The mood on the ground

Another delay!? The Berlin-Brandenburg airport is now set to open over two years late, in 2014. In our July/August issue EXB investigated what the postponements meant for those destined for decommission.

Image for The mood on the ground
Photo by Astrid Warberg

On Monday it was announced that Berlin-Brandenburg airport would not open until 2014, with Berlin Mayor Klaus Wowereit resigning from the project’s supervisory board fearing his political career was being put under threat. This postponement, however, is only the most recent in a chain of delays that has rendered Berlin’s new transport hub a farce.

Initially scheduled to open on November 1, 2011, it was then delayed until June 3, 2012. Just weeks before this new opening date it was confirmed by city officials that the opening would be delayed again, until March 17, 2013, due to problems with fire safety. In August 2012 severe costs and time overruns cast doubts over whether the airport would even be ready in time for this projection. Then, in early September, officials announced another delay and another opening date: October 27, 2013. And counting…

Over two years late, with no less than four major delays and running at nearly double the initial budget, what would be the knock on effects for Berlin’s other airports? Those that were marked for redundancy the moment BER opened its terminal doors. What would happen to the people and the businesses that operated in the regimented hexagonal Tegel and the disorganized sprawl of Schönefeld? Back in August Exberliner investigated.

On the S-Bahn, a man’s voice announces where to change trains to reach Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER). Yet the city’s new €2.5 billion transport hub is still a construction site. The opening planned for June 3 has been pushed all the way back to March 17, 2013. Announced less than a month before the scheduled launch, the delay – officially due to problems with the fire protection system – triggered headlines about “chaos” and “disaster”.

Berlin’s two functioning airports – the concrete hexagon of Tegel and the improvised patchwork of Schönefeld – are now stretched past their limits. Bits of the infrastructure are already gone. There’s not a trace left of the currywurst stall that once inhabited an old yellow S-Bahn car in front of Schönefeld.

While Germany can sometimes appear like a giant machine with a million pieces moving in perfect unison, the delay shows yet again that Berlin is, well, not Germany. This is after all the city that in recent years hasn’t managed to figure out that it tends to get cold in winter and the S-Bahn trains need to be prepared for ice. So, no need to change trains yet. As for the new workers hired to start at BER: some are now temping at the overcrowded Tegel at the opposite end of the city.

“We’re not really needed.”

Chloe Walsh (28) stands in front of the flight display at Tegel Airport in a bright red t-shirt with a walkie-talkie. A man approaches and asks, “Where is Gate 15?” in a thick Russian accent. She looks around before answering with “over there”, in an equally thick Irish accent, and pointing to a sign with a big “15”. Another job well done.

Chloe has started working as part of the service team at the TXL airport – even though her t-shirt has a logo of its replacement, BER. She was hired by a promotion company for June and July to help people find their way around the new airport, but during her training session, right in the middle of a Powerpoint presentation, a man came in and announced the surprise delay. Several dozen people got the job anyway.

A red-shirted colleague approaches a line of 200 people trying to board a plane to Ankara. Gently the young man pushes elderly couples with big moustaches and headscarves to one side so other travellers can pass by in the corridor, but he can’t win more than a few additional centimetres. “We’re not really needed here” says Chloe, since most of the work consists of wandering around as the minutes tick by waiting for stupid questions. Still, at least it’s paid, in contrast to the Praktikum she could get in her profession of architecture.

It’s only her first day, but her boredom leads her to tell everyone that the machine selling tickets for the observational platform is broken. “Did you hear the joke about the airport being named after Willy Brandt, and then not opening because of the danger of fire?” (Brand means ‘fire’.)

“Have you got a ticket?”

Some people have gotten jobs because of the new airport, but others will lose them. Carolina Bischof (46) has been working at Schönefeld for three and a half years – specifically, in the long covered walkway between the train station and the airport. She’s self-employed as a “ticket dealer”, collecting used train tickets and reselling them – not exactly legal, but not quite illegal enough for anyone to make a big deal about it. She asks for used tickets in English with a smile, only occasionally interrupted by coughing fits because of her asthma.

She gets single tickets with an hour left, five-day tickets stamped four days ago, tickets that tourists didn’t realise they needed to stamp – recently she even got a monthly ticket on the 12th. She gives fair prices: a daily ticket costs €4 in the morning and €3 in the afternoon, a saving of 50 percent. “I like to give people a good deal.”

A number of ‘collectors’ work in the long corridor, and they’ve had to agree on a few ground rules. In fact, they have a shift plan that regulates who gets to stand right at the exit of the train station during the ‘morning shift’ and who has to stand further back. Some don’t speak English and can’t ask the foreigners – some don’t like foreigners anyway.

The walkway – in Bauhaus style, with glass on just one side to block the wind – is a legal no man’s land: it doesn’t belong to the airport or to the train company, so the security guards on either side have no authority there. “Public transport should be free anyway,” Carolina explained. BER won’t have a walkway like this – the train will go right into the basement of the terminal. There, the security will prevent the dealers from doing their work. “The new airport is going to kill our jobs – the delay was a stay of execution.”

“I don’t have an emotional connection”

However, in the retail shops, where people tend to have a job for only months at a time, a sense of death or even passion is hard to find. Alke Braun (31) is folding shirts at Marc O’Polo for Men at Tegel and thinks Berlin needs a new airport. “This one is a bit cheerless in comparison to the city,” she says, somehow immune to Tegel’s fascinatingly bizarre charms. While a worker at a ticket counter next door calls the delay “a blessing for at least 90 percent of us”, mostly because of a longer commute to the new airport, the young saleswoman wasn’t too excited. Of course they had already started packing their inventory, “but the preparations weren’t so far along that they couldn’t be cancelled again.” Her friend originally from Berlin is distressed about the change – but she says, “I’m from Oldenburg and I really don’t have an emotional connection to this airport”.

At S. Oliver, right around the corner, it’s a different story: they already closed their Tegel shop for the move and now won’t be able to re-open for another nine months. To get a rental contract in BER, they needed to agree to waive all claims for damages in case of a delay of up to 18 months – now shops like these are stuck with their lost revenue.

“I’m a West Berliner”

Some retailers, though, feel strongly about where they work. Christian Kokert (30) might look like he walked off an advertisement for a fitness studio, but he has been selling espresso at Tegel for the last six years. “This café isn’t moving to the new airport, but even if it were, I wouldn’t go along.”

One reason for this is the generally lower wages at BER, which is in Brandenburg and hence further away from the collective contracts of the trade unions. But even more, it’s about tradition: Christian grew up next to Tempelhof and sees both West Berlin airports as part of his identity. “The only people who complain about the noise of the airplanes are people who moved here recently.” This resentment of newcomer yuppies is a greater part of the Berlin identity than any airport.

Plus, all the new construction projects with their steel beams and glass facades (like the train stations Hauptbahnhof and Südkreuz) look the same, he adds, pointing to a giant concrete beam above his head: “This is massive. It wouldn’t just blow away in a storm.” (In fact, a two-tonne steel beam did fall off the Hauptbahnhof in January 2007 after heavy winds.) “All that new stuff just doesn’t look German – but I hope that doesn’t sound right-wing.” In fact, both TXL and BER were designed by the same Hamburg-based architecture firm – but nostalgia can be more moving than facts.

“Without the delay, we’d all
 be unemployed”

Angela Koob (52) switches seamlessly between German and English while taking cash and credit cards for teddy bears and key chains at Berlin-Berlin, a souvenir shop at the entrance to Tegel. “If the new airport had opened, we’d all be unemployed,” she says. The shop isn’t moving to BER because the owners refused to sign one of the “immoral” rental contracts – so the delay means nine more months of work for the shop’s 15 employees. Angela has been to at least three demonstrations to keep Tegel open.

And this is nothing new for her: she was already active back in 2008, when 530,000 Berliners voted to keep Tempelhof as a working airport (they fell far short of the 25 percent quorum needed to win the referendum). The corresponding movement for Tegel is somewhat more modest: a demonstration in front of her shop on May 20, right after the delay was announced, was attended by four people.

Why go to all the fuss? It’s not just about their jobs: “I know people in Spandau, Reinickendorf and Moabit who got notices that their rent will be going up in January because there will be no more aircraft noise.” Plus, BER was conceived back in 1992, and Angela thinks it’s already too small for the city: “Lots of cities, like London or Lisbon have two or three airports. Why not Berlin?”

She, like many workers at the airport, is convinced they will miss the new opening date in March as well. Until then: “I could kiss the feet of the fire inspector who caused the delay.”

“A machine for creating low-paying jobs”

It seems like the longer a person has been at the airport, the more sceptical they are about what’s coming. Klaus Leßlauer (50) has been loading and unloading baggage at Tegel for the last 20 years. It’s hard work that wears on the joints, but the trade union activist looks remarkably fit. All the baggage handlers have taken part in training days at the new airport: most of the technology is the same, but everyone needs to learn to run the new gangways made for the double-decker A380 airplanes.

“20 years after reunification, we still have a bit of an East-West conflict” Klaus explains, sounding embarrassed. It will take time to get used to different working habits and get over lots of prejudices when both workforces are mixed. The wages are the same, and have been since the 1990s (the airports were one of the first companies to get rid of an East-West pay divide).

But the wages are equally low. All the ground personnel have been outsourced to different companies like GlobeGround, where Klaus works. People working at the ticket counters wear spiffy uniforms but in some cases earn as little as €8 an hour. At the new airport, outsourcing will spread – the luggage conveyor belt in the basement will be run by a new company employing only temporary workers.

“At the end of the day, this airport is a machine for creating low-paying jobs.” Billions of euros have gone into the construction, but labour costs will be rock bottom because of temporary contracts, a lack of collective bargaining agreements and low pay. Trained workers like Klaus who are active in the trade union are, if management gets its way, going to be kept to a minimum.

Overall, the workers of Tegel and Schönefeld are anything but enthralled with the new airport – they’re only divided about whether it’s of any use to protest against it. BER represents modernity in every sense: gigantic halls of glass and steel, run by the latest technology but also by people with ‘flexible’, insecure contracts. One could counter that these workers represent less than 20,000 people compared to the 27 million passengers expected to go through BER in its first year. But these 20,000 are the ones who will need to keep the air conditioning running and the security lines moving – let’s hope that, for all of our sakes, they warm to it over time.