Distressed Brandenburg Airport in Berlin still in crisis a year after opening

Baccalaureate Blane, CNN

After nearly a decade of delays and billions of euros in budget overruns, Berlin’s long-awaited airport Berlin-Brandenburg finally opened on October 31, 2020.

But turmoil continued for BER into its first year of operation, with a long list of issues and complaints from passengers: long check-in and security lines; confusing layout and signage; cramped and dirty bathrooms; and bacteria found in drinking water, to name a few.

More recently, a fire alarm November 5, which may have been triggered by a passenger smoking in a toilet, resulted in an evacuation and, for many passengers, another security check mandated by the federal police, even though they had already been checked. Although many departures were delayed to make up for the delay, travelers still missed their flights.

This was preceded by another predicament in early October during the autumn school holidays in Germany, a popular travel time for locals. Hours of check-in and security lines again led to missed flights and angry passengers, with some voicing their frustrations on social media with videos and photos of lines snaking through the airport. Others reported long waits for baggage pickup.

The airport, which is owned by the federal government and the states of Berlin and Brandenburg, is also facing a financial crisis. With fewer passengers than before the pandemic, the company lost an estimated $ 1.16 billion in 2020, and higher losses are expected in the years to come. By 2026, the BER will require an additional € 2.4 billion. “We need the money fast,” CEO Aletta von Massenbach recently told German newspaper Tagesspiegel.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, a parody Twitter account appeared in November “to support Berlin airport by apologizing to travelers”.

Staff shortage and challenges related to the pandemic

In an interview with BER, airport spokesperson Jan-Peter Haack acknowledged the issues and stressed that management and staff are working diligently to improve the passenger experience. “We had a few days [where] we ran into issues and we didn’t provide the service that travelers should be getting, ”Haack told CNN.

Haack highlighted several underlying factors behind the long wait times, including staff shortages caused by the pandemic and a long and complex registration process due to vaccine documentation and entry restrictions. As with other sectors of a decimated travel industry, many airport workers left for other jobs during the pandemic. Hiring new employees is even more difficult under strict government leave regulations, Haack explained.

Matching labor requirements to dynamic passenger volumes has also been a challenge. During the busy fall vacation period, BER expected it to accommodate more than 900,000 passengers between 8 and 24 October. This Friday, October 8, the airport recorded its highest total of passengers on a day, with some 67,000 travelers. However, the longest queues and other problems occurred the next day when there were fewer passengers (around 55,000) but also fewer staff due to shortages like employees calling in sick, Haack said.

“So we could see that it was a problem of process and staff [shortages], not the infrastructure, ”Haack said. “It’s a problem at the airport for all of our partners together. And we have to work with him to improve. Of course, we are working on this. And this problem occurs at airports all over the world and all over Germany. “

Additionally, Swissport, one of the companies providing ground services to BER, made several adjustments to operations after this weekend. The company sent a management team to the airport, reduced its ground support staff from 50 to around 540 employees, and adjusted work schedules “to reduce the pressure on our operations,” Swissport told CNN by email. “Swissport maintains a regular dialogue and close exchanges with its customers and partners at Berlin Airport. The aim is to jointly improve services for airlines and passengers.

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

Navigating the long check-in and security lines took hours, and airline and security staff were unfriendly and unhelpful, Saigal said. The family ended up missing their flight, which Lufthansa staff booked at no cost for the next day. Still, Saigal estimates he lost around $ 340 on required Covid testing and taxis to and from the airport, for which he received no refund.

The experience left him hesitant to leave BER again – and nostalgic for his now-closed predecessor, Berlin Tegel, the obsolete but beloved relic of the Cold War.

“You can park your car at the curb and walk to your door in two minutes and be at the departure gate in 10 minutes,” Saigal said. “It was so much more efficient, and the Germans are very attached to that aspect of efficiency. It was really effective. It is exactly the opposite. “

Ian Clark, a Berlin-based bank accountant who has lived in Europe since 2018, has yet to miss any of his three BER departures. Nonetheless, the long lines and general frustration he suffered has caused him to rethink the options for his future trips, in addition to what he will advise family members who will visit him at the to come up.

“I will do whatever I can in the future to avoid Berlin Airport because I just don’t want to handle the stress,” Clark said. “If I miss my flight or if I don’t miss my flight, I’m going to be stressed out anyway because of the gravity of the situation.”

“We definitely have empathy”

Haack said airport staff take these complaints seriously. “I would say to these people, number one, that we definitely have empathy,” he told CNN. “And maybe you will try to give him [another] cut. We are getting better, hopefully, every day.

Initiatives on this front include a working group, known as the BER team, which was implemented during the fall vacation period and has around 40 employees per day in the areas of security, check-in and baggage handling to help fill the gaps and help passengers, Haack said. . The program will start again in mid-December to try to ensure a smooth experience for vacationers.

In addition, Haack said the BER is also focusing on improving the security screening process – another common complaint from passengers. Until recently, passengers had very limited space to unload laptops and liquids before entering scanning equipment, resulting in bottlenecks and slow lines. Haack said additional tables have now been added to some security lines to provide more space and speed up the process.

Whether or not such measures played a role, there were almost no queues on a recent Friday afternoon at BER’s security or check-in areas, even for low-cost carriers where the long queues are common. Safety took less than 10 minutes to pass, even with a pat. 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 in the stalls and puddles on the sink counters. Several moving walks were not working. And, perhaps most clearly as a reminder that BER’s infrastructure dates from another era, portable charging stations, instead of the standard power outlets at many modern airports, were found in some boarding areas. .

Haack said the lack of outlets is another common complaint from passengers. He explained that airport officials were aware of the problem during the construction process but decided to proceed anyway in order to avoid further delays in opening the BER. A solution is in the budget, he said, but the most pressing issues come first, such as preparing vacationers.

“Not a nightmare for everyone”

Indeed, BER faces its next big test with the upcoming holiday travel season. Since December 1, the airport has operated two parallel runways (previously it alternated between them, except for a brief period following its opening). It is hoped that this development will improve flexibility and “stabilize air traffic” in the event of winter weather disturbances, such as a runway requiring de-icing, Haack said.

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

By the end of March 2022, ahead of the busy Easter holiday week, the airport aims to open Terminal 2, which has remained closed due to low passenger numbers. “Maybe we’ll have a smooth launch before, with maybe one flight a day, two flights, so you can be sure that when you really need the extra facilities it will work without a problem,” Haack said.

BER estimates that it will have seen 10 million travelers by 2021 – less than a third of its predecessors, Tegel and Schönefeld, combined in 2019. But not all passengers are unhappy. Jenn M. Choi, Berlin-based empowerment coach and writer who has traveled twice from BER with her husband and baby, says she is “shocked” by the gentleness of her two experiences after reading so many complaints on social media and somewhere else.

Choi says her family had no issues with check-in or security processes, even with a stroller as bulky luggage. In addition, an airport agent asked them to inform them of the security line dedicated to families and passengers with disabilities. “To be honest, it made the experience quite VIP,” Choi told CNN.

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

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