One year after opening, Berlin’s ailing Brandenburg Airport is still in crisis

(CNN) – After almost a decade of delays and billions over budget, Berlin’s long-awaited Berlin-Brandenburg Airport was finally opened on October 31, 2020.
But the turbulence for BER continued into its first year of operation, with a long list of problems and passenger complaints: long check-in and security lines; confusing layout and signage; tight, dirty bathrooms; and bacteria in drinking water, to name a few.
Last, a fire alarm on November 5, possibly triggered by a passenger smoking in a toilet, led to an evacuation and a new security check ordered by the federal police for many passengers, even if they had already been checked. Although many departures were held back due to the delay, travelers still missed their flights.

This was preceded by another challenging situation at the beginning of October during the German autumn holidays, a popular travel time for locals. Hours of check-in and security queues again resulted in missed flights and angry passengers, some of whom vented their frustrations on social media with videos and photos of queues meandering through the airport. Others reported long waiting times to collect their luggage.

The airport, which is owned by the federal government and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, is also in a financial crisis. With passenger numbers a fraction of the pre-pandemic numbers, the company lost around $ 1.16 billion in 2020, with further heavy losses expected in the years to come. BER needs an additional 2.4 billion euros by 2026. “We need money quickly,” said CEO Aletta von Massenbach recently to the Tagesspiegel.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, a Parody Twitter account showed up in November “to help Berlin Airport apologize to travelers”.

Plagued by almost a decade of setbacks, complaints and inefficiencies, Berlin Brandenburg Airport has finally opened its doors to Willy Brandt.

Staff shortages and pandemic challenges

In an interview at BER, airport spokesman Jan-Peter Haack admitted the problems and emphasized that management and employees are working hard to improve the passenger experience. “We had a few days [where] We were struggling and not delivering the service travelers should get, “Haack told CNN.

Haack pointed out several reasons for long waiting times, in particular personnel bottlenecks due to the pandemic and a time-consuming, complex check-in process due to vaccination documentation and entry restrictions. As with other sectors of a decimated travel industry, many airport workers left other jobs during the pandemic. Hiring new employees is even more difficult under the strict official holiday regulations, explained Haack.

Adapting the workforce to the dynamic passenger volume was also a challenge. During the busy autumn holidays, BER expected more than 900,000 passengers between October 8 and 24. On this Friday, October 8th, the airport recorded the highest number of one-day passengers with around 67,000 travelers. However, the longest queues and other problems occurred the following day when fewer passengers (approx.

On July 1, 2021, the airport filled with vacationers.

Getty Images

“So we could see that it was a process and a staffing problem [shortages], not the infrastructure, ”says Haack. “This is a problem at the airport for all of our partners together. And we have to work together to improve. We’re working on that, of course. And this topic happens at airports all over the world and airports all over Germany. “

In addition, Swissport, one of the ground handling companies at BER, made several operational adjustments after this weekend. The company dispatched a management team to the airport, increased its ground handling staff by 50 to a total of around 540 and adjusted shift schedules “to reduce the burden on our operations,” Swissport told CNN via email. «Swissport is in regular dialogue and close communication with its customers and partners at Berlin Airport. The aim is to work together to improve services for airlines and passengers. “

However, some passengers have already lost patience with the BER. Kunal Saigal, professor at a private university in Berlin, described the airport as “absolute chaos” at the beginning of September when he, his wife and their one-year-old son were visiting family the recommended three hours before their Lufthansa flight to New Delhi.

The tedious check-in and security lines took hours to navigate and the airline and security staff were rude and unhelpful, Saigal said. The family finally missed their flight, which Lufthansa employees rebooked for the next day free of charge. Still, Saigal estimates that he lost about $ 340 on required Covid tests and taxis to and from the airport for which he has not received a refund.

Experience makes him hesitate to fly out of BER again – and nostalgic for his now closed predecessor, Berlin Tegel, the outdated but beloved relic of the Cold War.

“You could stop your car at the curb and walk to your gate in two minutes and be at the gate in 10 minutes,” Saigal said. “It was so much more efficient, and the Germans are very big in this aspect of efficiency. That was really efficient. That is the exact opposite.”

Ian Clark, a Berlin-based bank accountant who has lived in Europe since 2018, has not yet missed any of his three departures from BER. However, the long lines and general frustration he has experienced make him ponder options for future travel and beyond what he will advise family members who visit him in the future.

“In the future I will do everything I can to avoid the Berlin airport because I just don’t want to deal with the stress,” said Clark. “If I miss my flight or don’t miss my flight, I’ll be stressed out either way because it’s so terrible.”

“We definitely have empathy”

Haack said airport staff take such complaints seriously. “I would tell these people, number one, that we definitely have empathy,” he told CNN. “And maybe you’re trying to give it [another] Shot. Hopefully we improve every day. “

Initiatives on this front include a task force known as the BER team, which was implemented during the fall break and includes around 40 security, check-in and baggage handlers daily to fill in the gaps and close the passengers help, said Haack. The program will start again in mid-December to ensure a smooth experience for leisure travelers.

In addition, according to Haack, BER is also focusing on improving the security control process – another frequent passenger complaint. Until recently, passenger space was very limited to unload laptops and liquids before entering the scanning devices, resulting in bottlenecks and slow moving queues. Haack said some security lines have now been expanded to include additional tables to create more space and speed up the process.

Whether such measures played a role or not, there were almost no queues in the security or check-in areas of BER on a Friday afternoon, even with low-cost airlines, where long queues are common. It took security less than 10 minutes to get through, even if it was scanned. The staff, from an agent at the information desk to security guards to restaurant staff, were friendly and helpful.

However, some bathrooms were dirty, with broken bag hooks on the stands and puddles of water over the sinks. Several moving walks were not in use. And in perhaps the most glaring reminder that the infrastructure at BER comes from another era, there were portable charging stations at some entry areas instead of the sockets in the seat that are common at many modern airports.

Haack said the lack of outlets was another common passenger complaint. He stated that airport officials were aware of the problem during the construction process but had decided to proceed anyway in order to avoid further delays in the opening of BER. A fixed item is in the budget, he said, but priority is given to more pressing issues, such as preparing for vacationers.

“Not a nightmare for everyone”

In fact, BER is facing its next big test with the coming holiday travel season. Since December 1st, the airport has been operating two parallel runways (previously alternating, except for a short time after the opening). This development hopes to improve flexibility and “stabilize air traffic” in the event of winter weather disruptions, such as a runway that requires deicing, said Haack.

In addition, based on the feedback from passengers, management has also installed more seating in the waiting areas, adjusted cleaning schedules and improved navigation, added Haack.

The airport plans to open Terminal 2, which is closed due to low passenger numbers, by the end of March 2022, before the busy Easter holiday week. “We may have a soft start beforehand, with maybe one flight a day, two flights, so you can be sure that it works smoothly when you really need the extra facilities,” said Haack.

BER estimates that it will have seen 10 million travelers in 2021 – less than a third of its predecessors Tegel and Schönefeld combined in 2019. But not all passengers are upset. Jenn M. Choi, a Berlin-based empowerment coach and writer who traveled twice from BER with her husband and young son, says she was “shocked” at how smooth their two experiences were after seeing so many complaints had read on social media and elsewhere.

Choi says her family had no issues with check-in or security procedures, even with a stroller as bulky baggage. In addition, an airport employee went to see her to point out the safety line for families and passengers with disabilities. “It made the experience feel pretty VIP, to be honest,” Choi told CNN.

Choi was also impressed with the dedicated, spacious family bathrooms. And while she understands the frustration of many other travelers, she also points out that “the airport is not a nightmare for everyone”.

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