Berlin airport delay a blow to carriers
BERLIN // Technical problems have delayed the opening of Berlin's new airport, dealing a damaging blow to the reputation of the German capital and resulting in heavy costs to airlines such as Air Berlin, which is 29 per cent-owned by Etihad Airways.
The publicly owned management company announced the delay last week of Berlin Brandenburg Airport, also known as Willy Brandt Airport, saying that its firefighting systems would not be ready in time. It gave no new opening date, saying the airport would open "after the summer holiday period" instead of as originally scheduled for June 3.
The announcement caused an uproar and has forced airlines into hasty revisions of their plans for the airport. The cost in lost revenue has been estimated at €40 million (Dh188.8m), not including possible compensation claims from airlines.
The airlines had radically expanded their summer flight schedules to coincide with the opening of the hub and with the closure of Berlin's two old-fashioned, cramped airports, Schönefeld in the east and Tegel in the west.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport had been feted by the Berlin city government as a symbol of the modern, growing metropolis and a shining example of German engineering prowess that would allow the capital to jettison a cumbersome legacy of its Cold War past.
"This is a gigantic embarrassment for Berlin, and the whole world is laughing about it," Hartmut Mehdorn, the chief executive of Air Berlin, told the German news magazine Spiegel, in an interview published on Monday. Asked how Etihad had responded, he said: "They're shaking their heads like everyone else."
The two old airports will now have to cope with the expanded flight services for a number of months. Airlines offered 40 new flight destinations from Berlin from June 3, including a direct flight to Los Angeles. Even if airlines manage to avoid flight cancellations, delays are likely at the worst possible time - during Berlin's summer holiday and the European football championship being co-hosted by neighbouring Poland.
Berlin Brandenburg Airport will be the home base of Air Berlin, the market leader in Berlin with about 33 per cent of passenger volume. The airline operates daily flights to Abu Dhabi from the German capital.
Mr Mehdorn said Air Berlin had already sold 1.3 million tickets for flights from the airport. "All these customers now have to be contacted to tell them they must fly from Tegel," he said.
Mr Mehdorn added that it was too soon to quantify the financial damage to the airline, which announced yesterday it had narrowed operating losses to €149.3m in the first quarter, from €188m a year earlier.
The delay has presented airlines with major logistical problems. Tegel's kerosene tanks are almost empty, while those at Berlin Brandenburg are full, said Mr Mehdorn. "But we can't drive the kerosene across town now."
Etihad's stake in Air Berlin gives the Abu Dhabi airline an important foothold in the European market. The two airlines have a code-sharing agreement to operate joint flights.
Lufthansa, Germany's largest carrier, has been trying to limit the growth of Gulf rivals in the lucrative European market, lobbying the German government and its partners in the European Union to impose a "capacity limit" on passengers being carried by Gulf airlines from Europe to Asia.
Emirates has tried and failed to secure more landing slots at Berlin Brandenburg Airport, and has responded by announcing it will fly larger aircraft to German airports in a move that could allow it to boost the number of seats by up to a third.
This isn't the first delay for the opening of the airport, which had been scheduled to become operational in November. The latest postponement was caused by problems with the automatic system designed to remove smoke from the terminal in case of fire.
There have been other difficulties.
Tests with thousands of people posing as passengers revealed a shortage of check-in desks, which forced the airport to build temporary tent-like structures to accommodate new desks. And there were glitches in the baggage-handling system.
One newspaper reported last week that the airport company had sought temporary permission to manually operate evacuation doors and sprinkler systems in emergencies because the automatic controls were not yet working. The local authority refused.
Until the announcement of the delay, the airport had been lauding its own thoroughness in conducting tests to avoid the fiasco that followed the opening of Heathrow's Terminal 5 in 2008, when hundreds of flights were cancelled because the baggage-handling system collapsed.
"We have learned from the experiences of others such as Heathrow Terminal 5," Oliver Aust, a spokesman for the airport, told reporters during a tour of the vast construction site on May 4, four days before the airport announced the delay.
When it finally opens, the airport, located close to Schönefeld south-east of Berlin, will have the capacity to handle 27 million passengers a year and will be capable of an expansion to handle 45 million because it already has planning permission to build two satellite terminals.
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Updated: May 16, 2012 04:00 AM