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BBI: smart investment or pie in the sky?

They say it will be Germany’s last entirely new airport: as always, Berlin has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. But Berlin Brandenburg International – a.k.a. the “Willy Brandt” – is now only 18 months from completion. Who will end up paying for it?

Plan for BBI Airport, circa February 2010

They say it will be Germany’s last entirely new airport: as always, Berlin has to be dragged kicking and screaming into the future. But Berlin Brandenburg International – a.k.a. the “Willy Brandt” – is now only 18 months from completion. Who will end up paying for it?

You may have wondered why the leastloved of Berlin’s three airports is the one they decided to expand. But if Schönefeld has any admirers who get dewy-eyed over the fake American diner next to the huge easyJet queue or the half-covered 400-metre walkway to the S-Bahn station, they too will have their souls crushed. BBI is not an expansion of Schönefeld: it is located a further two kilometres south, a shiny, airy, glass-and-steel mini-colossus sprawled across the countryside.

There has been some confusion over this, partly because the location is more or less the same – in fact, one of Schönefeld’s runways will be recycled – and partly because Berlin Airports, the company that runs the city’s airport network, often refers to the project as an extension. This is, apparently, a conscious strategy to deflect the qualms of a naturally conservative population: according to Berlin Airports’ spokesman Leif Erichsen, “There are always fears when something new like this is built.”

In fact, BBI’s design recalls Tempelhof more than it does Schönefeld. The building embraces you in a similar way: visitors approaching BBI’s main entrance drive up to the U-shaped building through the middle of the U. The team of architects behind BBI (which includes the man responsible for Tegel) did try to echo some of Berlin’s classic buildings, liberally peppering the place with (according to the PR department) “architectonic elements ranging from Schinkel to Bauhaus”.

Capacity equals cash

But modern mega-airports are not known for their artistic references – no matter how much Schinkel might approve. Passengers pass through them either bored or frantic, and the travel industry measures them according to their passenger capacities: the number of passengers who fly to or from them each year. In other words, how much money they make.

The BBI’s main aim is to increase Berlin’s air passenger capacity. It will initially be able to host 25 to 27 million passengers a year (in 2009, both of Berlin’s airports together boasted 21 million). With the help of “expansion modules” – separate terminals that are to be built on the airfield in the years to come – these numbers will eventually increase to 40 million. As Paris’ Charles de Gaulle has an annual turnover of around 50 million and London Heathrow more than 55 million, this will still not put BBI in the same league as the biggest European airports, but it is more than enough to accommodate the projected increase in Berlin’s air traffic for a long time.

The capacity will also be radically increased by the fact that BBI’s two runways are over a mile apart, which means they will be able to operate independently. Construction on the first expansion module is expected to start in 2015.

No more cheap flights?

Critics have pointed out that a lot of Berlin’s tourists are attracted by cheap flights. With its small airports, proximity to eastern Europe and trendy image, the city is a dream come true for budget airlines; Schönefeld, whose distance from the city centre means that it has much lower airport fees than Tegel, is particularly attractive. (Airport fees are the amounts that airlines must pay airports for the right to use them.)

“The airport fees will be higher than Schönefeld, and probably Tegel,” Erichsen admits. “But all our carriers have said they want to be part of the BBI, and we intend to negotiate with them [about the costs].” There are no specific figures on how much the increase will be, but it seems unlikely that the airlines will be able to keep the ticket prices down. That is – if Berlin does generate the passengers. If it doesn’t, then BBI will have to lower its airport fees to accommodate the cheap airlines, and the airport will become a big, expensive easyJet hangar.

A giant house with small inhabitants

Some people think that BBI is just a colossal, hubristic mistake. Its official budget is €2.4 billion; it was loaned by the European Investment Bank and state-owned investment banks in Berlin and Brandenburg. In order to pay this money back, critics fear that the airport will have to attract a capacity that Berlin cannot provide. There will not be enough passengers to attract more expensive airlines, larger planes and long-haul flights, so the budget airlines will take over.

A lot is being banked on the theory that the airport itself, along with the new logistics and business park next to it, will generate more investment and passengers. Last autumn, Frank Welskop published BBI – A New Berlin Banking Scandal?, a book in which he picked apart BBI’s finances and painted the project as a mini-financial crisis in the making. He also reports on the latest developments in a blog.

As it recently emerged that the planned post-completion privatisation would be delayed, Welskop smelled a rat: “Privatisation or partial privatisation of BBI is the litmus test for its success! If privatisation is impossible, BBI will be a flop and will generate immense losses, year by year! The only political calculations of those in power are how they can regain these losses from the taxpayer and continue to plunder these two poor states [Berlin and Brandenburg].”

For Welskop, it is a disaster that developed from the arrogance of post-Wall Berlin – the city has simply not become the high-powered, dense metropolis many predicted in the mid-1990s, when BBI was first conceived. “In the meantime, more and more mistakes crept into the project, and the opening was permanently delayed,” says Welskop. “This reduced BBI’s original potential to a minimum, and all that remains is the propaganda about how great it will be, even though the budget airlines will dominate and the Berlin airports continue to have the worst turnover in Germany.”

But if you, as a Berlin taxpayer, do end up footing the bill for a folly, you might take some comfort in a sense of history. Erichsen believes BBI is the last airport that will be built from scratch in Germany: “Berlin is the last major city without a large, modern airport. Where else can they build them?”