trifles as building an airport. One former boss placed high priority on continuing his guest professorship at a technical university during the hottest phase of the project; the topic of the seminar was “airport management.” Also in the middle of this phase, the chief of technology pressed on with writing his doctoral thesis, under the title: “Optimization approaches for the process-oriented implementation of complex building measures using new information and communications systems.” After finishing, he was never heard from again.

At any rate, the non-opening of BER was welcomed energetically by some as a new chapter in the very unique folklore of Berlin: “What are you waiting for? A job at BER? You’re better off landing with us,” ran an ad for new staff at Lidl supermarket chain. Mitteldeutsche Airport Holding, the company that runs airports in Leipzig, Halle and Dresden, scoffed: “Better a 2-hour drive than a 13-year wait.” And even publications by the Berlin airport company are captioned with: “Be the first!”

We Berliners are best at laughing at ourselves. In November 2017, Berlin’s official airport chaplain wrote the following in BER aktuell, a regional airport magazine: “Seconds elapse, then minutes, then hours. One day expires and a new day begins. […] For 2,000 years we Christians have awaited the return of Jesus Christ. […] This passing of time has instilled in us more patience.”

For years, BER’s online customer ratings have hovered around 3.9 stars out of 5. User comments are testament to popular approval: “Very little fly-over noise,” “No long lines,” “Climate-neutral.” The only negative comments are those bemoaning the fact that most businesses are closed. But one dental clinic was undeterred in opening up shop: “Wir haben BEReits eröffnet!” – in English: “We’re already open!” – was their ad slogan in the airport magazine, and their particular specialty: “An experienced team offers even anxious patients a very pleasant atmosphere.”

The past eight years have led me to expect the eventual opening of BER to play out as follows: The airport chief stumbles over a wayward cable, causing the cork of the bottle of Dom Perignon he was carrying to fire off and strike a sloppily fastened column in the terminal. The roof then starts to sway and a ceiling tile falls loose from its broken screw anchors and plops down on the celebratory cream cake shaped like a mountain of suitcases. As the testing engineer from the district of Dahme-Spreewald wipes the splattered cake from his eyes, a beaver panics and scrambles through security, setting off a screeching alarm. Then the Schoenefeld Rifle Club marches in and the sprinkler system starts to spray eau de Cologne over the guests while the song “Help!” by the Beatles screams out over the loudspeakers. The airport TV screens start showing a video loop of Mayor Klaus Wowereit at the 2012 press conference claiming “BER is and remains a success story.” A wild horse then gallops out of the airport stables and down the runway in an attempt to take flight, while the airport chaplain mutters a cry of “hosanna” and recites a passage – penned by ex-airport-chief Hartmut Mehdorn – from the Old Testament’s BER-Genesis: “We’re getting readier and readier.” Finally, a rattling belch erupts from out of the fire protection system and pink fumes rise from the ground, engulfing the flight lane in fog.

If you find this to be a gross exaggeration, then you have no idea what’s actually gone down at the construction site over the past several years. And by the way, during the trial period this summer, with hundreds of extras posing as travelers, the power went out.

Lorenz Maroldt
is editor-in-chief of the Berlin daily Der Tagesspiegel.