Ten Months at Europe’s Worst Airport

By Ruben Alexander

GERMANY – ‘A country where everything works really well’ is what comes to mind when people around the world hear the word ‘Germany’. But every German knows about one project that proves that this idea is not always true. And if someone from outside hasn’t heard of it, there’s a big chance that they’ll find out immediately when they arrive. Because it happens that this project is being built with the specific purpose of them arriving there. Of course I’m talking about Berlin’s new airport, which famously fails to ever be completed.

Being a divided city from 1945 to 1989, Berlin never had a major airport like other capital cities, but had a number of smaller ones instead. These were eventually narrowed down to two main airports: Tegel (TXL) in the capitalist west and Schönefeld (SXF) in the socialist east. After the wall fell in 1989, Schönefeld was chosen as the site for a new a gateway to the reunified capital because of its practical location just outside the city (in the state of Brandenburg). Planning took 15 years, and construction started in 2006. Named after the West-German chancellor who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1971, ‘Willy Brandt’ Berlin Brandenburg Airport (BER) was set to open on October 30 2011.

But as that date approached, it was announced that construction would not be finished on time, and that the opening had to be postponed to June 3 2012. By spring 2012, shops and airlines were preparing for the opening, and logistics had been put in place to move the necessary infrastructure from Tegel (which was to be closed). The move, which required closing part of Berlin’s motorway ring, was going to take 24 hours and would be broadcast live on national television. But on May 8, it was announced that the opening had to be postponed again, this time to March 17 2013. Now ‘technical difficulties, primarily concerning the fire safety and smoke exhaust systems’ were to blame (thanks Wikipedia). The opening was later moved again, to October 27 2013, and then again to an unspecified date in 2014. This would later become 2016, then 2017, and then 2018.

But as of 2019, more than half of the increasing number of flights to Berlin still arrive at Tegel, which is often ranked as one of the worst airports in Europe. Ranked even worse is Schönefeld, where budget-airline passengers continue to arrive at the too small airport with scarce toilets built by the East-German government in 1976. Meanwhile a shiny new airport lies like a mirage in the distance, with hundreds of kilometers of the wrong kind of cable and stairs that don’t connect to where they’re supposed to go. Not to mention people from Munich who wonder where their money went. And foreigners with happy faces because they just found out that this kind of thing doesn’t only happen where they come from (or even better: that this kind of thing doesn’t happen where they come from). And I know that they were happy about it, because they told me when I worked there for ten months.

Despite all the above (and despite the people-hating attitude and intolerance of other cultures of some of the staff), it was with great pleasure that I worked at tourist information counter at Schönefeld from September 2018 to June 2019. It was in fact one of the best jobs I ever had. This is why I’m dedicating this post to the places I saw almost every day for ten months of my life.

Phone pictures of my trip to work

Coming from the house in Lankwitz I lived in from March to June 2019, my 15 kilometer bike ride to work took me through both Berlin’s southern suburbs (Marienfelde and Lichtenrade) and some Brandenburg countryside. As we mostly worked early (6:45 to 15:15) and late (14:45 to 23:00) shifts, I often saw these places early in the morning or late at night.

When cycling out of the village of Großziethen on Schönefelder Weg, it’s easy to understand why this location was chosen for a major airport instead of Tegel. Unlike Tegel Airport, which is surrounded by residential neighborhoods on three sides (I lived in one of them for eight months, and it can get quite noisy), Schönefeld Airport is surrounded by fields, and can barely be heard from anywhere in Berlin. I often saw deer and hares in these fields. Apparently there’s also an infestation of raccoons (who’s ancestors escaped from a fur farm that was bombed in WW2), but sadly I never saw one.

1. 2019-04-08
2. 2019-04-08 (the only picture in this section not made with my phone)

Arriving in the village of Schönefeld, where they thought they’d capitalize on the presence of a major airport. As a result, a network of streets has been laid out, and new buildings, all of them rectangular, are randomly popping up between them (I’ll show you a few more pictures later). The building on the right is Schönefeld municipality’s new rathaus:

3. 2019-03-18
4. 2019-03-18

Some fences around a construction site blew over on a stormy night, making my trip to work a bit more difficult for a week or two:

5. 2019-03-18
6. 2019-03-18

Taking the underpass under the station (again, I’ll show you some more of it later), the last bit of my commute was along the covered walkway that I told hundreds of people to follow to get to the station (‘uscite lo, à gauche i patom sigues l’überdachtes walkway’):

7. 2019-03-08

Arriving at terminal A, which is the original terminal from 1976, and where the main tourist information counter is situated. You can go there and either get informed nicely, or possibly get yelled at and deliberately not get informed:

8. 2019-03-08
9. 2018-09-21
10. 2019-03-08

Looking towards the runways between terminal D departures (left) and arrivals (right), which was completed in 2005 and where the smaller of two tourist information counters is situated:

11. 2018-12-12

Looking towards terminal A from terminal D arrivals (with departures on the right):

12. 2018-12-12
13. 2018-10-09
14. 2019-05-28

Afternoon in front of terminal A:

15. 2019-05-10

Most people would continue from here…

16. 2019-03-23

… and take a flight to wherever they’r going. But my journey usually stopped in one of the buildings below. Terminal A is on the right, while terminal D

17. 2019-05-15
18. 2019-05-15

Pictures taken with my camera

In this second part, I’ll show you some pictures I took during evening lunch breaks in my last weeks at Schönefeld.

Once upon a time, Schönefeld was a typical Brandenburg village surrounding an anger, or oval village green, with a pond (this picture was taken about 150 meters from photos #5 and #6):

19. 2019-06-13

Nowadays it is cut in half by a railway that doesn’t go anywhere very important apart from Berlin. Looking towards Schönefeld station, which is connected to central Berlin by five trains an hour (you have to admit, it could be much worse):

20. 2019-06-13

The stairs down the southern side (airport side) of the footbridge over the railway:

21. 2019-06-13

Across the road from the footbridge is the 13th century village church:

22. 2019-06-13
23. 2019-06-13

The church is situated on what remains of the southern end of Schönefeld’s village green. Not very people live there anymore (though some do) because it is just 300 meters to the beginning of a runway:

24. 2019-06-17
25. 2019-06-17

Relatively new office buildings on the main road past the airport, Bundesstraße 96a:

26. 2019-06-17

You can follow Bundesstraße 96a about a kilometer to the west to catch a glimpse of the new terminal (on the right). The current airport’s runway will continue to be used when the Berlin Brandenburg Airport opens:

27. 2019-06-24

Now 500 meters east of photo #26 (also on Bundesstraße 96a), Schönefeld’s DDR-era station building:

28. 2019-06-17

Travelers don’t see much of the shabbiest side of Schönefeld because the underpass goes under the both the railway line and the road. As you can see here, it is not always busy at the airport:

29. 2019-06-23

On the southern side of the underpass, the covered walkway cleverly distracts travelers away from the rest of the airport’s grounds, which look like they haven’t been maintained since 1985:

30. 2019-06-17

The northern entrance to the station, which isn’t used by many people because there’s not really anywhere to go to from it. It’s nonetheless hard to imagine that this station belongs to the airport of the capital of Europe’s most powerful country:

31. 2018-10-12

The area immediately north of the railway could almost be the setting for a provincial bus station in Ukraine:

32. 2019-06-23

The apartment buildings in the distance are in the former East-Berlin neighborhood of Alt-Glienicke (the former West-Berlin neighborhood of Rudow is also not far away):

33. 2019-06-23
34. 2019-06-23
35. 2019-06-23
36. 2019-06-23
37. 2019-06-23

The only thing which seems to have changed at Schönefeld Airport since I first flew from there in 2010, is the word ‘bio’. The Germans do say that Berlin Brandenburg Airport is the World’s most environmentally friendly airport after all!

38. 2019-06-23

I’ll leave you with an evening shot of terminal A, which I took when taking out the trash:

39. 2019-06-13

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