Once upon a time, Berlin had three airports. There was Berlin Tempelhof, scene of the famous Berlin Airlift after the Soviet blockade of 1948; Berlin Tegel, the main airport of West Berlin throughout the Cold War period; and finally Berlin Schönefeld in the East, which has a similarly fascinating history in relation to the wall, with several (successful) attempts at defection to the West taking place there. However, before too long all three will be confined to history books rather than travel brochures, as change is afoot.
Berlin is lagging a long way behind other German cities with which it competes, particularly Munich and Frankfurt. Berlin’s historical and political history is a massive draw for visitors, but on a logistical level it has proved to be a hindrance, not only with air transport but high-speed rail as well. The system is more suitable to the two smaller cities Berlin was during the Cold War than the sprawling integrated metropolis it seeks to become in the new technological age. The capital is considerably larger than any other city in the country, but possesses only its fourth-largest airport at Tegel, and even that is architecturally stuck in the ’70s. The new main station, opened in 2006, was Berlin’s first, long-awaited foray into 21st-century transportation, while the second phase is just months away.
When Berlin Brandenburg International airport (BBI) opens in June next year, it will complete a remarkable transformation of the German capital’s aerospace in just four years. Europe’s newest, and according to official advertising at least, most modern airport will open the door for new commerce, new visitors, and above all new money to come to Berlin. In the midst of this excitement, the writing is on the wall for a variety of the city’s long-held institutions. Controversy and malcontent have been widely overshadowed by the excitement of the countdown to BBI’s opening; however there are several unresolved qualms that appear to have slipped under the radar.
The issue is one of corporate competition. Currently, the two airports in Berlin operate a loose two-tier system in which the luxury airline carriers, namely Lufthansa and Air Berlin, are based in Tegel in the North, whereas the budget airlines such as Easyjet and Ryanair fly in and out of Schönefeld in the South. While both airports appear dilapidated and in need of modernisation, particularly after the closure of Tempelhof in 2008, it has emerged that due to the increased rates that the airlines must pay to land at BBI, Ryanair will no longer serve the city, with other smaller budget airlines reverting to extremely limited service. Whilst for connoisseurs of fine flying this is clearly not such an issue, the monopoly by airlines such as Lufthansa and British Airways will undoubtedly result in more expensive airfares in and out of Berlin, particularly for weekend tourists from Britain who have taken advantage of the cheap flights in recent years to make the city one of the most popular destinations for stag weekends and sightseeing trips.
Whether or not this will lead directly to a reduction in the amount of visitors to Berlin remains to be seen; however with Ryainair’s refusal to pay the fees at the new airport and their idea of a Stockholm-Skavsta / Frankfurt-Hahn style link, with the ex-DDR airport at Eberswalde-Finow hitting the rocks, the tourist industry could suffer a major blow. On the other hand, in preparation for the move to BBI, Air Berlin have upped their service to the United States, providing service to Los Angeles on the West Coast and flying daily to New York from May, meaning that the new airport will open doors for tourists outside of Europe.
Inevitably, only time will tell how the new airport impacts tourism patterns in Berlin. In all likelihood, the change will be gradual and the market as well as the airlines will react and flights will alter in price accordingly, presumably through Easyjet, the only airline with the infrastructural capacity to compete realistically with Ryanair. However, it is safe to say that after June 2011, the days of extremely cheap flights to Berlin will be more or less over. What this will bring to the city remains to be seen, but this appears to be a revolution that has turned almost silently.